The area that today is known as Burnaby Heights, is part of the traditional territories of the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Musqueam First Nations. The Indigenous peoples of this region shared this hill for millennia while foraging, hunting, fishing, clam gathering, and more. It abounded with wildlife such as deer and black bear. Part of it was traversed by a creek (today called Rainbow Creek), which today still runs under Confederation Park. For a better summary of the history of Indigenous peoples in Burnaby, please visit the City of Burnaby’s Indigenous History Resource Guide.
Burnaby Heights district (known as Vancouver Heights at the time) was created as part of the City of Burnaby expansion. North Burnaby did not grow organically from a trading post but was developed from blueprint.
The streetcar line was set down in North Burnaby. The merchants’ district flourished around the streetcar line on Hastings Street for the next couple of decades.
Rapid development of Vancouver Heights (today Burnaby Heights). The first two settlers were recorded as “Mr. James Herd” and “Mr. Peters.” In a short period of time, most of the vegetation was removed, streets laid down, and structural amenities provided: a school, three churches, and six stores near Boundary Road. The first business owners were settlers of British origin.
During the First World War, the building boom was stunted as men were enlisted to serve overseas. Many of them did not return.
Development of Burnaby Heights resumed. As many men did not return from the war, many women took their place becoming shop owners and professional workers.
The Great Depression was felt in North Burnaby as well, and many businesses went bankrupt. The North Burnaby Board of Trade was created.
The majority of businesses during this earlier period were owned by settlers (and their descendents) from Britain and northern Europe. This cultural make-up corresponded with the resident demographic composition as well. In the decades following this era, the district increasingly welcomed more diverse residents from parts of southern Europe (for example, Italy and Portugal), and Asia (for example, China, Vietnam, Korea, Cambodia) as well.
A group of North Burnaby business people formed the North Burnaby Merchants [society]. The society’s aim was to promote collaboration among businesses in North Burnaby. They organized Old Fashioned Days, a precursor to Hats Off Day, as a customer appreciation event.
Helen’s Children’s Wear moves into the vacant building at 4142 Hastings St (the building previously served as Burnaby’s Municipal offices). The owner, Helen Arnold, commissioned a neon sign in 1958 from her friend James Wallace’s sign company, Wallace Neon Company (Vancouver). One of the company designers, Reeve Lehman, created a design of a swinging neon girl. Today, the sign remains an iconic landmark of Burnaby, and dear to the hearts of all Burnaby Heights merchants and residents. “The Swinging Girl” (affectionately named Helen) remains one of the best surviving kinetic neon art examples in North America.
Nearly 90% of the businesses on Hastings Street in North Burnaby belonged to the North Burnaby Merchants Association by this time, which is a testament to the strong culture and cohesiveness in the local business community. This legacy continues to this day.
During the heyday of the car-centric consumer culture, Burnaby’s oldest shopping centre, Brentwood Mall, opened, negatively affecting the economic climate of Burnaby Heights neighbourhood shopping district. Burnaby Heights commercial district experienced an economic downturn that lasted many years.
Vancouver Heights is renamed Burnaby Heights. A shift begins to occur in Burnaby, and also in Burnaby Heights, of industrial and light-industrial businesses (e.g. car mechanics, etc.) being replaced by service and retail commercial businesses.
Provincial Government Department of Highways announces plans to remove street-level parking on Hastings Street. North Burnaby Merchants Association pushes back successfully, to preserve their district’s integrity, pedestrian safety, and economic viability.
Burnaby experiences economic growth, and further diversification in its population. Burnaby Heights is part of this change. Four Burnaby Heights merchants (Clayton Budd, Jack Kuyer, Larry French and Ed Wood) organize a new event called Hats Off Day as a customer appreciation day. The name refers to taking their “hats off” out of respect, and saying thank you to their customers. Originally a sidewalk festival, the event is estimated to have been established in 1981 or 1982.
The Heights merchants combine their Hats Off Day efforts with a Neighbourhood Pride Week to create an even bigger celebration, including its first parade! These early Hats Off Day events attracted 10,000 to 15,000 people.
Traffic volume on Hastings reaches its peak (approximately 40,000 cars a day), and declines in all the years that follow. To Burnaby Heights protests, the Provincial Government pushed through an HOV lane that lost the district its prime street parking from 3 to 6 p.m. every weekday. Many shoppers on their way home from work chose to shop elsewhere and many merchants experienced a resulting 20% decline in revenues, as reported to the HMA at the time.
The Hastings Street Community Plan was finalized, following months of collaboration between residents and merchants. The district’s 12-storey zoning was reduced to four stories to retain the original “urban village” flavour and heritage.
Spurred by their advocacy work to push back against the HOV lane, the Burnaby Heights merchants decided to form a BIA – a Business Improvement Area. The BIA economic development model enabled stable funding for Hats Off Day and many other programs. The BIA also initiated improvements such as public art and street banners, litter pick-up programs, marketing, and promotions to help improve the merchants’ ability to compete and thrive.
The HMA advocated for and received a number of City-owned 2-hour parking lots. They launched their first corporate logo for The Heights and their first marketing campaign (“Park It, Walk It, Shop It”) and installed their first street banners. Hats Off Day continues to grow in popularity. By the late 1990s, it was attracting 15,000 to 20,000 visitors each June. In 1999, the BIA expanded to include the three blocks east of Willingdon, to Gamma Avenue.
The HMA tried out a variety of events and initiatives over the years – some of which are still with us today (such as Halloween on the Heights) and others which were eventually dropped due to lack of attendance (such as a 5 km community run, called Heights on the Run). The Helen’s Sign was dismantled in Summer 2007, restored to its original condition, and with a new moniker in place, HEIGHTS, it was re-installed in Spring 2009. A year later, it was formally celebrated in May 2010 in the presence of its original patron, Helen Arnold and many community members.
In Fall 2007, the HMA commissioned a new brand that is based on the heritage neon sign, and launched it in January 2008. Also in 2008, the HMA successfully rezoned the three blocks east of Willingdon to allow retail, as well as for combination 4-storey residential and retail buildings.
Hats Off Day continued to grow. By 2015 it was attracting 50,000 visitors. The HMA enters the social media era with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram platforms, and a new mobile-friendly website. A new event to celebrate our local “foodie” culture was launched as well: Crave the Heights. The district continues to be well represented culturally with residents identifying with cultures from nearly every continent, and speaking dozens of languages.
Sources: Burnaby City Archives, Heritage Burnaby, Burnaby Village Museum, Business Guide Burnaby (Beatty and Stefanini, 1989), Outline of Burnaby History (Green, 1952), Statistics Canada. Thanks to City Archives of the City of Burnaby for their assistance