Lamenting the loss of The Railway Club

Dec 19 2017, 9:06 pm

Does the sudden closure of Vancouver’s historic music venue, The Railway Club, signal the beginning of the end for our city’s cultural scene?

The Railway Club opened at the corner of Seymour and Dunsmuir some 85 years ago and was the longest continually operating nightclub in Vancouver until it closed its doors for good this week.

It hosted performers like The Tragically Hip, KD Lang and Barenaked Ladies, but it was also a hub of Vancouver’s own music scene, giving local artists a place to share their voice.

Now it’s no more, after the owners failed to find a buyer to take on the high rents being asked of them. General manager Steve Silman says this is a widespread problem.

“It is difficult for local businesses to make enough to pay their leases and expenses,” Silman told Vancity Buzz. “Combine that with development pressures and there have been quite a few venues go just in the past few years.”

Silman notes the closures of other venues like The Electric Owl and Fan Club – and says he doesn’t believe The Railway Club will be the last venue lost to a changing Vancouver.

‘A dangerous trend’

Andrey Pavlov, SFU Professor of Finance, agrees – but says venues like The Railway Club are losing out because their audience can’t afford to live here.

“We’re going to see more closures of places like the Railway Club because we can’t keep the people who like them in the city,” said Pavlov.

Inside the Railway Club (ArghMonkey/Flickr)

Inside the Railway Club (ArghMonkey/Flickr)

But what of the wealthy foreign investors and older homeowners who can afford to live in Vancouver?

They’re not interested in downtown music and cultural venues, says Pavlov. “With young people leaving, cultural places like the Railway Club are losing their customers… This, in my view, is the bigger, more dangerous trend.”

A matter of taste

Juno award-winning rock star Bif Naked lives in Vancouver and has played The Railway Club many times.

She says that she understands the legend of the venue and feels nostalgic about its heyday – but also believes that there’s still an audience out there.

“Art is a matter of taste, for the individual. From the symphonies to the Sex Pistols, ya gotta’ have a place to play,” she said.

Vintage Bif Naked

Vancouver rocker Bif Naked says The Railway Club was not a bar, but a destination. (Bif Naked)

And as for Vancouver’s economic problems, Naked says these are not exclusive to our city.

“I think every city is going through a shift where the economic gaps are widening,” she said. “It has always been lamented, ‘The rich get richer, the poor get poorer,’ and these times are no different.”

A poorer reality

This latest squeeze, Naked says, should prompt us to fight for the increasing number of people in this city who find themselves at the “poor” end of things.

“We need to start examining what the real issues are, when such an economic change is underway,” she said. “We can’t afford the housing market? Well, the poorest in our community can’t afford to eat. This is a reality that people are not remembering, in this real estate boom-style big picture.”

A reality that did not go unnoticed at The Railway Club.

“We’ve seen people say on Facebook that they haven’t been able to afford to come out to shows as much as they would like to due to the high cost of living in Vancouver,” said Silman.

“We also noticed customers spending less money when they did come out to shows.”

Perhaps as we sit here reminiscing about The Railway Club when it was open, we would also do well to remember why it had to close in the first place.