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The Waldorf Hotel seen here in East Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, October 27, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail)
The Waldorf Hotel seen here in East Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, October 27, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail)

East Hastings

Waldorf Hotel: Vancouver's cultural oasis in the middle of nowhere Add to ...

The windows are covered with brown chain link fence at an abandoned warehouse on East Hastings that is up for sale. On the next block, a used car lot promises Ca$h For Cars. In the middle stands The Waldorf Hotel: a cultural centre in the middle of nowhere.

Since its relaunch a year ago this weekend – a Halloween party that drew an estimated 3,000 people – the Waldorf has drawn a cultural A-list crowd with an eclectic, edgy and exciting array of offerings. Douglas Coupland created a Marshall McLuhan/YouTube event for the place that has since travelled the world. The mayor has hung out here, as have many of the internationally renowned artists who live in Vancouver. Pop superstar Katy Perry dropped by with her entourage.

“It’s like a Disneyland for culture,” says Daniel Fazio, the hotel’s director of brand and design.

“There’s been nothing like it in the city,” says author/curator Michael Turner, who has contributed to the programming at the Waldorf, including the creation of his Rolling Stones Trilogy: three films about the rock band re-imagined as acts in an opera. “The city needed this.”

There’s no stopping the arts, not even on a Monday night, at the Waldorf. In the Black and Yellow Gallery upstairs – a tiny former hotel room – two installations illustrate “the non-hegemonic condition of the gallery as a space within other spaces.” The artists’ “interest in space intervention,” their statement continues, “is contingent upon a desire to subjectively redescribe places.”

Downstairs in the Tiki Bar, the thinking is not quite as deep, but the partying is hard at the Ice Cream Social, where hipsters dance under the twinkling lights to Louie Louie and DJs spin vinyl while texting on smart phones. Down one more flight, Vision Vancouver types are partying at their election campaign timeraiser, where attendees bid time instead of money for items such as Science World passes and Burlesque dance lessons.

At 11:30 p.m., people are still streaming in.

“We had no idea what kind of response we were going to get to the space,” says Mr. Fazio. “And it’s been overwhelming for me. ... It’s been a great year.”

So great that the Waldorf’s presence has sparked new hopes for this neighbourhood from camps as divergent as emerging artists, political hopefuls and real estate moguls. Maybe call it space intervention, a re-description of this place.

“It’s a validator that there’s going to be a new type of community here,” condominium marketer Bob Rennie says during a drive through the neighbourhood, pointing out three lots for sale across the street from the Waldorf. The revamped hotel, he says, has “caused a more serious evaluation” of these properties, and he predicts a neighbourhood shift to residential, which will be particularly attractive to the “creative class.”

When Vision Vancouver announced its arts and culture platform this week, it called for more flexible zoning in areas such as this so artists can turn existing commercial and industrial buildings into studio spaces – legally.

“Certainly along Hastings is an area we’re looking at,” said Vision councillor Heather Deal.

NPA candidate Elizabeth Ball says it’s not always necessary to change the zoning, but agrees “East Hastings, the whole area, is rich with possibilities for development as a cultural area because there’s all kinds of interesting old buildings and spaces.”

Mr. Turner says he believes the hotel’s location has been “a bit of a challenge,” but the Waldorf has become a destination, given its fine programming. “They built it and people came.”

They’re coming to East Vancouver for all kinds of culture these days – and not just the expected Main Street and Commercial Drive haunts. Vancouver Opera moved its headquarters to the old Lululemon factory outlet this past summer; four theatre companies established a shared rehearsal and administrative space they call Progress Lab 1422 in an old garment factory; Mr. Rennie chose East Pender in Chinatown for his Rennie Collection at Wing Sang, which next summer will become a seasonal satellite location for the Royal BC Museum. At the loud and otherwise non-descript intersection of Clark Drive and East 6th Avenue, Ken Lum’s Monument For East Vancouver installation illuminates the SkyTrain ride home.

But it’s the Waldorf that has become the new cultural headquarters not just for East Van, but for the city. In the year that it’s been open as this new, imagined cultural playground, the hotel has hosted a dizzying line-up of events – becoming as much a catalyst as a venue for creativity.

“YouTube Night just sort of began as doing something at the Waldorf that was new, because they’re really progressive programmers there,” says Mr. Coupland, who has since taken the idea to Washington, Berlin, Beijing and, this week, Toronto.

“The Waldorf has created an expectation of more and better,” he continues. “It’s really great to have a venue that simply wouldn’t exist otherwise.”

This cultural compound, as they call it, almost became a Liquor Barn.

A few months before the Waldorf’s rebirth, property owner Marko Puharich was in talks to turn it into a big box liquor retailer. He ultimately decided to walk away from the multimillion-dollar figure that was being discussed.

“The gut said, don’t go with it,” says Mr. Puharich. He didn’t want to see the hotel, with its important place in the city’s history, become a giant liquor store.

The Waldorf Hotel was built in the 1940s, an example of moderne architecture – boxy on the outside and curved lines on the inside. A tiki bar extension was later built to house 14 works by black velvet painting pioneer Edgar Leeteg brought back from the Polynesian Islands by the hotel’s original owner. The works still hang in the bar, a testament to the importance of art to this place almost from the beginning.

Now, the city’s visual arts superstars, including Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham and Brian Jungen, hang out here. Musician Louise Burns was an Ice Cream Social regular until her recent move to Toronto. The internationally famous have dropped in too, including The Black Keys, Danger Mouse and Ms. Perry.

“Katy Perry was like ‘Hey this is cool; next time I’ll stay here,’ ” says Mr. Fazio. “I was like ‘Okay; here’s my card. You’re not gonna stay here.’ ”

She probably won’t. Small and functional, the hotel’s 10 renovated rooms are not the main draw. Nor were they meant to be. “We see the hotel as an amenity to the arts and culture complex, which is kind of the inverse to if you go to, say, the Hotel Vancouver,” says Mr. Fazio.

This weekend, the hotel will mark its first anniversary with a Halloween art-meets-amusement park extravaganza, with a 16-storey high Drop of Doom installed in the parking lot, and a midway where artists have been tasked with re-imagining classic carnival games. Next weekend, the Eastside Culture Crawl will hold a major pre-crawl event here – a first.

Its days of being in the middle of nowhere may be numbered. Thomas Anselmi, the hotel’s creative director and co-owner, agrees with Mr. Rennie and other developers that the area is bound to change, and that the Waldorf’s renewal will be an important chapter in that transformation.

“We’re going to contribute to the gentrification of this neighbourhood; we’re going to,” he says. “We don’t necessarily want to. But we just are. All of a sudden there’s going to be a building across the street from us with 10 storeys. That’s just what’s going to happen. I don’t know if it’ll happen next year; I don’t know if it’ll happen three years from now. But it’s going to happen.”

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