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John Atkin: SkyTrain Explorer

John Atkin leading a walk on Eveleigh St in Vancouver Photo courtesy of Wendy Cutler

John Atkin leading a walk on Eveleigh St in Vancouver
Photo courtesy of Wendy Cutler

This is the man, folks. John Atkin.

He wrote the book SkyTrain Explorer: Heritage Walks From Every Station and he’s the inspiration for me to walk those walks from Waterfront station to New Westminster station.

I’ve already have one in the can and you can read about my experience here.

I got the chance to sit down for a coffee with John on a rainy afternoon and discuss all things Metro Vancouver, how this book came to be and what he loves to explore.

Why SkyTrain stations?

Because it was arbitrary. *laughs* It came out of a discussion from a series of walks called “How to Look at Neighbourhoods.” It was a little bit of history, a little bit of development. But the idea was to get people out to look. At the end of one walk, someone told me that they wished their area was interesting. Turns out they lived right by the Nanaimo SkyTrain station.

The next walk, we met at the station and they were convinced nothing was there but we walked through a landscape of Vancouver Specials, the evolution of the area and found many fascinating little pockets. At the end of the walk, she was shocked (and pleasantly surprised) that there was all that in her own backyard. Everyone wanted to do another station and so we did!

What lead to the book itself?

After Vancouver Walks (with Michael Kluckner) was published, the publisher asked if I was interested in doing anything else. I said I was doing a few walks from the stations and they said, “That’d be cool!”

Riding the SkyTrain, I was always looking over, out the windows, wondering. When I had spare time I’d be on the train and randomly say, “well, let’s get off at the 4th stop.” Then just look around as I meandered. Turns out, other people wanted to do that too.

Why did you do the Expo Line and only to New West?

It was the original line. What I wanted to do is do that 1985 line. The idea was that we’d do the extension and the Millennium Line for the next one. Local publishing has changed but I do want to finish. I really do want to finish the Expo Line one day.

With the Millennium line, it’s tough right now to draw things out of some areas and stations. But that’s changing. There’s lots of Vancouver influence in those areas. I made tons of notes but I just couldn’t string it together yet. So, maybe if I just wait a long time, there will be lots to explore there!

What were the most interesting spots for you to walk and write about?

Edmonds was really interesting because it was semi-rural at the time. Big lots with small houses. And there was this creeping townhouse culture starting to show up but at the same time old Kingsway was still there. There was also this picture perfect shopping mall right out of the 1960s with an open courtyard and front facing shops.

That was a cool find. Actually, I went out originally and I wrote it all up, a great route. When I came back 8 months later to fact check it had all changed! That was a big development year for them.

Then, I guess, Royal Oak. It was one of those places that hadn’t yet taken off. The landscape was changing even when I was writing the book. At the time you could see grocery store, church, hardware store, house, house, house. It was the interurban stall that existed that just doesn’t now.

What advice would you give someone who wants to follow your guidance with the book… or break out and find their own walks?

It’s about going out and being curious about space. Just be curious. I can’t go anywhere without poking.

If you’re following the book, we published a while ago so you should keep in mind. You may look and think, “Whoops! Where’d that go?” We tried as much as possible in the book to give that indication that things will change. It’s inevitable!

If you’re doing it by yourself, the thing is, you make that decision when you’re out of the station, choose a direction and start walking.

Keep your eyes open. I think so often we’re so busy that we so rarely walk for the purpose of going nowhere.

I like going nowhere! By going nowhere you are really looking at your environment. You can start to see little things like a house may be older because it’s set far away from the street or that is a style very reminiscent of a certain era. Even the most seemingly boring space is interesting.

Part of the reason of choosing the SkyTrain is that it was, as I explained, a completely arbitrary structure.

Most people get on and go from A to B without any thought to what’s in between. It’s that idea of just being curious. As things change and the region develops, I think it’s a good idea to get to know an area that isn’t yours.

Beyond SkyTrain stations and areas in Metro Vancouver, what else do you like to explore?

I’m a big fan of shopping mall design. When we travel, we go to shopping malls.

We were in Beirut and we hiked way off into the Northern part of the city because there’s a new mall that just opened and we wanted to go see it. It had five or six floors but you entered at the top of a big hill and it was built all the way down the hill.

It was open air and you worked your way down the side of the hill in the mall. It was so interesting and something I’ve never seen before.

Malls are more interesting than you’d think. You can tell a lot about an area by the development of their malls!

Thanks to John for the afternoon chat and all the information about the book and our region.

He has definitely sparked a new interest for me and I am truly curious about the sidewalks, buildings, bridges and neighbourhoods of our region.

I can’t wait to get out there for my next SkyTrain explorer walk!

If you’re interested in joining John on one of his varied walks around the region, you can register here.

Stay tuned later this month for my Burrard station adventure.

Author: Adrienne Coling


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