I just spent several days in Vancouver, a city I lived in, always slightly uncomfortably, for a quarter of a century. Vancouver has a beautiful setting, sits at the heart of the calmest inland ocean on the planet, has a dearth of land suitable for human occupation, and is subject to a climate that is aggravating and easy at the same time with its temperate summers and gloomy, suicide-inducing winters. It has always been an anxious city, until recently because it was at the end of Western civilization’s 500 year expansion and was cutting down its trees and catching its fish faster than nature could replenish them. Now, in the dictatorship of the entrepreneurs, it is anxious because it wants to be high speed, World Class and admired for its good looks—sort of like a 14-year-old supermodel.
When I moved there from Northern B.C. in the mid 1960s, it was a city of about a half million people, with another half million in proximate suburbs, most of them fairly integrated with the city’s systems, but a few, like the fishing village of Steveston on the south arm of the Fraser River or the small resort town of White Rock near the U.S. border, were almost a world apart. In its worst moments Vancouver could be like Victoria across the strait, more English than England, and the true boundary in the city wasn’t between the city and its suburbs, but the divide between the wealthy and well-appointed west side of the city and everything that lay east of Main street. There was a piece of graffiti on East Broadway that said it all: Welcome to East Vancouver . Expect no mercy . There was even less mercy to be found on the west side of the city, except that it was determined by income and access to cultural opportunities.
Today the suburbs are vastly extended and pretty well completely integrated. Steveston is now a tourist location surrounded by townhouse developments within a municipality ( Richmond ) where English is now a second language, and White Rock is indistinguishable from Surrey —not something you’d wish on Guantanamo Bay , let alone a pretty little town with a wooden boardwalk and a pier.
Vancouver’s truest divide today is between Asian and Anglo Vancouver, of which the Asian side has the fatter wallet despite its huge underclass. Vancouver has also become a city of innumerable smaller divisions, too: BMW SUV/ageing Chevy, gay/straight, grey/normal economy, coupon-clippers/minimum wage, Big Box/local, with all but a few hunkering down in their chosen enclaves.
The city has 18,000 homeless people—with a red-hot economy and a labour shortage. Thirteen hundred square-foot town houses on the city’s less-than-Patrician east side now sell for as much as $750,000, with single family houses often topping $1 million. This situation is impoverishing the middle class and emptying the city of families with children and of the elderly. Its underclasses are growing, and so is its anger.
No one knows the city’s actual population. The distrustful immigrant populations lie to the census-takers (the 1986 census uncounted the City of Vancouver alone by close to 150,000 people, and that hasn’t changed) so the official counts are always lower than the reality, and at this point it’s impossible to confidently draw city boundaries as urbanization spreads up the Fraser Valley. Two million is probably about right, but no one can confirm this without an argument over where the true city boundaries lie. What is safe to say is that Vancouver has retail capacity for closer to three million, the result of a twenty-year infusion of development capital from Asia .
The Asian money, which has been circulating since 1986’s Expo is a subtle toxin. After two decades it has the city bulging with an overabundance of high-end retail that couldn’t stay in business for a month without it. It’s locally fashionable to think of Vancouver as the new Asian frontier, but the reality is more grainy. The business dorks spend a lot of energy propagandizing the idea of the Pacific Rim economy, without seeming to realize that their metaphor puts the city on the far edge of an economic toilet bowl and that its reality reduces the non-Vancouver parts of British Columbia to permanent status as a resource extraction zone.
Vancouver is really Asia’s recreational resort, a respite, and the wealthiest of the city’s Asian newcomers treat it as such. Yet for better or worse, Vancouver is going to be (and very nearly is already) North America’s first Asian city. The fiscal and cultural uneasiness of its Asian immigrants is palpable, particularly the wealthy ones. They’re insular, most of them arriving not with their own ethnic depth and confidence but with Asia’s strain of globalized culture, which is a veneer of consumerism, real estate Feng Shui and plastic.
Then there’s B.C.’s current Liberal government, which has been practicing Social Credit strained through globalism since it wiped the NDP in 2001. Among the measures it took to dismantle whatever programs smacked of social democracy was GAIN, which puts a two year limit on welfare. This was officially designed to convert all the lazy dolts across the province to the protestant work ethnic, but the actual desired result was supposed be the exodus of its underclass to Alberta or less Darwinian jurisdictions elsewhere in the country.
GAIN hasn’t succeeded in driving out more than a small few of the recently disenfranchised homeless, because frankly, there’s nowhere else to go, or at least no place in Canada that can match south-western B.C.’s moderate climate, which offers the country’s only jurisdiction that isn’t refrigerated during the winter months. Some elements of Greater Vancouver’s underclass—the ones with guns and drugs—has migrated to Burnaby ’s Metrotown, making it dangerous enough that the transit guards have recently been authorized to carry lethal weapons. While I worked in urban planning during the 1970s, we warned our political masters that creating a commercial and public transit nexus in a cultural vacuum—there were few cultural facilities or opportunities present outside the boundaries of the City proper, and none at all in the South Burnaby location of Metrotown—would eventually make Metrotown Greater Vancouver’s nexus for social violence. We were brought back to reality by an official of the primary developer for the Metrotown shopping centre, who told us that North America ’s preferred cultural activity is retail shopping, and that they would provide plenty of that, but nothing else. The politicians concurred, and now everyone is paying the social price if not the political one.
The City and Provincial governments today are doing pretty much what they’ve always done for Vancouver: creating a city that provides excellent services for well-heeled tourists, and a quite a lot less for those who call themselves Vancouverites. In that spirit, they’re trying to clean out the traditionally-seedy Downtown East Side in advance of the 2010 Olympic Games, where the official athlete’s village will adjoin the DES at the foot of False Creek. The legacy of the Olympics will be a remarkable one—if you happen to be a bob-sledder or speed-skater. For anyone living on the Downtown East Side, though, the Olympic construction program probably feels more like a pogrom than a program.
Some of the area’s disenfranchised underclass has bowed to the pressure, and has migrated a dozen blocks east to the Commercial Drive area. There are more homeless people under the flowerpots there than I’ve ever seen before, and there are more barred windows and doors when the shops close at night. Since I happened to be staying with friends who live a block off the main drag, and already knew the area well from my years in Vancouver, I went out of my way to take a close look.
I was staying with Ryan Knighton, a Vancouver writer who happens to be blind. One of the first things I did was walk his trapline with him: Norm’s produce store, where he buys most of his fresh vegetables and fruits, the Café Napoli, where he gets his morning coffee, and First Ravioli Store, which once upon a time was called Oliveri’s Ravioli Shop and was Vancouver’s best source of fresh pasta and other Italian foodstuffs before Granville Island opened. (It now ships fresh pastas to supermarkets across the country, but doesn’t, as far as I could tell, have a local retail outlet.)
Ryan’s trapline sits within a three block radius of First Avenue and Commercial Drive , and includes Continental Coffee, Santa Barbara Market and a lot of other pretty fabulous shops that, with their obsession with organics and fair trade products, couldn’t exist anywhere in Canada but in Vancouver. Commercial Drive has become a more coherent neighbourhood since I was around, with a lot of people who evidently know and like each other. That’s all to the good, but I suspect it’s also unique in Vancouver .
And it wasn’t all good. One afternoon while I was guiding Ryan along a crowded sidewalk just south of First Avenue, I heard an angry voice advising us to “get the fuck out of my way,” and found myself eyeball-to-eyeball with a man of about 30 who clearly understood that he’d directed his impatience toward a blind person, and didn’t care.
The day before, I had a similarly unpleasant incident when I tapped the bumper of a late model BMW while parking my rented car, and found myself being snarled down by a middle-aged type-A lawyer with a close-cropped goatee and an attitude problem. He was about half my size, and I let him run on for a few moments, thinking that maybe he’d had a bad day and that he’d get a grip on himself any second. He didn’t, and I had to warn him about what sorts of horrible things could happen to smart-assed runts in BMWs when they start mouthing off at people, even when they look as ordinary as I do, and that he was making me glad I didn’t live in Vancouver . His response to this advice and commentary was to shout “fuck you” as he pulled his BMW from the parking space, and to leave a 30 foot trail of smoking rubber for an exclamation mark. There were a lot of other angry-looking people on the sidewalks, too, thankfully not driving BMWs. I didn’t bother to point them out to Ryan, for several different reasons, none of which had anything to do with him not being able to see them.
Not surprisingly, the two contrary sets left me confused. I was tempted to decide that the only good things on Commercial Drive are those that are run by Italians, who in Vancouver, as they do in Toronto, operate with a degree of civility no other ethnicity seems remotely able to match. It’s clear, meanwhile, that the homeless are angry because they know they’re living in a wealthy city that doesn’t want them there because, well, they don’t fit with the images from the tourist brochures for the 2010 Olympics. They’re not going to get to enjoy the speed-skating ovals or the luge and bobsled runs, and they understand that perfectly.
The middle class is angry because real estate prices have doubled in the last several years, and that means that families with middling incomes aren’t going to be able to afford to live there much longer. The crime rates are going up in the areas where they’re able to hold on, and the schools are closing down one by one while the governments scratch their heads about why.
For all its problems, there’s no question that Vancouver remains a great place to live if you’ve got disposable income and leisure time. Food provenance (if not the restaurant scene) is superior to any other Canadian city, and I’m not just talking about the fish. The Granville Island market has far outdistanced Toronto’s St. Lawrence market in the quality and variety of what it has available, and maybe that’s why it’s busier on Tuesday mornings than the St. Lawrence market is on Saturdays. B.C. promotes what it has with more energy and élan than Ontario seems able to, with everything from halibut cheeks to huckleberry jam from Northern B.C. proudly signatured. And for a city with an eighth of the Italian population Toronto has, there are more and better specialty pastas available than you can dig out of Toronto ’s best shops.
One more thing. The last night I was there, Ryan walked me to a bar called Sash on Commercial Drive not far from his place, where I got to hear a remarkable blues guitarist named Paul Pigat. One of the truisms of global culture in the 21st century is that there are now 40,000 guitarists in North America who can play better than Eric Clapton, but this was different. Pigat, who turned out to be an Italian kid who grew up around Toronto’s Jane-Finch corridor, is a guitarist who’s taken his skills to a whole new musical dimension that literally had my head spinning with pleasure. He’s a self-deprecating guy who tells very funny stories about his father, who’s a one-legged moose hunter, and not the kind that just sits around talking about hunting. He’s also a man who, I’m reliably informed, repairs vintage guitars with a butter-knife, and oh, man, can he play. He isn’t a big commercial success because he won’t package himself. He likes living in Vancouver, and plays only the kind of music he loves.
He’s why I left thinking that maybe the city is going to be okay, despite all the angry people on its streets, and the shadows looming over everything.
2300 words October 18, 2006