Vancouver has a hard, brittle beauty.
Walk down any street in Vancouver. We are a city of nondescript streets, where very few blocks possess a beauty of their own. But cunningly, cross a boulevard, or turn a corner, and there it is: a sharp beauty that cuts hard; that takes your breath away. Looking across the sea of slender glass towers from a Fairview street (was there ever such an understated name for a neighbourhood? Fair doesn’t begin to cover it. Whenever I see those spires as I cross the town east to west, our collective British origins are unmistakable, that understatement of the obvious such a particularly British sensibility), it can suddenly take your breath – such a startling beauty that it cuts deep. I’ve lived here for 20 years and it still happens with alarming regularity. And like a jeweller appraising a shiny bauble, we can do that here too. Our views change depending on where we are, but there are very few that do not reward the faithful.
Look east from the West Side, back across the downtown peninsula and see the slope of towers crest and fall, echoing sublimely the mountains that loom behind and to the left.
Look west from the east side, cycling along Adanac and see the echoes of our industrial past laid bare, waiting to be claimed by creeping modernity: our tracks towards destiny, the gleaming towers echoed by the shiny waters of false creek, slender sails echoing slender buildings.
Look south from the north shore, and feel the abrupt ending of where Capitalist dreams meet the water which is both a psychological and very physical divide between Vancouver and the North Shore, which conjures up not the sleepy, spreading suburb that it is, but rather the wild, untamed promise of all those mountains it is nestled up against. Look south from high enough and the beauty changes. The downtown no longer dominates, but rather seems a small bastion against a sea of squat structures clinging to the edge of the world.
Look north from anywhere and the city disappears: the mountains are ever-present, and the city simply pales against their terrible promise of inevitable collapse: They are stark reminders that we live on borrowed time. And when the mountains are no longer there it is somehow worse, hidden somewhere in the fog bank or clouds. At night, when the lights on Mt Seymour & Grouse float in the sky there is an assurance, and one when I travel I have come to miss greatly.
Vancouver does not love her children
Vancouver is a city that does not respect her past. She doesn’t care for her own children. It is a city of immigrants, for immigrants – whether from across the Rockies or across the ocean. We tear down old buildings – where someone we knew grew up, or spent their free time, in favour of the new over and over again. Like cells, old houses subdivide into duplexes, fourplexes. Or two or 3 houses combine then divide into a squat complex of condos, all of which are heavily advertised elsewhere, or sold by the promise of the Vancouver lifestyle, which only the non-Vancouverite can still be sold by, because everyone who grew up here knows that they’ve been priced out. Or the lucky, have ridden that wave and now own a house worth vastly more than they could ever have imagined and think only of selling, and leaving.
No one I know who sells a house in Vancouver they’ve lived in for 20, 30 years sells to move elsewhere in Vancouver. They go away. And those in our 20s and 30s and 40s who grew up here. Their salaries don’t match the prices, and so we leave. And only if they return, having earned more elsewhere, and are no longer subject to the low-wage trap of Vancouver, are happy to return to Vancouver as newly-minted foreigners, ready to re-embrace the promise of Vancouverism, leaden with money earned elsewhere to buy, to invest, to pay for the ski passes and boat mooring and cars.
Vancouver is hard
Much like we are physically a thin band of people nestled between mountain and ocean, this echoes deeply in our relationship. Our business dream smaller, and sleepier than those elsewhere. We temper our dreams of success with our dreams of “lifestyle”. My friends who work here, collectively, work vastly less than my friends in Toronto or New York or Montreal or San Fransisco.
We are the Spain of North America: we all cut out early to get 2 hours of biking or skiing or drinking on patios. And how could we not? We give up so much to live here, so we need to make it worth our while. And we continue to sell this lifestyle abroad and everyone abroad continues to buy into it and then they move here and some can reconcile their old habits with the demands of this lifestyle and some cannot and leave.
Investment here will continue to struggle. What’s a 10 million dollar round in the face of a 200km bike ride with your buddies every sunny day of the year? What’s an extra 25K a year in your pocket when – christ, did you see the mountains today? See you at Whistler on Saturday? And these things that are sold to us as goods; they are indeed goods but they are also a tax on us.These are the taxes we pay to celebrate living here. Because if you don’t participate in the Vancouver lifestyle, why are you here? These are steep taxes we pay, whether or not you take advantage of what they offer you.
And all this living, all this participating, the unspoken problem is that it creates a massive underclass of people barely making it. When those who can are sipping their pour-over coffees at the third-wave coffee-house, the people working there are barely making it, living in shitty apartments with friends in East Van or New West and likely going directly from pouring coffee to band practice, or more likely another job, their dreams “on hold” as they make rent and buy food and drink and live, but live a very different life of loud music and Hastings st and the Drive and not the Sea Wall, and while they too have been sold Vancouverism it is a very different one.
Vancouver has my heart
And yet. And yet. And yet I say all the above like these are bad things and they are not. They are the very reason I love this land like nowhere else I’ve been.