Headin’ down the road to Fat City


Image by Rob Kruyt

Nearly a decade ago, when we were planning our return to Canada after a couple of years living in Mexico, we had no idea where in our home and native land we might be able to settle. We had a Christmas visit back to British Columbia and Keira took me for my first walk along The Drive in Vancouver, a city that I had never felt comfortable with… I immediately grooved on the mix of cheap ethnic eats, the funky second-hand shops, the wild diversity of people strolling and lounging on the sidewalks. What appealed to me most was a certain down-market sensibility — prices were geared to people living on a budget, a Starbucks sat empty while an adjacent indie coffee shop had a line-up out the door. Grandview Park overflowed with buskers, bongo-banging hippies and black-clad anarchists throwing up funny anti-corporate posters everywhere. It felt like a world unto itself, and that day we resolved that we would live in this neighborhood. We did, and have never regretted the decision.

But in a pattern familiar to so many cities, the very qualities that made this place so dynamic have set forces in motion which endanger its vitality. The rents have gone up, driving out the Italian barbers and replacing them with hip kids clothing boutiques. The eateries, while often excellent, have been cycling steadily upscale. The people who have lived the longest in the neighborhood have been saying for some time that The Drive has lost its soul.

It felt like a kick in the gut when I read yesterday that the venerable magazine and bookstore Magpie was closing its doors. Magpie was one of the businesses that set the tone for The Drive, with a particularly fine selection of art-oriented and rabble-rousing political publications. Its proprietor, Kevin Potvin, was a controversial gadfly who leveraged his shop to launch The Republic of East Vancouver, a scrappy free newspaper with radical views and lots of local coverage.

Potvin largely blames changes in people’s media habits for the closing, and if I am honest I have to admit that with so much wonderful stuff available online I buy fewer magazines than I used to. The other factors in the closing I find more troubling. How is it that a vibrant, well-run and long-standing business is forced to finance with credit cards (especially strange given our current economic crisis brought on by imprudent lending to so many dubious borrowers)? And as Potvin implies, though in macroeconomic terms the city has been “booming,” for working people rising real estate values just mean higher rents and mortgage payments, which when added to skyrocketing food and fuel costs means that the squeeze is on.

Maybe that’s what’s troubling me most. I understand that in bad times, well, times are bad. But the triumphant common wisdom here in Vancouver is that we’ve enjoyed a decade of unprecedented good times, and we are soaring toward a coronation as a truly ‘world class’ city with the 2010 Olympics. The result is a sense of civic schizophrenia, where life gets tougher for those who don’t have a solid stake, where schools are closing, where community centres are cutting their programming, where small businesses can’t hack it… A high-profile and progressive-sounding mega-project destroys a neighborhood, and nobody is held accountable for the false promises that were made when it was being promoted. Cuts to services, but the money flows for every new Olympic cost overrun, for that fancy convention centre intended to impress visiting business people. (As an aside, is there any less pleasant place to gather and learn than every convention centre ever built? Why do people book events in these generic concrete crapboxes?)

We have a lot of friends who work in the community, and the stories they tell us of where things are headed on the street get darker and darker. I got the image above from a new blog by one of those friends, written under the nom de plume Hanna Mitchell. I’m really pleased she has joined the digital conversation. Here’s a sample portrait of this fair city, from the perspective of an artist and activist who has spent many years working with Vancouver’s most desperate people:

…we have created policy after policy that has kept the appearance of our neighborhoods as beautiful places for beautiful people, and anything or anyone that doesn’t fit that criteria gets torn down or comes to the Downtown Eastside. Homeless people aren’t just in the Downtown Eastside, and those walls are breaking, the walls that protect the beautiful and the young, and those who want to stay beautiful and young from the realities of the fragility of the lifestyle created here, a lifestyle that is beyond the means of most people that live here, a lifestyle that has neither style or substance, but is more like smoke and mirrors.

It is the mountains, the ocean, the cherry and magnolia trees, the people i know, and for the last 15 years, one of the greatest buildings in our City that keeps me here, so maybe i just feel duped because i fell for this beautiful place. I fell in love with this beautiful place, and now, not so much. I think she’s ugly on the inside, cold and a bit of a ditz, but still pretty. Not sure where this leaves me, but maybe its like a fight with someone you love, you have to tell them about the things that are bugging you, and hope they can change or that maybe you can live with who they are, or maybe you just leave.

Maybe leave. But I don’t know where else I can go…

7 thoughts on “Headin’ down the road to Fat City

  1. It could be worse. You could live in Calgary – a city that never really had a soul, and has already been crowned “world class” (whatever that means) by hosting the ’88 Olympics (oops! I used the O-word without obtaining legal clearance! Or paying the tithe!)

    Vanrock is definitely an expensive place to live – one of the reasons I don’t live there now. But it definitely has more soul than the alternatives. Here’s hoping it survives the 2010 Global Economic Showcase of Jingoistic Multibillion-dollar “Amateur” Sport.

    as an aside, I still don’t understand why the IOC doesn’t just pick 2 permanent venues, if they need to hold the Games, and just pour money into making them the best damned venues available. This insanity of pouring billions of dollars into new locations every 4 years is completely unsustainable. The Olympics are supposed to be about promoting and rewarding excellence in amateur sport, not showcasing economic and geopolitical prowess.

    aside #2: the reCaptcha I got was “crude city” – not sure if it geolocated me in Calgary, or was commenting on Vanrock’s descent from Lotusland…

  2. The same thing happened in the Old Strathcona district in Edmonton. I went to high school in the area and at the time it was a truly interesting and diverse area – bookstores that featured a wide variety of interests and genres, run down hotels with watering holes full of interesting characters, the best repertory theatre in Western Canada and a truly alternative feel to it. But the diversity of the area made it a favourite venue for art and cultural events. Having a successful fringe theatre festival in the area led to its homogenization as more people came into the area. Now it has become basically an outdoor mall. At one time it was my favourite part of the city, but now I just try to avoid it – partially to avoid the crowds, but also because it just makes me sad to think of what has been lost.

    Where to go next? Broadway Ave in Saskatoon still has a diverse feel to it. Even though there is one Starbucks on the street, the good stuff still remains – Bud’s, the Broadway Theatre, the Roastery and of course Amigos is just a block away. Maybe you need to get yourself back to the Paris of the Prairies before it too gets gentrified.

  3. I have lived near the Drive for nearly 12 years, and I agree, it is losing what made it so interesting. I was about to wax nostalgic on the store and restaurants that have closed, but what’s the point? Rumour has it that housing prices are going down in London, England, so perhaps there is hope that prices in this neighbourhood won’t hit the 1 million mark.

    @d’arcy – a friend of mine had that same idea to have the Olympics in two permanent venues (though he somewhat cheekily thought that the IOC should build islands to host them). Perhaps if we talk about it enough in public spaces, the idea will gain traction.

  4. I visited Van’ once. It was a fly by night visit of a few days. It had the impression on me that you describe here. Strangely, every since visiting, I have this urge to go back.. I think the urge comes from the disappointment in myself for not meeting up with you Blamb. Something in me says we’d get along like a house on fire, yet.. I chose to go to the mountains and ski the famous whistler. Sure I skied whistler on what was largely a very average day. I got pissed in a pub back near gastown, watching this very strange sport on ice and eating BBQ chicken wings. I browsed the shops you mentioned and became confused by the seeming affluence side by side with the desperate and homeless. The cabbies (the barometer of any city) seemed a little on the harsh side, but with a warmth inside if you could find it (and keep it). Vancouver is a shining bright city in a dark and cold wilderness. I wish I had of had a beer with Blamb 🙁

    Come and visit NZ.. then on to check out Australia. But if you are still surrounded by good people and memories who love you, then that is your home.

  5. The flattened automobilification of Phoenix, Arizona– never once saw anything like Commercial Dr.– ever. City planners are all in the pockets of the auto dealers. Public transit is a joke. Cities are all going bankrupt due to foreclosures– and cutting deals with developers, hedge funds, foreign assets– without regard to local populations. New Orleans– case in point. The Olympics destroy cities. Without a larger perspective– of how private corporate money corrupts local city councils and bylaws– and how so-called public-private partnerships (fascism-corporativsm) is being applied on a national, state, province– and city and neighbourhood level, there’s no hope. This degeneration and corruption of society is not inevitable– to escape, read the only perspective that points to the enemy– the British Empire—>Larouche. http://www.larouchepub.com

  6. @D’Arcy & Amy – I think the mission of the Olympics to throw megabucks around to stimulate nationalist frenzies, and provide a platform for high-living schmoozing on the public tab… so the fixed location suggestion is very sensible if the idea is to promote the best in amateur sport, but that ain’t gonna happen.

    @Rob – looking forward to seeing all those places again in May. (But to give you a sense of The Drive, imagine a multicultural version of that 1-2 block stretch that runs for well over a kilometer.) Then again, from what I hear about real estate prices in Saskatoon (especially in the Nutana area), the character of that neighborhood may be in for some peril itself.

    @Leigh – whether it’s in my hemisphere or yours, I do look forward to meeting you.

    @Phil – wow, even when I was a full-time anti-war blogger I don’t recall ever getting a LaRouche comment. It takes me back, to being 14 and watching him railing away on those half-hour national TV spots. Alas, I am too much an admirer of The Kinks, Monty Python and gin tonics to subscribe to the notion of Britain as the root of all evil.

  7. I was past Magpie today and was reminded of all the losses and displacement that isn’t being recorded in homelessness counts,doesn’t figure in to City planners discussions, and VANOC reps intentions for zero displacement in the inner city, the loss of small business and affordable ammenities. There is a business on Hastings Street near the Ovaltine Cafe, called Van China imports, the man who runs it is 90 years old, runs it with his family. They have to leave, can’t afford the new rents. The Bavaria Cafe in Gastown, cheap breakfast, couldn’t afford new rents, now 6 acres, previously Moonshine(which the city objected too, freaks.) The list is endless and invisible. The irony is that all these people and developers that buy into these neighborhoods for the qualities that you and i, and so many people love about them, simultaneously kill all those qualities, and i can’t help but think, that we somehow led them there. Artists are the precursor to gentrification all around the world, i guess its why i don’t want to call myself and artist.

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