If you haven’t read Gary Stephen Ross’s article A Tale of Two Cities in the Walrus, go do it. It is brilliant. Probably the best reflection on Vancouver I’ve read in a long, long time. The piece resonated deeply in a personal way, not only hitting all the right themes about my home city but touching on what about it keeps pushing me away and pulling me back.
(Of course, if you are coming for the Olympics, this is a must read backgrounder.)
I’ve always wanted to write a long form piece on Open Vancouver/Closed Vancouver which ideas in Ross’s piece touch on. So with the lens of that project still in mind I’ve posted some of the piece’s best quotes below as well as some thoughts and the occasional mild remix:
The main reason I moved back was to be close to my family and to explore what I thought was a city on the verge of becoming a place for ideas. It hasn’t been disappointing.
Laugh at the clichés, but understand that leading-edge thinking elsewhere is often the norm here. From North America’s only supervised injection site to a police chief who openly supports the idea of making addiction a public health issue, not a criminal one; from UBC’s breakthroughs in sports medicine to the bold social experiment of the Woodward’s development, which combines public housing with high-end units; from inventors like Phil Nuytten, the father of the underwater Newtsuit, to Internet millionaires like Markus Frind (plentyoffish.com) and Stewart Butterfield (flickr.com); from D-Wave’s breakthrough in quantum computing to Saltworks Technologies’ cost-effective desalination system, Vancouver incubates far more than its share of striking new ideas.
I wasn’t sure of this when I first moved home… But this is a place where ideas get thought. Being part of that is fun. More happens here then people know.
Indeed, if the measure of an idea is how widely it’s disseminated and how passionately it’s embraced, this city is anything but the kayaking, navel-gazing, pot-smoking Lotus Land of popular imagination. It’s a hotbed of entrepreneurship and creativity. “Doesn’t anybody here work?” a visitor joked one October afternoon as we walked past a surprisingly active Kits Beach. Yes, people do work, all the time — just not in head offices, since we have very few. They launch start-ups, they freelance, they find Wi-Fi spots, they unfurl blueprints at Starbucks. They invent, imagine, concoct.
The challenge is that all those ideas don’t create the radiant energy that feeds more ideas. It is hard to feel what is happening in Vancouver. For whatever reason the energy dissipates rather that build and feed others. Is it that too much of it is forced to leave for bigger pastures? Maybe. But at the moment there is something about Vancouver that closes itself not only to outsiders, but to itself.
Ross picks up on this in a quote from Bob Rennie about the failure of Vancouver to leverage its energy and talent.
“‘We need the grand gesture: let’s hire a starchitect, let’s make a statement, let’s go for the splashiest exhibition.’ It grows out of a small-town mentality. We have people here who are royalty in the international art world: Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Roy Arden, Brian Jungen. Did you know that Rodney Graham has a major show in Basel this June? But oh no, we couldn’t possibly be good enough to stand on our own merits.”
This is why it sometimes feels like the ideas here go abroad or fade – we don’t incubate or get excited about them.
Part of that is the fault of the cities culture – it is a strangely closed placed. I grew up here but I’ll be the first to say it isn’t always easy meeting people in Vancouver, not like in Toronto (where I can’t stop meeting new people) or Halifax (where everybody is very friendly):
Amid the stereotypes, of course, obscured by them, Vancouverites live substantial, complicated, inaccessible lives. Newcomers say folks here are quick to engage you in a friendly chat but slow to invite you over for dinner. There may be a flaky, hippie vibe to the lineup at Trout Lake Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, but there is a seriousness of purpose as well, an act-on-it conviction that organic tomatoes from the Okanagan are in every way superior to industrial tomatoes from Mexico.
Serious? Maybe. Sometimes the line between seriousness and escapism gets pretty blurry. Many people come to Vancouver to get away – away from the east, away from the head office, away from relatives… away to strike out on their own. And that makes it a city, to a certain degree, of loners. Or at least a city of people who aren’t sure they want you to penetrate their dream.
But the other part of it has to do with the Vancouver’s history which thematically Ross has right…
“Partly it’s that idea of generational wealth that Will and Ariel Durant talk about in The Lessons of History,” says Tom Cooper of City in Focus. “Vancouver’s rich are still in acquisition mode. It’s the third and fourth generation that starts thinking about endowing a chair or funding the arts or charities. We don’t have Carnegies and Rockefellers here, because the wealthy families are still too busy making money to stop and wonder what to do with it.”
…but my feeling is the diagnosis is off (he’s far too nice). It’s not about acquisition. This is a city built with hardworking, sweaty, pioneering (in its day) but conservative money. By that I mean money generated from pulling things off or out of the mountain or ocean. There hasn’t historically been much innovation in mining or logging or fishing – these are relatively conservative industries. And so the money it created is often conservative in that it looks for surefire hits. Projects people know will work before hand. In short, in Vancouver, no one gets fired for flying in three tenors.
Maybe in a bigger city, with more industry and confidence, things would be different. And Ross is smart to point out how small Vancouver actually is.
With a population of about 600,000, it’s a quarter the size of Toronto proper. Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal, and Ottawa have more citizens. Hell, Mississauga has more. Winnipeg has more. Vancouver’s American analogues are not Chicago and New York, but Charlotte, Memphis, El Paso. Include the metro area, and the population swells to 2.2 million, a third of metropolitan Toronto’s. If this city were an actor, it would acquit itself beautifully in a supporting role — Philip Seymour Hoffman before Capote. If it were a fighter, it would be a middleweight, albeit one so slick and well marketed that you think of it as belonging among the heavyweights — any of which would, in fact, clobber it.
To be fair, Vancouver is more dense than Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton (which is important) but it is also fractured by inlets and rivers. In Toronto probably a million people live within a 10 minute walk of the subway lines… that means a million people have quick access to one another – that’s a lot of connections that can be quickly made, a lot of groups that can easily gather. In Vancouver, it is tougher – although getting better. But Vancouver’s geography may be beautiful, but it is challenging to create a networked city in. Maybe this is why the city has so few of the trappings of a great city:
He rhymes off a list of shortcomings you won’t find in great cities: no downtown university with an adjoining student neighbourhood; no broad pedestrian promenade; no major civic square. A great city is a world unto itself, defying attempts to break it into its constituent elements. Berlin, Rome, New York: these are urban confabulations, memory vying with amnesia, civic magma bubbling and hardening under the weight of history. World-class city? It’s the world, not the city, that gets to decide. Penelope Chester, the daughter of a French publisher, studied in Paris and New York and Boston and travelled the planet before spending a year and a half in Vancouver working for an international NGO. Now based in Liberia, she liked Vancouver but noted that locals “have an exalted sense of their city’s standing in the world, without much experience of the world to support it.”
There is the escapism again. It’s as though the city is gun shy to really face the world, to welcome the harsh sting of criticism, especially when competing on things beyond its beauty. Unchecked the city’s conservative culture could turn it into a Pacific Northwest French Riviera – a play ground and escape for the world’s wealthy. I’m hoping we aim for some kind of green San Francisco/Portland hybrid. But that require competing with our brains. Which we can do, if we choose to. We just have to pick our spaces and align our brains with out values. And hey, when we do it things aren’t that bad:
By the most dependable benchmark we’ve devised — GHGs, or annual greenhouse gas emissions per capita — Vancouver (at 4.9 tonnes) is already the most eco-friendly city in North America, well ahead of New York (10.5 tonnes), Los Angeles (13 tonnes), Seattle (11.5 tonnes), and Toronto (11.6 tonnes). And in just about every reckoning of the world’s eco-friendly cities, Vancouver ranks up there with Reykjavik, Copenhagen, and Malmö.
But being green alone does not make for a great city. It requires a vision, an ability to weave together the different visions of what Vancouver could be, and, most of all, to acknowledge and talk to one another. Here Ross understands Vancouver like few other observers I’ve read. He’s right the Two Solitudes are different in Vancouver. While this city barely even knows its part of a national solitude (Indeed, it often barely knows its part of a country, – national identity isn’t disliked, people are quite found of and proud of being Canadian – its just more that its a vague afterthought) here the Solitudes that matter here are in the city, solitudes of neighbourhoods, wealth and ethnic communities…
You want drug addiction and wrenching, in-your-face psychosis the likes of which you’ll find nowhere else? Stroll through the Downtown Eastside, a twenty-square-block human zoo. Want to visit an Asian enclave that’s a cyberlike parallel universe? Check out the Aberdeen mall in Richmond, south of the city proper: two solitudes, Pacific variety.
Overcoming these solitudes is no insignificant challenge – and maybe the challenge for a city looking to its next step. Do its citizens want to tackle it? I don’t know. Vying to be a great city vs. staying in the velvet rut and settling for a really nice northern Charlotte. The former requires work, the latter… is effortless.
The great paradox of Vancouver is that as green and hippy as it is, it is also the most conservative city in Canada – not in how it votes, but it how it sees itself going forward. If the world tells you you are the best place on earth (which the UN or the Economist does almost every now) the natural question that emerges is… why change anything?
That’s the collective inertia that sometimes defines the place. So much individual talent, but collectively the energy, and the confidence, dissipates too quickly. Every once in a while it doesn’t… and that’s when the magic here really happens. My hope is that we can find a find a way to be like that all the time. That’s what I hope happens when we grow up.