Utopia Revisited


A recent visit to Canada’s west coast metropolis of Vancouver, where I lived from 1994 to 2007, was a reflective experience. For most of my residence there I was happy to be in a city fast becoming one of the world’s most attractive destinations: where The X-Files was filmed; where rockers Aerosmith, Metallica, and Bryan Adams recorded bestselling albums; where whale-watching, snowboarding, and marijuana growing were common pastimes (though not for me); where Bill Clinton held a summit with Boris Yeltsin and Jean Chretien joked about pepper spray. For several years I worked at the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library, an architectural landmark known internationally. I dined in sushi restaurants on Robson Street; took the Skytrain transit line downtown from my home in Burnaby; enjoyed strolling around the Stanley Park Seawall and wandering in Kitsilano; made it up the Grouse Grind a couple of times and through the shopping complex of Metrotown frequently; and I loved seeing snow on the mountain peaks in the heat of an urban summer.

Yet for many people Vancouver remains unliveable. Largely this is due, of course, to the Lower Mainland’s notorious cost of living – a modest two-bedroom detached home can cost over a million dollars here – which has long been lamented by economists, politicians, and social scientists across the country. Outrageous housing prices bedevil other large cities too, notably Toronto, but in Vancouver they are a chronic condition. Another problem, though, is not financial but cultural.

The Lower Mainland is both Canada’s gateway to and from Asia, and the terminus of westward migration within Canada itself. Vancouver’s development boom has thus been driven by hundreds of thousands of arrivals new to the city, the province, the nation and the continent. All the time, local and regional leaders have attempted to build a community better than the older municipalities back east: cleaner, fairer, healthier, more efficient. In some ways they have succeeded (the Winter Olympics of 2010 have been hailed as an example), but in other areas they have been unable to cope. Multitudes of strivers from over the ocean, for whom Vancouver is a new beginning, and from across Canada, for whom it’s a last chance, have overwhelmed them.

So determined have been Vancouver’s civic officials to administer an inclusive postmodern city-state, they have sought to accommodate diverse populations who are themselves uninterested in coexistence: the hardcore lefties of Commercial Drive; the gay and lesbian lifestylists of the West End; the politicized underclass of the Downtown East Side; strident Native activists; and an influx of east and south Asian immigrants in Richmond and Surrey whose demographic and linguistic isolation discourages any incentive to assimilate into the wider Canadian mosaic. Add to the mix the gentrifying yuppies of Yaletown, the old-money elites of Shaughnessy and Kerrisdale, and the commuting suburbanites of Coquitlam, Maple Ridge, White Rock and Langley. Each group seeks something different – and incompatible – from the same finite local infrastructure: bike lanes; safe-injection clinics; services in Mandarin; social housing; affordable condos; legalized cannabis; pride parades; Sikh schools; green design; more expressways; Aboriginal land rights; a winning hockey team. The result is a city of solitudes – slickly self-assured on the surface, but bitterly fragmented underneath. Even as Vancouver projects an idyllic image to the rest of the planet, it becomes more of a dystopia for the people who actually live there.

Perhaps the strained effort to be all things to all inhabitants affects every city of Vancouver’s size and growth rate, or perhaps Vancouver’s futile niceness is a holdover from its history as Canada’s hippie lotus land. Watching the sun set over the Lion’s Gate bridge as cargo ships from the far corners of the earth gather in the Burrard Inlet, it is easy to forgive these pretensions. Natural beauty aside, though, Vancouver still exhibits its longstanding Blade Runner dichotomy of gleaming, high-tech towers above and teeming, mutually resentful hordes below, the same polarized dynamic that has driven at least some residents away. No one should regret time spent in Vancouver – I certainly don’t regret my time – but ex-Lower Mainlanders like me can certainly regret how the scenic, seedy metropolis continues to alienate its own citizens.

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