Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


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Dividing Line

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It seemed certain after yesterday’s starry evening that the bizarrely persistent fog over Vancouver had finally lifted. For six days, the city has seemed more like San Francisco. Fog is not rare in Vancouver, but I’ve never witnessed a week of it. Unlike our alluded sister city to the south, we are accustomed to our city being beneath the clouds, not within them. I’m certain there’s a metaphor there somewhere.

The palm of Burrard Peninsula seemed broadly free at the end of the workday, when I took to my bike near Oak Street. The final descent down Cypress toward Burrard Bridge, however, yielded no sight of the city. A thick veil of white hung over False Creek, seemingly across the bridge deck, the usual grandeur of urban and natural landscape fully erased. Even in the rain, one can still admire a misty palette of grey and tan over the water. Even at night, beacons of light behind downtown glass shimmer and play off raindrops. The starkness of Burrard Bridge and its peak hour traffic, ending in abrupt and unflattering haze, was a striking sight and a reminder of all that Vancouver owes to its setting.

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Above the shroud, the fading light of the sun painted a dreamlike portrait of Martello Tower and the Alvar. The psychological and near-physical dividing line between the West End and Yaletown, the towers represent two eras and architectures, two philosophies and modes of living in Vancouver history. It’s a spot in the city that fascinates me, two sides of the downtown coin, separate but equal Vancouver visions of living in the clouds.

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How Hipsters are Saving Kitsilano

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The hipster is a recent arrival to Kitsilano. While skinny jeans and retro sweaters were a prominent feature of Main Street and environs more than five years ago, it was only last year that Le Château on 4th and Yew was replaced by Urban Outfitters. As such, the appearance of hipsters in Kitsilano is more superficial than genuine, a style change more than a cultural statement, as far as any hipster focus can be called authentic. It is, after all, a hallmark of hipster appropriation that original significance and context is turned on its head and stripped of meaning. Horn-rimmed glasses are now a cliché of ironic cool, rather than a signifier of 1950s popular fashion. In this sense, although the hipster influx to Kitsilano is once removed from that of Main Street — itself removed from originating holy sites such as Brooklyn — I don’t strongly distinguish the trend from hipsterism as a whole.

Before hipsters, I found Kitsilano an increasingly alien place. Its counterculture charms had been reduced to a few totems, such as the Naam and Yoga West, amid a sea of polished gentrification. Between all the dress shoes and neutral scarves, it began to resemble a suburban Yaletown with more strollers and nonexistent nightlife. With exception of the surreal beach scene anchored along Cornwall in summer — what Lance Berelowitz called our simulacrum of Southern California — 4th Avenue and West Broadway had become increasingly sterile shadows of their former selves.

I would posit that the hipster revival of Kitsilano in fact started at the beach. Two summers ago, seemingly in a flash, it became trendy among the beautiful and straight to wear pastels and cutoff jeans. This was a jarring contrast to the conservative athletic attire that preceded it. A similar style had been seen along downtown beaches for several years before, but it was always tangentially associated with the gayness of the West End, and thus remained there. The aesthetic softening of Kitsilano beach culture seemed to bridge Westside cool with the play of Main Street hipsterism that had taken root some years earlier, and thus led to a wider thaw in austere Kitsilano fashion. It took little more than a season for blazers and immaculate upscale hiking gear to be replaced by a stylized array of coats and leather jackets. As much as I like hiking gear, the result has been refreshing and indeed energizing. Adoption of hipster dress has been accompanied by a similar aping of eclecticism. I sometimes wonder if Zulu Records would have survived otherwise.

There is perhaps no better symbol of hipster reinvention in Kitsilano than 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, now seen as a cultural ambassador between Main Street and 4th Avenue. Once wedged into a narrow commercial space between Yew and Arbutus, I clearly recall the icy colour scheme of chocolate and sky blue, so representative of the stiffly dressed clientele. On the other side of the earth, a second location on Main Street had quickly flourished into see-and-be-seen hipster central, fused with the ironic cool of Lucky’s Doughnuts in hand-drawn international red.

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This spring, the original Kitsilano location of 49th Parallel was closed, to be reborn some months later at the former location of Kits Coffee at 4th and Arbutus. Only seven doors removed from the old space, the new corner café is fittingly located at the same crossroads where Urban Outfitters opened a year before. The decor is a world apart from its prior incarnation, the emotionless dark walnut and brushed nickel replaced by distressed pistachio shingles and vintage diner lights. Not surprisingly, it has been a wild success with the new generation of Kitsilano cool, a decidedly younger crowd than I ever imagined. When I see the motley staff singing classic rock while pulling shots of Epic Espresso, I feel there may be hope for the neighbourhood.

Is faux hipsterism a replacement for home-grown culture? Far from it. But the imagined alternative, where Kitsilano froze into permanent yuppie oblivion, is chilling indeed.

If you don’t quite know who hipsters are, watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAO4EVMlpwM


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Alleyway

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I had a conversation recently with a friend in Berkeley, reflecting on the need for safe and flexible urban spaces to facilitate art and expression in cities. By “flexible”, I mean mostly to euphemize “derelict”, because the low value and security of these spaces is ultimately what opens them to the hand of creativity and the housing of inconsistent incomes. The conversation was prompted by the enduring vitality of Berlin in these respects.

Vancouver has a shortage of such spaces, but in pockets of the Downtown Eastside they do exist. The thirst to make use of them seems muted, at least from my perspective as a non-producer. Is this a result of unrelated forces of law, crime, or even weather? Or does Vancouver lack the inherent spirit for such endeavours?