Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


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The New Normal

Kitsilano Beach Park Bikes
A weekend breath of summer swept Vancouverites to the seaside. Kitsilano Beach has revealed itself suddenly, turning the usually sleepy promenade into a near-daily spectacle of young people living out fantastic, pleasurable lives. By foot, by bus, by car, and increasingly by bicycle, the seasonal pageantry of Cornwall has arrived.

Even I’ve been surprised by the cultural presence of bicycles in Kitsilano in these first long, reliably warm days. It is a neighbourhood that was loudly resistant to removal of parking and pushed back against initial drafts of the York bikeway. The City removed proposed counterflow lanes between Vine and Maple, opting instead to retain on-street parking in the final design. Some young Kitsilano residents heaped derision on the City’s new bike schemes, often with indignation that they would no longer be able to drive absolutely everywhere they wanted. If you’ve lost Kitsilano youth, I thought at the time, you’ve probably lost the centre-left vote in Vancouver.

Instead, I’ve seen drivers slowly adapt to the new stop signs along York, and a much larger number of bikes arriving at the beach. Local Pub has even installed a hanging bicycle rack beside their patio as a kind of design statement, creatively alleviating the lack of rack space for their clientele. If you’ve managed to get Kitsilano tank tops and aviators to Local by bicycle, then you’ve probably won the centre-left vote. In my mind, this is a more surprising turn than seeing families pedaling along Point Grey Road. This is the new normal.

Kitsilano Bikes Local

As always in Vancouver, the question persists as to whether improved infrastructure along York and Point Grey Road will see any practical use in rainy months. Volume on Vancouver’s most popular bikeways falls by nearly two-thirds between summer and winter, and even more precipitously in the case of Burrard Bridge. One could argue that the absence of protected bikeways through Kitsilano perhaps contributed to Burrard’s poor seasonal figures to date, or that tourism overwhelmingly boosts the summer total versus other monitored lanes. But it’s also possible that few Kitsilano residents will ever commute downtown by bicycle in winter, preferring bus or automobile given the proximity. We won’t know until the end of the year whether closing Point Grey Road, improving bicycle priority on York, and streamlining the intersection at Cornwall and Burrard will make any dent in Burrard bicycle volumes during the chill, drizzly days of January.

Kitsilano Bikes York Yew

If the only real success of the Seaside Greenway and York Bikeway is to facilitate enjoyment of the waterfront, and not to increase overall cycling mode share, that’s not such a failure. Completing a safe and comfortable route from Jericho to Kitsilano Beach Park, and connecting on to the rest of the seawall, was the primary goal of the project. Transportation 2040 objectives were always spoken of in a secondary way. But transit has more or less reached its limit serving this community in the absence of capital-intensive rapid transit. Take any packed 2 or 22 bus downtown on a November rush hour — they arrive every two or three minutes — and you’ll see what I mean. Getting Kitsilano commuters on bikes is the only way you’ll get more of them out of their cars. Heading to the beach, at least, we may be off to a good start.

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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