Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast

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The Kits Boomer Dilemma

Vancouver Spring 2016 001.JPG

Working at the Kitsilano Collaborative Garden this past weekend, we were approached by a few passing patrons of the Community Centre. A silver-haired woman in colourful clothing and friendly mood tentatively inspected a bed of perennials near the sidewalk.

“I like how you’ve separated the soil with rocks. I was thinking of doing that in my garden!” I encouraged her to try bricks instead. The crushed rock was cheaper, but seems to perpetually fall out of place.

“So do you live nearby?” I asked.

“Oh yes, just on Balaclava. But the maintenance on my house is a lot of work, especially for my husband. I wish we could downsize and stay in Kitsilano, maybe with a smaller garden.”

I had encountered the typical Kits Boomer. She bought around 1980, as the neighbourhood emerged from boarding house dilapidation to heritage desirability. She has a room full of books. She carries a distinctive beads-and-granola air. She knows her neighbours and has always loved living here. But she’s tired of taking care of an aging house, and wonders if she should cash out. The classic Kits Boomer dilemma.

Some have chosen to take the money and move on. Others have become reluctant landlords. A few have even hired developers to restore and stratify, where zoning allows it. But I suspect most will simply stay put, perhaps deferring property taxes. Which leads me to the next thought: what will happen as the Kits Boomers pass away?

Will their children inherit the homes? Will the neighbourhood become wealthy legacy families and UBC students only? Or will the lure of investor money, assuming no collapse of home values, be irresistible to their benefactors? Will Kitsilano retain its latent values of environmentalism and progressive politics — already under threat — as the aging personalities of the counterculture disappear?

I like to think of my block as one small bulwark against the demise of Kitsilano as a healthy and conscious community. But I see how many Kits Boomers number among my neighbours. What will my community be like when they are gone?


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Vancouver Pillow Shots: Chinatown

Vancouver Chinatown mural

It takes knowledge to understand others,
but it needs a clear mind to know oneself.

It takes strength to surpass others,
but it requires a strong will to surpass oneself.

– Lao Tsu

See previous Vancouver Pillow Shots.

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Vancouver Winter 2015 Jericho

In Vancouver, the winter runs November through January. In these three months we receive half of our annual rainfall, with temperatures steady in the single digits. Days — if you can call them that — run about eight and a half gloomy hours, usually the same hours the average worker passes under fluorescent lighting. If Vancouver in summer is exuberant, bright, and paradisaical, then the grim weeks from Remembrance Day through January are the subdued, grey price we pay for it. I call it the Tunnel of Darkness. I hibernate through the voyage, dreaming of cherry blossoms and distracting my waking moments with wet commutes, work, and books.

As January comes to a close, with daily high temperatures reaching beyond ten and light lingering on the afternoon horizon, the schadenfreude of realizing how miserably cold true Canadian winters east of the Rockies are reminds us: it’s nearly over.

The graceful ascent toward spring has begun.

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Vancouver Pillow Shots: Kitsilano Pool in Autumn

Birds in Kitsilano Pool
The birds have returned to Kitsilano Pool, taking station until next spring. In autumn, more than any other season, low clouds cling to the North Shore mountains like veils. The mush of decaying leaves, the increasingly sodden earth, and the dim light of afternoon seem far removed from the seaside frolic of summer.

Some leaves have not yet turned, yet I am already dreaming of cherry blossoms. On an especially wet ride down 7th Avenue, between Cypress and Maple, I found solace in the clear memory of pedaled hanami. This alone is enough to lighten my spirits in January, but the buds seem impossibly far away in November.

Previous Vancouver Pillow Shots here

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Return to the Periphery

False Creek South summer

Summer has departed in my absence. My mind turns to the dark months ahead, and the garden of relationships that ease their passage.

We live in such a lovely city. The sky is tremendous. I often lose myself in the aesthetic qualities of this place. My connection with the world is a strongly visual one, and Vancouver’s ethereal appearances play a major role in why I chose to live here. Yet my return feels flat in human dimensions, perhaps in unavoidable contrast to summer brightness and the levity of travel.

The trip I returned from was a formative one. Yet I find few are interested, or indeed even recognize the places I have been. I find it incomprehensible not to express curiosity, not to allow another the fragile opportunity to share experiences and offer a more complete picture of the world. Instead I feel shut away, often with the coda that it could have been shared on Facebook. Maybe I don’t belong in my generation. I am baffled by the lack of candor and directness by my peers, by the digital sieve through which we compulsively pour our raw experiences. I see the Millennial mind as a vacuous and dangerously compartmentalized one. I am frightened by the prospect of this generation making the great decisions of the world. We can’t even talk to one another about frank impressions or unmediated feelings. Everything is so rigorously couched, so furtive and processed for public view, that I fear we no longer even listen to ourselves. Privacy has become an embarrassment, sincerity a liability.

Perhaps this is inescapable, and a common pattern of all Millennials in developed economies. Perhaps we are all becoming digitally dissociated by simulacra of ourselves on tiny screens, unable to actually converse with the person sitting beside us or hold an unexpected conversation. Perhaps I shouldn’t even look for this, for I will always be disappointed against the current of our times.

Yet I am dogged by a sensation that I am somehow doing it wrong, as if Vancouver’s peculiar shyness can somehow be unraveled by skill. As if by some subtle change of perspective or undiscovered social channel I will find a way to communicate with others in a way that makes me feel less alone and more human. Perhaps this is illusory. It sometimes drives me mad.


On Lotusland

Vancouver Lotusland 1

Vancouver is sometimes called Lotusland, a reference to the Lotus-eaters of Odyssey IX. The Lotus-eaters lived blissfully on fruits of the lotus plant, a kind of opiate, which once fed to Odysseus’ sailors sapped away their desire for homeward struggle. One translation of the passage follows thus:

For nine days I was driven by fierce winds over the teeming sea: but on the tenth we set foot on the shores of the Lotus-eaters, who eat its flowery food. On land we drew water, and my friends ate by the ships. Once we had tasted food and drink, I sent some of the men inland to discover what kind of human beings lived there: selecting two and sending a third as herald. They left at once and came upon the Lotus-eaters, who had no thought of killing my comrades, but gave them lotus to eat. Those who ate the honey-sweet lotus fruit no longer wished to bring back word to us, or sail for home. They wanted to stay with the Lotus-eaters, eating the lotus, forgetting all thoughts of return. I dragged those men back to the shore myself by force, while they wept, and bound them tight in the hollow ships, pushing them under the benches. Then I ordered my men to embark quickly on the fast craft, fearing that others would eat the lotus and forget their homes. They boarded swiftly and took their place on the benches then sitting in their rows struck the grey water with their oars.

Further themes of the Lotus-eaters were elaborated by Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem The Lotos-Eaters. These included a passivity toward human struggle and a surrender to peaceful hedonism. It is here that Vancouver’s nickname finds its most chilling reflection. Indeed, Lotusland is as much an aspiration as an accusation against our polis. We live by the pleasure principle, our city being organized for enjoyment and harmony, but do not care for weightier matters.

Vancouver Lotusland 2

The popular inattention to news, ideas, or history that permeates Vancouver is perhaps our greatest hindrance to global status. We have everything else: a spectacular setting, good infrastructure, excellent urban design, and decent arts. But engaging Vancouverites in difficult questions of purpose, morality, cosmopolitanism, or any other ponderous subject from the Old World — or even Central Canada — can seem an exercise in futility. Opinions are in short supply. We cannot be a leading urban population without engaging in debate and aspiring to a shared sense of creative and intellectual dialogue. Among the young adults of Vancouver, the taste for this is virtually absent. The many delights of living here — the beaches, the seawall, the ski slopes, the yoga studios, and engineered “conviviality” — can be thought of as fruits of Lotusland. Are we fundamentally content to eat the Vancouver lotus, when any great society demands more?

One wonders if the Lotus-eaters also suffered a shared anxiety of social isolation, between moments of drowsy bliss.

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The Kitsilano Ideal

Kitsilano Pool Opens
Kitsilano’s tranquil, green streets hide the third highest population density in Vancouver, distantly trailing the West End but not far behind Fairview. Mount Pleasant is likely to climb as a dozen high-density developments populate the eastern end of South False Creek, but has not yet overtaken the many rambling wood-frame apartments and secondary suites west of Burrard.

Kitsilano Pool is, for many in the area, the apotheosis of high-amenity, medium-density living, an ideal that could never be properly realized among the towers of the downtown peninsula. Even Second Beach Pool, a great outdoor experience in its own right, is set amid the towering cedars of Stanley Park, not the towering glass or concrete seen a kilometre east. Could either pool work in David Lam or George Wainborn Park? Would Kitsilano Pool be the same without its seaside village charm, and would Second Beach Pool be so transporting were it removed from the forest?

A looming question for Kitsilano is whether and how the neighbourhood will densify. The gentle stroll or bike ride to Kitsilano Pool on a sunny weekend is a rare thing in our increasingly populated world, the sublime expression of a holiday at home without ribbons of cement or shadows of concrete. But the geographic and demographic fate of Kitsilano is to house many more people than it currently does. Can Elysium grow to accommodate more, or is lotusland a limited fragment in history, to be forever transformed by higher human density in decades ahead?

Kitsilano Pool Opens