Sunday, May 21, 2006

Vancouver and the City Experience

Vancouver appears at the top of ‘best quality of life in a city’ charts. It was pipped to the post this year by Zurich and Geneva, suggesting mountains and lakes / bays come pretty high on the ‘ideal city’ agenda.

I tramped around downtown Vancouver for 6+ hours yesterday, including a good amount in Stanley Park(pictured). Playing virtual relocation games recently (a writer’s life is a transportable one) we came up with the West End of Vancouver as the best place to move to. Property prices were great at the time (they’ve since been soaring), and I loved the idea of Stanley Park’s many-hectared rainforest wilderness to walk in.

Now I know better. A fine ten mile concrete track around the coastline of the park is split between pedestrians and cyclists / rollerbladers. Relatively scarce tracks through the forest are pounded by joggers. It’s not wilderness at all but an urban experience, parkland as human exercise yard, seaplanes roaring overhead, a major traffic route cutting two roads up and down through the centre.

Then out into West End. Vancouver has a resident architectural genius, Arthur Erickson, (more on whom in a while when I go to visit his Anthropological Museum, here on the UBC campus). Like Frank Lloyd Wright he specializes in opening his cities to the landscape, so that they sit in harmony with it and wake and sleep to the play of natural light. The curator of an upcoming exhibition of his work says of him, “He kept on coming back to concrete, as he called it his muse. The poetry in his work was inspired by this material and its ability to suggest a permanence and develop a patina and the way it responds to light and its strength.” In the hands of a master maybe. In the West End they’ve simply taken the concrete and poured it into high rise blocks. One little square of ‘heritage’ housing fr0m the 1890s, wooden fascia and two storeyed, is left as a reminder of when the city was once human, before they tore it down.

“I’d like to see a greater density in the city itself,” says Erickson in this weekend’s Vancouver Sun interview. It’s surely happening. You can sign in for your apartment in ‘the Ritz’ today, or countless other deep holes in the ground set to reach above the crowds of other blocks towards the skies. Lots of glass is tinted turquoise or occasional sunset pink, in memory of the skies and the sense of space and reflected water they’re replacing. I kept tramping around, looking for some coffee space with an artistic feel, but Vancouver’s groundfloors have been leased by Starbucks. Out in the East there are some lowlying stretches, a Chinatown from the early 1900s and Gastown making something of its low ‘heritage’ buildings with a run of crap shops and restaurants. Vancouver loses 50% of my own ‘quality of life’ votes because I’m not a car. Santa Monica renewed itself by pedestrianizing 3rd Street. Gastown provides the perfect venue for such an upgrading, and a grid system that can absorb redirected traffic, but no, the people are crammed to the sidewalks and vehicles spew their fumes out in the centre. By Gastown my city experience had me weeping.

Two moments felt good. One was in Stanley Park, where I could focus on an empty horizon of sea straight ahead. The other was in walking across Burrard Bridge, looking out across the water, choking with fumes but leaving Downtoan behind me.

Just across the water is an area I did like, Kitsilano. Small buildings, a cinema with other than high-action bilge showing (I very much enjoyed Art School Confidential), good restaurants and shops and a neighbourhood feel. Such city living might be acceptable to me, even pleasant. It comes on a human scale.

I guess Arthur Erickson knows this too. He has lived in the neighbouring district of West Point Grey since 1957, and worked hard to make Robson Square in the city a “cultural and intellectual hub,” where writers and artists and poets could get together and enthuse and inspire. “That’s what we need to bring the city together. The intellectual approaches of these extraordinary people. If we could take it all to the area it would be quite unique.”

It sure would. And every time he’s gone back in recent years the place has been empty. Artists are a barometer of the soul of city life. Downtown Vancouver depressed me utterly and squeezed me out of itself, so that I might flourish once again.


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