I have not been to Vancouver, in any meaningful sense, in five years. By Vancouver I mean the real one, the one that in the states (and only in the states) we append with “B.C.” in order to distinguish it from a suburb of Portland, Oregon. On that first visit, I felt that I had been glimpsing the future, or at least one possible urban future. There was fast, frequent, metropolitan scale transit. There was high-rise transit-oriented development. There were multiple dense nodes throughout the metropolitan region, as well as an intensely developed downtown that mixed both historic and ultra-modern development.
This is not to say that the city had been perfect. Main and Hastings was still an infamous intersection not just of its two namesake streets, but of the heroin trade and urban decay. Gastown—Vancouver’s equivalent of Seattle’s Pioneer Square or Portland’s Old Town—was still a cotton candy and knick-nack ghetto. Despite the cosmopolitan pretensions of the city, you still had a hard time finding non-corporate coffee or a place to eat on the peninsula that wasn’t aimed at high priced businessmen’s lunches and even higher priced tourist and convention-goer fare. Five years on, however, and times have changed.
WOODWARD’S WAS THERE BACK IN 2009—and I mean the present one, the big red-and-blue condo tower that looms high above to border on the edge of Gastown. Then, the tower had struck me as something out of Niihama from Ghost in the Shell, or an unconventional and futuristic take on the Flatiron Building.
Woodward’s used to mean Vancouver’s big department store, a B.C. based rival to the Hudson’s Bay Company that was roughly equivalent to Sears in the states. In the 1990s, the company went bust, selling out to Hudson’s Bay, and the large facility on the east end of downtown went vacant. Now, though, Woodward’s means the redevelopment that took over the site of the former department store, including a 400-foot high, 43-story tower.
The development trades on its urbanity, a mixture of grit and sophistication that taps into the narrative of authenticity. Indeed the entire building becomes a kind of work of rhetoric, a foil for ideas about what urban living means. The atrium of the facility has, at one end, a large photo-mural mounted on glass, showing a graphic depiction of the 1971 Gastown riot. Policemen on horseback swing billy-clubs against pot-smoking hippies and street people in a crass display of culture warfare turning into the literal kind. Thus a key moment of counter-culture history has become—via the robes of art—a way of branding the Woodward as progressive, urbane, sensitive to the neighborhood and its history.
The photograph, however, was a re-enactment; in a town colloquially known as “Hollywood North,” the real intersection of Abbott Street and Cordova Street, as it appeared in August 1971, was reproduced in the 2008 parking lot of an amusement park out along Highway 1. History was thus recreated, then photographed by artist Stan Douglas, then installed as part of the corporate branding of an upmarket condominium tower.
To quote the Woodward’s slogan, used throughout its media marketing: “Be Bold or Move to Suburbia.”
MY HOTEL WAS LOCATED AT PENDER AND RICHARDS, the same as it had been five years before. Then, I had selected it because it was affordable, close to downtown, but not too close to Main & Hastings. I had found that it was perfect; fairly quiet, it was located near two used book stores and not far from the Waterfront Skytrain station, letting me get anywhere I needed to go with relative ease. Then, though, there was a slight air of Skid Row to the street; there were cheap diners and dives, marginal looking stores that sold smoking accouterment or travel services or check cashing. It was not far from the edge of Gastown, from where Woodward’s was, when Woodward’s—the tower—was new.
I don’t know why I expected that things would not have changed; after all, change is the natural state of urbanity. Woodward’s—or perhaps the city it represented—had changed much of it. Just around the corner from my hotel, across the street from hole-in-the-wall $2 pizza places and the questionable looking convenience stores, there was now a bar with cocktails, craft beer, handmade gyoza fried in authentic Japanese cast iron pans, and deep, pork-rich ramen soups.
A few blocks away, Save On Meats—a butcher-cum-cafe—had reopened along Hastings, offering classic diner fare. The food is excellent, and if you are worried that this is the bogey-man of gentrification, there is an easy solution. Wooden tokens are available for purchase, redeemable for a breakfast sandwich, no questions asked. If you feel guilty, you can buy one,and give it to someone on the street. Gentrification solved. It’s good food, a welcome addition to the block and the neighborhood, and fraught with all the conflicting questions with no answers that gentrification brings.
Even Gastown itself is not safe. The cotton candy and caramel corn atmosphere is shifting, slowly. There are still homeless here, panhandling from the tourist trade, but many of the gift shops are now gone. Simply put, the tourist has a much harder time finding commemorative Canadian license plate frames or stickers or keychains or jade rings or crystal fragments or 14k gold chains or stuffed Royal Canadian Mounted Police plushies. If you want your Canada in the canned, maple-syrup flavored variety, you will be disappointed with much of Gastown, and may resolve yourself to buying your trinkets at YVR. In the place of these traditional vendors, there are now a half dozen coffee shops, perhaps twice as many bars, places selling “Carolina pulled pork” or “50 beers on tap” or “almost famous fish and chips.” There is even a hat store—not Lids, not some knockoff baseball hat store, but “Hastings Hattery,” a hipster haberdasher. There would not have been a haberdasher on Hastings Street in 2009.
As you walk down Water Street, you’re likely to find as many interior decorating stores as trinket shops, each offering furniture meant to evoke the designs of Charles and Ray Eames without infringing on Herman Miller’s intellectual property rights. Kitsch has been replaced with Kitchen stores, one of which placed upon its window glass a Julia Child quote that, read differently than it was spoken, sums up this sort of lifestyle: “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”
“DISTANCE AVAILS US NOT” SAID WALT WHITMAN, “and place avails not.”
Vancouver in 2009 was exotic, seeming so far in the future that we, in the states, could never catch up. It was a benchmark, a role model, a fantasy to which cities like Seattle and Portland aspired, the cosmopolitan other on the other side of the least exotic and most exotic international border in existence.
Yet walking along the streets of Gastown, Vancouver feels eerily familiar. Sure the details differ. The exact forms of the buildings, their styles, their ages, they all differed. Yet it was hard not to feel, in Gastown, that I was walking through a familiar place, a street very much like, to cite one example, Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. We in the states—in those cities growing and thriving, in the San Franciscos and Seattles, the Portlands and the Oaklands—have more and more caught up Vancouver, sometimes even surpassing it in our absurdities.
We are now, like Whitman crossing the Brooklyn Ferry, among “the current rushing so swiftly.” As the distance has receded, Vancouver is no longer the exotic, no longer so much the other. Vancouver is less an “ism,” and more a morally opaque and complex organism—more of a city, less of an idea—for all the good and bad that entails.
(Many thanks to UBC’s Elvin Wyly for showing me Save On Meats and telling me the story of the Woodward’s and its mural.)