One of my favourite hobbies is Moping About Vancouver. This is partially an Early Twenties Nostalgia thing, because who doesn’t look back on their early twenties and see it in candy coloured light and want to soundtrack it and idealize it and frame that time up in Lucite as The Best Time Ever? (High school, for the record, is somehow always the worst, even for people who didn’t seem to hate it at the time).
My moping over Vancouver is not entirely nostalgia though. Vancouver really is a fairy tale city. It’s unbelievably beautiful, set in a break in the mountains on the edge of the ocean. I mean, look at the photos on the tourism website! It’s a city of glass that looks like a science fiction city on the edge of the natural world. Yet it still has miles and miles of old neighbourhoods with only Craftsman houses to be seen. The sky is laced with fir trees in winter and cherry blossoms in spring, so many of the latter that the blossoms pile up in drifts in the gutters in March. I don’t know how so many movies have managed to disguise the city (hint: USAToday boxes). And in the time I lived in southwest British Columbia, Vancouver still had the counterculture allure of the West Coast cities, all of the hippie culture my mother’s generation brought with them – now a parody of itself from Lululemon on down, but still very much in earnest in 2003.
Now, I’m realizing, Vancouver was a fairy tale city. Article after article shows up in my feed about how people my age are leaving the city. And over and over I hear the same line: that people are breaking up with Vancouver. That they’re leaving it the same way they would a lover. That it’s the end of a relationship. I hear this as a Matt Good track off, well, “Vancouver”. I know you, so you know me…but us remains impossible.
(I especially appreciate how nostalgic people are for early aughts Vancouver as a time before the housing crisis got ridiculous. It was certainly trending towards ridiculous in my West Side world, although I could likely have slipped over the border of Main Street and had a very different experience)
A few weeks ago, I was comparing travel notes with another mom from Ben’s class. I’d taken Ben to Switzerland to visit a friend from Vancouver; she’d taken her family to Vancouver to visit a friend she knew from Brooklyn. She was raving about the city, how beautiful it was, how great the food was, how much she had enjoyed it, without realizing that I was from British Columbia. When I mentioned that I had been in Basel for the wedding of a friend from Vancouver, she said, “I didn’t know you were from there! Why would you ever leave?”
“Well, it’s like New York housing,” I explained. “Only with about 60% of the wages to pay for it.” That’s usually the point where people look actually shocked. And by “people”, I mean “people from New York”, which is about as expensive as you can get in North America. No one here will blink at paying $1,000 a square foot to buy a chunk of Brooklyn, but only if they make money proportional to it. The idea of not making that money and still having to pay that rate for housing is terrifying. I shudder even thinking of it.
I still stalk Vancouver more than I ever have any old relationship. I read Doug Coupland books (and, briefly, jPod the TV series) and listen to Matt Good Band albums and mope. I watched the entire run of Continuum for no reason other than the fact that it was the Vancouver-iest thing on TV, nevermind that it literally made no sense by the third season. I’ll occasionally even check out the twenty year old tech of the KatKam (“Hello freighters nestled in the bay!”). I read Ben Good Night Vancouver until he knew it by heart.
And like most relationships, I regret deeply the missed opportunities. I regret that I didn’t take the time or opportunity to know the city better, that I never lived anywhere in Old Vancouver, on the East Side, that I always stayed in Kitsilano where it was familiar, where it was close to my friends and the university and looked a lot like my actual home of Victoria. I regret that I didn’t learn Vancouver the way I learned Los Angeles when I moved there, that I didn’t study the city and its development and change, the waves of immigration and extremes of society that built the city on that chunk of flattish land between the Fraser River and the Narrows. My sister bought me Vancouver Was Awesome for Chrismukkah a couple years ago and I’m fascinated seeing the old city, one so like Victoria, one I only ever saw ghost outlines of under all that futuristic glass.
And yet, I have no intent of going back to make up that time with the city. I’m not looking at job listings or apartment listings: even in the days after November 9th, 2016, I looked at Toronto, because I only wax nostalgic and I’m actually extremely practical and pragmatic. Still, going back isn’t out of the question, either: the exchange and the equity in my Brooklyn apartment would allow us to purchase something at 20% down. If Paul and I both had jobs, we would probably be OK. Not great, but OK. Our quality of life wouldn’t be much different – we’d save less for retirement and Ben’s college, we’d pay more into taxes instead.
I still recognize that “if we had jobs” is a big fat IF though. I left to find a career in the first place, and Paul’s work is specialized enough that it is challenging to find a fit for him in the Tri-State area, much less on the edge of the world in a country he’s not a citizen of. Nothing’s impossible, I’m told, and yet I feel like for us to have the same sort of ease of life we do in NYC, the same sort of careers, the same sort of income to housing ratio, I have to tell my former city, I’m sorry, but us remains impossible, Vancouver.
I also remind myself when I’m moping that I love living in New York City. I grew up in BC, but this is my actual ancestral homeland, as proven by the fact that overall pushiness makes me a perfect fit for NYC. I have a career type job in marketing, in the epicenter for my industry. I experience and learn so much here every day that I would never have learned in my safe corner of Canada. Right now, much of that is about how completely fucked up America is, but at least I am learning something and spurred into action by it, which is a lot better than complacency, idleness and stagnation.
I remind myself that I left British Columbia to See the World, which, at the time, consisted of Living in Los Angeles. Now it consists of Living in New York With The Occasional Trip to Europe. I look at Manhattan when I come back across the GW Bridge each day, at the towers bathed in golden light, and I think, this is my home now, and I know the two boroughs I spend the most time in as well as I ever knew Vancouver – and I still have barely scratched the surface of New York City and of America and of all the things I can be curious about and learn and experience here.
(Oh, and I also left on a sort of quest to find my True Love, which actually took less than two years of the thirteen since I left. I assume if I had wanted to go back, I would have taken my husband and retreated by now.)
Over the last few years, my moping has been taking on a different sort of nostalgia than it did when I was a homesick twenty six year old in West L.A. Now, as I read article after article about people leaving Vancouver, I realize I am moping over a Vancouver that is gone, that in reality, what remains is a city my friends are abandoning for the suburbs, for Vancouver Island, or for Canada’s other cities where they can afford housing for their own growing families. My family have moved to Toronto; my friends from UBC have scattered across Canada. Vancouver has become too needy, too high maintenance, too much for any of us.
This isn’t a Vancouver phenomenon, obviously. It’s the same thing that’s happened here in New York, to TriBeCa, to the East Village, to downtown Brooklyn, to even the north edges of my neighborhood in Prospect Heights. But even though I live in New York, and have had to watch Brooklyn’s neighborhoods bleed out their neighborhood culture from a thousand luxury condo cuts, I grieve for Vancouver more. Now it’s changed so much, I suspect I wouldn’t be able to love the city the same way even if I had a magic opportunity to go back with the same sort of quality of life I have here.
There are dozens of posts about the Vancouver housing crisis from people who didn’t leave in 2004. This is my love letter, my own sadness, my own loss at the city I called home, a slightly idealized, candy coloured look at a place I lived in when I was twenty-six, that I left because I was going to outgrow it, even if I hadn’t already. The reasons I left will always be good, and the decision to leave when I did will always be the right one (it’s given me a career and a husband and a son and a ridiculous adventure of just being American) but that isn’t going to stop me from moping at an expert level for the version of the city I left in 2004, and over empathizing with every breakup article. Oh Vancouver, us remains impossible.
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