Vancouver was a stately if inelegant place when I last visited it 26 years ago. The harbor was a breathtaking sight, although the downtown area was rundown and the architecture undistinguished. Still, Vancouver was memorable because it was a city framed by mountains, with extraordinary vistas and a congenial climate. It had a rare calm and charm, the kind of charm that lures you into returning.
Obviously the mountains, the vistas, and the congenial climate haven’t disappeared. Moreover, Vancouver has developed its inner city. Gastown, the old city, now has precious shops and bistros that rival any in San Francisco, and Pacific Center Mall is reputedly the largest underground mall on the continent. All the chic stores can be found here, from Laura Ashley to Ralph Lauren. The area surrounding Stanley Park has high-rise apartments with high-rise rental fees. Granville and Maritime, once pristine islands at the gateway of the harbor, are now built-up middle-class neighborhoods with museums and playgrounds and are the site of a world-famous bathtub race—bathtubs outfitted with outboard engines racing across the harbor. Bv any measure Vancouver has entered the ranks of the world’s greatest cities. Yet this is only part of the story, perhaps the least important part.
When Vancouver was discovered by the cognoscenti in the 60’s, it became a melting pot for every nationality and every “lifestyle.” Its local government, as well as its atmosphere, promoted liberal ideas, manifest in permissiveness. While the surrounding residents of British Columbia are notably conservative, Vancouver is latitudinarian. Robson Street—one of the main shopping streets—has a gravitational pull for thrillseekers, not unlike Greenwich Village in New York. When San Francisco started to lose its allure in the 70’s, due in part to the enormous immigration there, many of its residents headed north to Seattle and Vancouver.
Vancouver one is minutes from skiing and seconds from the beach. Kayaking and sledding are easily possible in the same day. But these assets, along with the city’s permissiveness, have created a dark underbelly apparent even to the weekend tourist. Vancouver is inundated with freaks. They can be found on every corner, in every alcove; the drugged-out detritus of the 60’s has its counterpart in the street beggars of the present. Most are a peaceful, if annoying, presence, but some are cloying and persistent. The once peaceful streets of Vancouver are noisy with street sounds, and violence has raised its ugly head in a city once devoid of it. From stately past to decadent present, Vancouver has caught the urban disease.
Motorcyclists pierce the air with the throttle at full blast. Teenagers from the Far East who barely speak English punctuate every sentence with the “f-word,” as if this is a sign of their newly discovered manhood. Homosexuals sit shirtless in second-floor windows, eyeing the parade of visitors on Robson Street. The thumping, pulsating sound of rock music flows from the many clubs at street level. Like many cities, this one is a phantasmagoria of sights, sounds, and smells.
In some ways Vancouver is surprising. Not only is this not the city of two decades ago, it is a city trying desperately to catch up with the excesses of urban life on the rest of the continent. Long hair on males once voguish elsewhere is clearly in vogue here. Earrings in the nose and lips are almost a calling card among the young. Street musicians make it hard to walk on the sidewalks. And beggars, mostly young, say with an air of experience, “Gan you spare some change?”
Like many cities, Vancouver is a mixed bag. A walk through Stanley Park offers staggeringly beautiful harbor scenes, and the Douglas fir trees rise to the sky like centurions guarding the city. There is something jejune, almost childlike, in this city where play is a preoccupation and narcissism an obsession. Vancouver does indeed retain some of its distinctive character.
Yet, this said, I don’t really care whether I see this place again. The hardness already evident on the streets will most likely grow worse. The permissiveness (read: tolerance) will breed a new generation of immigrants far more interested in bringing their old ways to Canada than in assimilating to the ways of their host country. This, too, will be accepted by a city caught in the grip of urban pseudo-sophistication. The Vancouver of my memory has faded, replaced by a Vancouver shorn of its romance and stateliness. It is merely a big city located in a beautiful spot. Perhaps it should simply be appreciated for what it is, since it will not recapture what it once was.