My city was gone

Sweetie and I live in a small city near Vancouver. We own a detached house. We have good jobs. We have even saved for retirement. We're the kind of people who can afford to live here. But as we near retirement, I'm not sure that I want to live here anymore.

Like the woman who wrote an article in The Province, I fell in love with Vancouver when I first came here over 20 years ago. Seeing the mountains so close by was what really did it, but it was also the water (and beaches), the neighbourhoods, and even occasionally (very occasionally) the buildings. I say very occasionally because Vancouver was already somewhat lacking in character. The beauty of the city was, and still is, more about the surroundings.

When I first arrived, I was working only part time as a technical writer and as an extra in films and television. I managed to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the not-yet-hip neighbourhood of Hastings-Sunrise, a decent place with a view of downtown and the mountains for only $495 a month. Having more time than money, and no car yet, I loved that I could reach Lynn Canyon Regional Park by bus and, after a short walk, be in the back country. Before I realized it was shorter to take a bus to Phibbs Exchange and then another bus, I used to ride the Seabus to Lonsdale Quay—functional but also fun! When I bought a bicycle, I ranged along False Creek and English Bay, sometimes all the way to UBC and back.

When Sweetie completed her master's degree and moved up from Seattle, we were able to rent the floor of a house at the far eastern end of Hastings-Sunrise, right next to Burnaby. We enjoyed that area. We did a lot of shopping in Burnaby Heights and bird watching in Montrose Park, a small gem at the foot of North Boundary Road on Burrard Inlet.

Fifteen years ago when we wanted to buy, we looked first at condominium units. But having lived in a house for a while, we couldn't figure out how to fit ourselves and our stuff into 600 square feet, even with a storage locker. After an improvement in our financial situation, we starting to look at houses. But even then, houses in Vancouver, even in East Van (where we would have loved to live) were either too expensive for us or somewhat marginal properties. As reluctant as we were to leave Vancouver, we looked outside the city and found a small but cozy heritage house in an area that is well connected to downtown by transit.

Now, of course, that house—or rather the land it sits on—is valued at far more than we paid for it. While Vancouver property has gone out of sight, the rest of the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley are not far behind. We might be able to sell our house and buy another, but we would be severely indebted at an age when neither of us wants that.

Greater Vancouver seems to be all about property speculation now. It wears me down when there is so much talk about real estate. Is that all we are about anymore? We still have a thriving arts scene, but for how much longer? How much longer will restaurants and small shops be able to afford to do business? We already know that tech start-ups are having trouble finding young developers, since prospective employees are unable to buy or even rent anywhere near where they would work. We wonder about heading to the Victoria area, but land speculation has begun to spread there as well.

Speculation leads not only to a lack of affordable housing but to an even greater loss of character. Beautiful old houses are being torn down with alarming regularity. Someone tweeted that our heritage might not be heritage for the buyers, might not be their heritage, and that's a fair point. But if heritage and older buildings of all kinds are torn down, will Vancouver become generic? Will it be completely about its surroundings, having no other distinctiveness at all? The great cities of Europe combine new building with preservation of their heritage. Many U.S. cities also retain a distinctive character as they modernize. But I fear that Vancouver could be picked up and dropped somewhere without its surroundings and no one would know which city it was.

I realize there are many reasons for the shine going off a city, many of them more personal than about the city itself. Before we came here, I had loved Boston for two decades before feeling that it was just time for a change of scene. There is still so much I love about Vancouver and the surrounding area. But it's starting to wear me down—the real estate speculation, the hollowing-out, the political inaction (at least for anything good, and that's at the provincial level too), and the decimated music scene. Just today, the Railway Club shut its doors. That's a loss for both music and heritage.

When we no longer can or want to deal with the two flights of stairs in our house, could we end up elsewhere? There are cities we love in the United States, although many of them suffer the same land squeeze as Vancouver, especially San Francisco and New York but also Portland and Seattle. We adore Kauai, but we both feel that we probably couldn't live there year round, even if we could afford it. And all of those places have a major drawback: they're in the U.S. The political culture has only got worse since we moved away.

Oh, Italia. Would it really be possible to retire to the Adriatic coast?

1 comment:

MoonGoddess said...

Vancouver is one of my favorite cities. The second is a small village in Northern Ireland and where I live now is fine. It is close to family, at least the family I like, and when I move this year, it will be in this same village. US/Upper Midwest.

As for our politics, the election year we are experiencing has brought out all the messy beliefs and opinions and behavior that some of candidates have somehow kept hidden fairly well. It is messy and often disheartening. Sometimes heartbreaking.