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?


Big city of dreams

New York is a city that draws me. When I was a musician in Boston, we always talked about moving to New York, a much bigger city with much more happening. Some did move. Some, like me, just visited with our friends who moved. Sometimes, I still feel a desire to live there. I make do with visiting often.

New York is now a long flight (or two) and an international border crossing away. I have spoken with people in Vancouver who have never been to New York. The flight is expensive and so is staying anywhere in or near the city. But still I am drawn, and for me it's worth all the 75-cent Canadian dollars that it costs.

Sweetie and I flew there last Thursday. Her uncle and aunt (who live just north of the city) generously picked us up at LaGuardia Airport and brought us to our hotel—on the Upper West Side, but a good deal via Flight Centre. Then we went to a restaurant not far away called Parm, a red sauce place in a former deli. Excellent Italian-American food, great service, and a fun place! We were even recruited by a woman at the next table to sing "Happy Birthday" to her boyfriend. I guess we seemed like people who would do such a thing. I guess our boisterousness was a giveaway!

Little by little we discovered the attractions of our neighbourhood, which included a French café called Maison Kayser where we had a light breakfast on Friday morning. We spent the rest of the day with the uncle and aunt. We always go to the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) with them (they're members), so that's where we went. We will never see all the wonderful exhibits there! This time we took in a special exhibit of (mostly) portraits by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the first woman admitted to the Académie, as well as an exhibit of Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age and one of vintage timepieces. After a tour of a Fairway Market, which has absolutely every kind of food known to humankind, and Eataly, a collection of Italian-themed food shops and restaurants, we met Sweetie's cousin, her uncle and aunt's elder daughter, at Hill Country, as close to Texas barbecue as you can get in the north. Wonderful brisket, great sides, and the best company, as well as the beginning of a performance by Americana trio Underhill Rose.

Already some bloom even outdoors
On Saturday, Sweetie and I went in different directions. She met up with Facebook friend, now in-the-flesh friend, to go to the Museum of Natural History and to have lunch. I took the subway to Crown Heights in Brooklyn where I met a friend who had moved to Brooklyn from Vancouver several months ago. Jamaican brunch at Glady's was great! And then we walked around the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, chilly but lovely even barely into spring. We also had an indoor break in the beautiful glass houses to see a bonsai exhibit as well as tropical, warm temperate, and desert plants. A most excellent afternoon in great company!

In the evening, Sweetie and I had an early dinner at a Spanish-Argentinian tapas restaurant called Ella before walking to the Theater District to see Fun Home at Circle in the Square. My first actual Broadway show, and it was outstanding. Funny, entertaining, and ultimately heart-rending, Fun Home might be my new favourite show after West Side Story, which has a similar emotional impact. And it was a treat to be in Circle in the Square where so many amazing actors have worked over the years.

Reminded me of a Heart Tree from GoT
Sunday was our downtown day. We met with good friends who were up from Philadelphia for brunch at Balaboosta in Nolita, a restaurant we have now been to four times—because it's fabulous! This was our first time for brunch, and I wished I could have ordered everything. More great company! We then walked to the Lower East Side to the Tenement Museum and went on a tour called "Sweatshop Workers" with a knowledgeable and engaging guide. Afterward, we met with the sister of one of our friends, whom we had not seen in decades, and her seven-year-old daughter, whom we had never met. We wandered around the Lower East Side and made a stop at Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery, which specializes in cupcakes and—this is new to me—pudding! Tasty pudding. Later, Sweetie and I walked back to Little Italy, where we somehow managed to find a place with expensive, mediocre pizza (wish we'd been in the Village, which has great slice places), and then went to the Angelika Film Center on Houston, a wonderful art house, to see a French black comedy called Marguerite. It was snowing when we came out! We had planned to walk to the West Village, but the snow sent us onto the subway and back to our hotel, via a brief stop at the Amsterdam Ale House.

On Monday, we were lured to another neighbourhood attraction, DSW (Discount Shoe Warehouse), the place to buy shoes. Both of us had noticed a New York spring trend, cute booties, and yes, I bought yet another pair, along with some sandals for summer that I really did need. Later we walked across Central Park (for the second time) to meet again with Sweetie's uncle and aunt at the Jewish Museum, this time joined by their younger daughter, whom I had not seen since her wedding eleven years ago, and her nine-year-old daughter, whom neither Sweetie nor I had met. It was all delightful! We had lunch at a restaurant in the basement of the museum called Russ and Daughters (a newly opened third location, with great blintzes among other kosher dairy food) and then said goodbye to the family. We then took in a great special exhibit of Isaac Mizrahi fashion as well as some of the permanent collections of Jewish artifacts and art. In the evening, we took a subway to Midtown and then walked west to Hell's Kitchen, where we met my nephew and his wife for dinner at Taboon, a fabulous upscale Lebanese restaurant. More great food and great company, in a neighbourhood that was new to me.

On Tuesday, we were scheduled to fly out of LaGuardia in the afternoon. Sweetie was not hungry, so I found a gem of a local spot called the Eighty-Two for breakfast. We then packed up and headed up to Harlem to catch the bus to LaGuardia. Not long before our flight, we were informed that mechanical problems had prevented the plane from leaving Toronto. We were stuck. But while waiting in line at the check-in counter, I got on the phone with WestJet customer service, who did a fabulous job of getting us on the first flight to Toronto the next day and then on an Air Canada flight to Vancouver. So we ended up staying an extra night in New York, in the Queens neighbourhood of East Elmhurst. East Elmhurst seems to have a large Colombian population, and a Bollywood theatre and an Indian restaurant suggest that South Asians live there too.

It's always interesting, and a good reminder of our privilege, to walk around in a neighbourhood where we're the only Anglos. That struck us especially on the Upper West Side, where we were acutely aware of being well-off White people served in shops mostly by Black and Latina staff. I hope they are paid well, but no way to know. We're good tippers.

We flew out on Wednesday, a day late, well before the crack of dawn. And back to the Vancouver rain and spring bloom. With colds. Hard to fly on four airplanes, ride a lot of public transit, and be on a diet low in fruits and vegetables without bringing something more back from New York than clothes and shoes.

If you're interested in reviews of any of the restaurants and attractions we visited, I've turned into a TripAdvisor reviewing fiend.