Last week, the Courier published its first feature in a year-long series about Vancouver’s neighbourhoods, beginning with Mount Pleasant. Early responses suggest readers are as excited about it as we are.
As we mapped out the series, our discussions touched on isolation, especially following Vancouver Foundation’s 2011 research that noted a high level of isolation and disconnection among Vancouverites. As I pondered the deluge of media coverage about the foundation’s findings and how lonely residents of this city are, I recalled a line in “The Paradox of Our Age” by an American pastor who wrote: “We’ve been all the way to the moon and back but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour.”
Dr. Bob Moorehead’s words are a reminder that Vancouver’s problems are not unique to this city. What large city doesn’t have lonely people? Acknowledging the issue is a start. But how we, as citizens, react to such information will be a reflection of our 21st century values upon which we will be judged. But in a city with a multitude of languages and ethnicities, whose values will dominate?
In this space last Wednesday, I took a trip down memory lane and highlighted some neighbourhoods I’ve lived in — East Hastings, West End and West Point Grey (WPG) before I headed east again. As beautiful and well-kept as West Point Grey is, I knew I’d never own in that high-priced area and probably subconsciously thought I wouldn’t be a long-term renter there either. As I mentioned last week, I don’t recall meeting any neighbours for the 11 months I lived there. I can take partial blame for that.
From WPG, I relocated to a house on East 21st Avenue at Ontario, which is in Riley Park even though I considered it Mount Pleasant. Neighbourhood boundaries were meaningless to me then, though I did stereotype certain areas — Kits for instance. Too much spandex, ponytailed girls in ball caps and now the uniformed Lululemon look. Very little variety.
Moving to Riley Park boosted my mood. That the down-to-earth Liberty Bakery was a few blocks away on Main Street probably had a lot to do with it. It’s a cozy, unpretentious hangout — alone or with friends, inside or outside. It’s low-key, like me. I felt at home. Having a number of friends nearby was icing on the cake.
The old house was uninsulated and falling apart, but it had charm and a large, south-facing front porch. During the 2002 Winter Olympics, I moved the TV outside and a group of us cheered on Team Canada in the hockey final. It sounded as if the entire neighbourhood was also tuned in. I liked it there. People on the streets said hello to each other. I said hello back. There were younger families with kids around. There was life on the streets.
I saw myself putting down roots, but when I was ready to buy, prices exceeded my reach. During this time, however, I also got to know Gastown thanks to a boyfriend (now husband), who lived in an apartment on Alexander Street where I spent many a night observing the panhandlers, boozed up partiers, drug addicts, homeless, mentally ill and rats converging around party central near the Gassy Jack statue and Blood Alley. His apartment offered him full view of the street action — some of it criminal. He had 911 on speed dial.
I moved from the East 21st house after a few months into a small, top-floor suite in a walk-up on East 13th at Quebec Street — smack dab in the middle of where I wanted to be. My neighbour had a sweet cat called Cosmo, who would often come to his door when he went out. Friendly small talk with my neighbour led to conversations about ideal places to visit along the coast, including Savary Island. He mentioned his girlfriend’s dad lived there. One thing led to another, and a summer camping trip was planned to Savary Island where two friends and myself camped out on the dad’s property for a week. Had I never bothered to share pleasantries with that neighbour I doubt I would have visited the remarkable Savary Island.
When my boyfriend and I eventually moved in together about a year later, we chose to stay in Mount Pleasant. He had tired of Gastown after 10 years living there and began to love Mount Pleasant as I did. We found a two-bedroom suite in an old, renovated house on West 13th at Manitoba. And that’s where life really changed. We decided to have a child.
Our daughter spent her first 10 months on West 13th. When we brought our bundle home from the hospital, a friend had decorated our front door with a homemade sign welcoming our new baby girl to the world. I found great comfort aaving friends nearby to help me cope with a new baby.
My partner and I soon decided we were wasting money on rent and decided to buy. It was 2005 and the real estate market was in a frenzy. We spent $425,000 on a post-war bungalow on East 39th Avenue just off Victoria Drive in Kensington Cedar Cottage. I didn’t know a soul in the area and the house needed a lot of work. Money was tight. I stayed home a lot. I got depressed. The neighbourhood didn’t exactly light me on fire.
But I met two wonderful neighbours who shared stories of yore, including how Jones Park was once a farm, how people fished for salmon in a nearby stream and how a parade took over Vic Drive once a year. Those neighbours have seen massive change in Kensington Cedar Cottage as it morphed from an area of European immigrants to predominantly Asian.
We had a second child, I started to make a few connections and enjoyed many of the area’s the amenities (medical labs on Victoria at 42nd were extremely handy as was the London Drugs and Kent’s Kitchen). Businesses along Victoria Drive may look dowdy, but there are some gems in the area, including a florist where I got flowers for my wedding, Dona Cata’s Mexican restaurant and a halal butcher shop I used to buy ground beef at.
But I didn’t see us staying forever on East 39th — too much traffic, endless litter that made me angry (especially after spending hours picking it up only to come home from work to find more) and the newer, soulless Vancouver Specials across the street whose occupants couldn’t muster a hello despite my clean-up efforts on their side of the street. On weekends, we hoofed it out of the ’hood to the Fraser River, Spanish Banks or to the trails on the North Shore.
We would have stayed in the Kensington area had we found the right house on a quieter street. But my husband suggested we try the North Shore, where I was adamant I didn’t want to live. I didn’t want to give up biking to work and have to deal with a bridge on my commute to work. But we chanced upon a small house that had been on the market a few weeks that we couldn’t resist, so we moved. An American ex-boyfriend accused me of “white flight.” I laughed, but agreed the North Shore is very white indeed. It wasn’t something I noticed until I attended a school fair. Nature was the huge draw, though. We love our new home in the Seymour area. It rains more and we have to worry about bears, but we have fantastic neighbours, wonderful community events, proximity to endless trails, excellent parks and fresh forest air. It’s a place where our kids can run around and be free — just like we both did as children. And maybe that’s what many of us want to replicate. In Vancouver, it’s certainly possible in most neighbourhoods. We just never found the right spot. It’s extremely important for me to know my neighbours — at least on a casual basis. We don’t need to be best friends. I just like knowing that if my kids needed to run and ask for help, they could easily knock on at the doors of at least eight houses on our block and the occupants would know who they were and where they lived. Priceless really.
Next week: How Vancouver’s neighbourhood boundaries were decided.