Vancouver has a long history of welcoming new citizens, first at the end of steel or fresh off the boat.
Five generations of Chinese, Japanese, East Indians, Filipinos and even Hawaiians have joined a broad European diaspora in building a port city on the lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh.
All of these people have contributed city-building stories of arrival, getting to know one another and getting on in the world.
This process continues, of course. But for some reason, we don’t seem to hear the contemporary stories at a very nuanced level of telling. They’re often told bluntly, harshly relating how the citizens of 2018 struggle to find their place in a multicultural, priced-out real estate market. Real people, however, dwell underneath this bluntness.
Consider Van man. He arrives at his subterranean parking home in Olympic Village every night at about 9 p.m. His Chevy panel van quietly enters the P1 public parking level and slides into his regular spot in a distant, dark corner. Perhaps 50, he quietly gets out of the driver’s seat and gives the parking lot a knowledgeable scan.
No parking attendants work this late in this building. There’s no need to buy a parking ticket if you can vacate the lot before about 8 a.m. Overnight it’s basically safe, dry and mostly warm. But there’s no public toilet or hose bib down here. There is an Urban Fare food store in the neighbourhood above where you can buy a barbecue chicken dinner with vegetables for less than $10 and it has a washroom.
So far, Van man is the only van resident in his public parking lot. However, about 10 blocks to the west and almost adjacent to Granville Island Public Market, there’s a little known cul-de-sac where upwards of 10 vans park every night. There’s a public toilet in the adjoining park and shopping at the market. There doesn’t appear to be casual socializing in this lot. Instead, it’s a rest spot for tired shift workers in the city of $800,000, 600-square-foot condos.
Next consider my accountant. He’s a 20-year resident of Vancouver who got onto the property ladder before it pulled its last rungs up into the condo clouds. He rides public transit to work and is building a successful practice in corporate tax accounting downtown. His Vancouver story is simple but telling. Every year, his company loses a few junior accountants and has to advertise to replace the departed.
Over the last two years, they’ve made a conscious decision to advertise only in Metro Vancouver. They’ve done this because prospective hires from outside the Lower Mainland can’t find affordable housing on accountants’ salaries. As a result, rather than take a decrease in housing and income standards, they’ve turned down offers of employment. The result is a smaller pool of potential talent; one where Vancouver parents can help their offspring with housing loans or cash gifts so they can buy a home and still afford to practise in the city.
Now consider my Korean neighbours. They’ve deliberately moved to Vancouver to create new lives away from their endangered homeland in South Korea. They come from a culture that has already mastered family-of-four living in 600 square feet. And they watch events in the Koreas with a nuanced intelligence that no western media I follow can muster. Last week in the condo recycling room, I asked how they viewed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s offer of talks with U.S. President Donald Trump?
“We are worried, very worried, that it is just a ploy to buy three months more time to perfect the re-entry mechanisms and atomic warhead capability of North Korea’s Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which is capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.”
When I heard this, told with evident anguish and emotion, I realized how privileged Vancouverites are when it comes to discussing both Asian politics and American relations. We’re uniquely placed, by geography and patterns of global investment, to bear intelligent witness to perhaps the defining drama of our times – the Chinese/American battle for economic primacy.
That may be our most important Vancouver story.
Now if we could just listen a little better and learn to retell it with more grace.
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