Vancouver, British Columbia is one of the most picturesque cities anywhere. When the entire area called Metro Vancouver is considered, (which includes other cities like Burnaby, New Westminster and Surrey), the population is approximated at 2.48 million people. I came to Vancouver as part of my journey to change careers from teaching to becoming a therapist and marveled at the number of green spaces and the beautiful mountain views of North Vancouver. I learned quickly that those mountains are a reference point for navigation anywhere in Vancouver. (Simply put, if you are facing the mountains, you are facing North and so you can decide which direction you need to move in).
When I came to Vancouver in 2015, people were pretty friendly to me. Many were happy to hear that I was new to Canada from Jamaica and a few even gave me free stuff in their restaurants or salons simply to welcome me to the city. I was shocked as I was told repeatedly that West Coast Canadians are polite, but definitely NOT nice. In the seven years since I have lived here, I have seen the soul of the city change. I have mixed feelings about the city now. There are things I love about Vancouver and some things I really, really don’t like.
Things I love:
1. How pretty this city is.
No one can disagree that Vancouver is pretty. The number of green spaces, the quick access to picturesque spots is something that we who live here truly love about our city. In 2019, it was voted the fifth most beautiful city in the world by Flight Network (article here). When I got here, it was summer and so there were a number of sunny days in a row, (which I later found out to my complete disappointment are actually not that common). Stanley Park was calming and is definitely worth a visit when you come here. My first winter here (more on that later), I went on a date with my now-husband to the Van Deusen Festival of Lights which happens every December as well as the Bloedel Conservatory. Both were lovely. When he and I moved in together, the place we lived in had a spectacular view of Canada Place, North Vancouver, the port and the mountains. I never got tired of that view.
2. Commercial Drive
I spent six years living on Commercial Drive with my partner. It is such a quirky and diverse neighbourhood where literally everything is a 5-25 minute walk. It used to be known as “Little Italy” and maintains this with a few of the crosswalks painted in the colours of the Italian flag. The number of restaurants, bars, parks etc. on The Drive is one of the reasons why people who live there are more than happy to boast that they live there. For six years, I was one of those people. If you put in “Commercial Drive is cool” in the Google search bar, 237,000,000 results come up. That’s no coincidence. It really is cool (see here)
It wasn’t uncommon to see the most random and eclectic mix of personalities there. We got used to seeing a throat singer and his dog walking around on warm days. He would suddenly burst into song and he became one of my favourite characters to observe. There were people who took the encouragement to “reuse, reduce, recycle” very seriously. One specific example is a man who made a shirt out of the tabs of used soda cans. He definitely scores an A for creativity. Drum circles and people hanging out at the numerous parks on warm days is a common sight.
However, Commercial Drive too has changed in the six years I lived there. Previously known for being a “hippie” neighbourhood, it has slowly started to become gentrified and so, many of the little shops that existed there for decades were forced to re-locate or close. COVID-19 made this far worse and now, there are huge spaces for lease where some of our favourite spots once stood. It still remains one of the Vancouver neighbourhoods without high risers, (save two) but, we have no idea how long this will continue.
3. The fact that it is a sexually liberated space.
In 2021, Vancouver was considered the 25th most sexually liberated city in the world, (see article here). There are thriving alternative lifestyle communities all over the lower mainland and the rest of the province. For someone like me who is working towards specializing as a sexologist, the city itself provides ample opportunities for non-formalized learning. I have certainly benefitted from living here and learning by observation in ways that have been far more valuable than that which is only learned in a classroom setting.
Furthermore, engaging in the sale of sex for money is legal in British Columbia. Yes, it truly is. The crime is in the PURCHASE of sexual services. Hypocrisy about this aside, it means that people who engage in sex work in B.C. are not considered criminals as long as they are selling their own sexual services. A fuller explanation around what is and is not legal in the sex work industry is found here. It has also been argued from a human rights standpoint, that the criminalization of consensual sex is a violation of privacy, (here). Regardless of one’s own feelings about sex work, the fact that the laws here are more progressive in terms of the idea of sex work by choice is more in alignment with what people who provide services from a public health perspective agree is in the public interest.
It is also legal for women to be topless in public in any context in which men can go topless. This is because after all, breasts are just breasts and are not inherently sexualized. In this article, a woman kindly informed the RCMP who told her to cover her breasts while sunbathing that he had not right to do so. She was correct. Although most women do not indulge in this right, (citing male harassment as the reason), the fact that the law sees breasts as simply a body part and not lewd in any way is a departure from more conservative thinking which often oversexualizes women’s bodies.
4. The Pacific National Exhibit (PNE) summer nights concerts.
I have seen a number of artistes I like at the cheap outdoor concert nights at the PNE which is a festival that runs in late August to early September each year. I have seen Hall and Oates, The Monkees, the Doobie Brothers and many more. This year, Shaggy and TLC are coming but, tickets sold out so fast that before I even knew they were coming, I was out of luck. Not to worry, there are many more acts I want to see this year like Nelly, The B-52’s, Chaka Khan, the Beach Boys etc. Let us hope I can snag some of those tickets.
I get to sample food from local food trucks and I cheer for the Super Dogs, a show that illustrates how smart dogs are and how much fun they have performing. The PNE is a simple but fun way to enjoy Vancouver’s summers.
Things I DEFINITELY don’t like about Vancouver:
1. THE RAIN
The rain in Vancouver can last all day, every day for weeks. I had no idea I had Seasonal Affective Disorder till I came to Vancouver. Winters suck. Essentially, it is cold, damp, dark and grey for months and you slowly feel like your will to live is undermined. Yes, we are all aware that the reason the city is green and beautiful is because it gets rain but clearly moderation is not a weather phenomenon here!
2. How expensive it is to live here
A simple Google search “Vancouver is an expensive city” turns up over 35 million matches. If you start scrolling through them, it is depressingly clear that Vancouver is one of, if not the most, expensive cities in North America generally and, Canada in particular. This is no surprise to those of us who have lived here. Numerous references to how difficult it is to live in Vancouver because of affordability paint a picture that dissuades many from even thinking of putting down roots here. (See here and here).
Since I came here in 2015, I have seen most of my community leave. People have moved to other islands off the coast of B.C., Ontario, more rural parts of B.C., and some have even left the country. Needless to say, I can’t blame them. Why would anyone stay in a space where even with graduate degrees, they can never actually aspire to home ownership? Why would they be willing to commute for literal hours daily to get to and from work simply because affordable housing is practically impossible to find in the heart of the city? Who in their right minds would actually want to stay in a space that is simultaneously the epicenter of the opioid crisis of Canada and in a constant state of gentrification?
The neighbouring province of Alberta certainly agrees and has literally been poaching people from Vancouver, (and Toronto too), citing lower costs of living and more opportunities for home ownership. They are advertising on local stations and campaigning HARD. On what planet can this be considered normal?!
3. The rain
Seriously, I can’t stress this one enough. I have to make an escape annually to the tropics to avoid the inevitable crying spells that plague this Caribbean woman’s reality.
4. The changing soul of the city.
As time has marched on, I have personally witnessed how increasingly disconnected Vancouverites are from each other. We don’t make eye contact, we don’t talk to each other and mostly, we are glued to our phones. I often wonder what happened to the city that welcomed me as a “fresh off the boat Yardie”. Even my beloved Commercial Drive changed. Many of the interesting little shops and restaurants disappeared as COVID-19 hastened the inevitable for many businesses. Some of those spots were there for 15 plus years and suddenly, they are no more.
More high risers are going up all over Metro Vancouver and re-development applications are being posted all over residential spaces. That means higher population density and the disappearance of the quiet streets many of us liked to walk through to contemplate our lives. All this construction is of course unaffordable for most people so the exodus of those earning less than the $200,000 per year required to even barely qualify for a mortgage continues.
I have often described living in Vancouver as the city equivalent of dating moody musicians. When they are on stage, they light up brighter than all the stars in the sky and give you a moment of true bliss. They make you believe that nowhere else in the world is as important as this space right here, right now. That is what summer is like in Vancouver. Spring is filled with the promise of beauty bursting into awareness. However, we all know that brooding musicians can and do descend into extended periods of angst and darkness. This is what winter is like.
Now that I am in my mid-forties, I just don’t have the capacity for this kind of excitement. I like consistency. That is why my feelings towards Vancouver have changed. I can still appreciate the things I love but, it is precisely the reason for me to take frequent and sometimes extended breaks from being here.