In the last two days, I’ve heard from two kinds of people: those who are over-the-top thrilled with the experience of the Games so far and those who are trying to be thrilled, but who have spent a lot of time roaming aimlessly in the streets, sometimes lining up for hours to get into venues and sometimes just giving up.
The first group are more likely to be those who have access to all kinds of events, who saw the opening ceremonies in rehearsal or on Friday or who have passes to various events or venues. It’s great to be a reporter. Want to go to an aboriginal feast? Take a free one-day trip to the Yukon? Right this way, my friend.
The second is people who want to participate in the experience of the city transformed, but who don’t have any special access.
As a result, they’re spending hours in line-ups at what seem like too few attractions to accommodate the tens of thousands of people who were flowing through the downtown Saturday and Sunday. You can tell there’s a shortage of activities when a crowd forms to watch the limos on the street waiting to whisk Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Vice-President Joe Biden away and when the line-up outside the Bay is hundreds long, which is what we saw last night.
The line-ups for downtown Live City sites sound equally daunting, as do those for many of the national houses. And one of the relatively easy-to-get-to attractions, the Olympics cauldron, is behind a chain-link fence. Hundreds of people still clustered around it, trying to get pictures over the top. Kind of sad, really.
That could have been compensated for if there were more street animation, but what I’m surprised at is how little there is. When I was covering the city’s decisions to close down blocks of streets for use as pedestrian corridors, I definitely had the impression that those streets would have a lot of activity along them. And the downtown business associations certainly encouraged their members to set things up in the street, provide activities, or add something to make for a lively pedestrian experience.
However, except for some booths on Granville, I didn’t see a huge amount. In fact, walking down Robson from Robson Square to BC Place was kind of weird. Except for a trio of Public Dreams-like characters walking on stilts near Sears, there was nothing — just a lot of pedestrians walking down a dark, empty canyon.
For me, what this really points up is what we’re still missing as a city. My favourite cities that I visit elsewhere are those that provide something to do besides just walk around or line up. They have places for people to sit and watch others passing by, huge plazas with steps or blocks of sidewalks lined with cafe tables and chairs. They typically also have a dense texture of interesting things to look at: shops, galleries, markets, stuff on the street.
Vancouver’s problem is that the streets that have the most of that kind of interesting urban texture are outside the Olympic zones: Commercial, south Granville, Main, West Fourth, Davie and Denman. And none of the Olympic tourists are going there. (For those who haven’t clued in yet, once you get out of the Olympic zones, the city is empty like on Christmas Day.)
Even Gastown, which should be the natural party street, seems relatively quiet east of the German beer tent set up at the foot of Seymour. But throngs of people are walking through all kinds of streets that have nothing on them. I was surprised to see that some cafes and restaurants on some of the most crowded streets didn’t even bother opening today.
I find myself feeling bad for our visitors, like a dinner-party hostess worried things are not going well. We really do have an interesting city, I want to reassure them. It’s just not really where you are.
However, I admit that I haven’t walked every street or done any strategic thinking about how to enjoy what is there. (Except I think I’ll try to get into Sochi House first thing Monday morning — surely I can get in then?) Maybe it’s not so bad. What do you think?
(P.S. For Michael Geller’s report on the first night on Cypress Mountain, check out his blog post on same here.