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Vancouverites get to see themselves through other’s eyes during Games

January 31st, 2010 · 14 Comments

It’s hard to see your own city, in the way that it’s hard to see your own marriage or your own family. You’re so immersed in it and it’s so all-enveloping that you don’t notice any more what’s weird or wonderful or different. Plus, that’s where you spend most of your time so you don’t have many comparisons.

I’ve often wished I could see my city with a stranger’s eyes, form a new impression of it by driving around for a day and coming to a conclusion the way I might do in Barcelona or Podunk, Montana. I only get brief flashes every so often of my city as a tourist might. Home after a long trip, when Vancouver’s difference from wherever I’ve come from washes over me for 10 minutes or so. Back from London, it seems so green and park-like. Back from a three-week camping trip and it feels dense and urban, a veritable Tokyo. Back from Paris and it looks so suburban … and ramshackle, all those plug-ugly New Vancouver Specials made of pressed plywood ready to fall down in a minute. Back from Kabul and it’s so rich and shiny.

One gift the Olympics are giving us are the myriad portraits that others are painting, the pictures of us that strangers see. They’re beginning to flood the zone these days. The New York Times has already given us Woodward’s (a noble social experiment) and, on this weekend’s sports front, Sam Sullivan, ( the humble ex-mayor, whose enduring legacy is the image of him twirling with the flag in Turin.) I hear that green Vancouver and its green mayor, Gregor Robertson, are next up.

The LA Times did Vancouverism, and in Conde Nast Traveler, our Chinese food has been declared the best in the world.

In The Walrus, Gary Ross (author of the book that inspired Owning Mahoney and my editor at Vancouver magazine) paints a big, multi-dimensional portrait of Vancouver, with a series of photos by Grant Harder. Though Gary lives here now, he still brings an outsider’s eye to seeing Vancouver. And from far away, the Guardian brings us this bleak picture of our coming Games.

Then there are those FROM Vancouver who are supplying a certain kind of image of our city to the outside world. Currently at the top of the list would be the time-lapse video of Vancouver, accompanied by new-agey music, that has become an internet hit. 

 And I’m sure this is only the beginning of the list.

It’s strange and fascinating to see others tell our stories.

Sometimes they’re annoying, those from-away reporters who catch nothing more than the spin-doctored version of a story or the tired old stereotypes.

It was odd to see the Times lavish praise on Woodward’s without mentioning the controversy it has stirred up in the neighbourhood about the effect it will have outside the building or to paint a glowing portrait of Sullivan, without going into why not just the voters, a fickle lot anyway, but his own party would reject him for a second term. I await many profiles from reporters who breathlessly reveal that Gregor Robertson rides a bike, started a successful organic-juice company, and wants to turn Vancouver into a green capital.

The predictable stories from the doomsayers seem equally thin and one-dimensional, as they cite the worst of the worst of the pseudo-statistics flying around as they calculate the numbers of low-income housing units lost or the real cost to local taxpayers of putting on the Games.

And why does EVERYONE have to take the same urban-porno shots of the downtown peninsula. Hey, if you want a picture of the real Vancouver, how about going to Metrotown or Surrey Centre? While I was taken with the swirling-fog images in the time-lapse video of Vancouver, the video as a whole made me feel grumpy. Yes, very pretty, but that’s not the Vancouver I live in most of the time.  (And who the heck is the “InnerLife Project” that took the footage of some CTV cameramen to make this video — all the Internet references seem kind of flaky.) Instead of all those condo towers, how about some shots of our much more definitive contribution to architecture: the dreadful Vancouver Special.

Sometimes it’s instructive to see what others catch about our collective personality — Gary Ross’s observation that we all talk way too much about food, as though it’s the only serious topic we can think of. Sign of a resort-town mentality, perhaps? Sometimes it’s a pleasure to see what you love already get praised — our noodles and dumplings, yes! And very occasionally, you think: Yes, this person has it right. That’s the place where I live.

I’m still waiting to see what others make of our beautiful, tacky, bustling, supposedly-hip-but-more-straight-than-you’d-think, frustrating city.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • Hoarse Whisperer

    As per pics of the REAL Vancouver, Frances, I am the proud owner of a painting (circa 1989) by the artist Jim Vest. Called ‘English Bay Back Street’ it depicts a snowy laneway somewhere west of Denman with a jumble of parked cars, the back of apartment buildings , and yes, a red dumptster. I had the incredible good luck to wander into a gallery at Whistler just last week to find that Jim was mounting his latest show, great landscapes of the Whistler woods and Alberta mountain
    meadows—almost post impressionist in the dabs of paint. Great figuraitive work, too, and some huge canvases of Whistler village. A nice, humble man, with unbelieveable technique.

  • Peter

    InnerLife Project is music group, who wrote the song about Vancouver, with thoughtful lyrics and downtempo music.
    InnerLife Project met later brothers Newcomb who had multiple TimeLapse footage of Vancouver and then both parties decided to collaborate and put this music video together.

  • Glissando Remmy

    The Thought of the Day

    “If I am not mistaken, Vancouver City has officially entered the “Olympic state of mind” stage. All it needs now is to try to find a way to get rid of it”

    What was the chance for me to be walking by the front steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery tonight (Jan 31st) at around 6.00 PM and for you Frances to try to stir this topic? Read on…and then, you try to paint the lovely Vancouver picture.

    One lonely man dying in his own gag on the front steps of the VAG… He was curled in a ball posture, he was clearly in distress; seated right there, under the big projector screen showing a artzy fartzy domino installation, playing in a loop.
    Let me repeat.
    One man,(he was the only one sitting on the stairs at the time) in a curled stance only feet away from a crowd of 40(forty) plus people watching the crap developing on the screen while being oblivious to the fact that the man was dying, right there in front of them.
    Some were really amused. The Olympic Vodka (read: spirit) was fogging the area.
    Translation: nobody seemed to give a damn.

    Holding on to their fake Vutton handbags a group of ditzy girls were taking pictures of themselves with the VAG in the background. I am sure they’ll be in for a little surprise discovery when they’ll zoom in on the lonely man they managed to capture on their Cell Phone cameras.

    Believe it or not, it took flashing lights, two Ambulances and the Fire Engine’s siren to wake them up collectively, but they still didn’t know what was going on.
    At some point I figured some ADD people were becoming annoyed by the fact they couldn’t decide where to look. At the man dying in front of them (now receiving medical attention) or up on the screen at the freaking rubber tire on fire, while trying to clear some obstacles.
    “What happened” I heard one girl asking, somewhere in the crowd, behind me. “I dunno” followed the answer. “But, did you see that wicked balloon explode? Awesome, man!”

    Nah, people can’t be that shallow, I’m saying to myself, it must be the Olympic bug. Anyway.

    Kudos to the firemen of Engine 7 for their < 5 minutes response and to the two Paramedic crews on site in a timely manner. And of course to the blond Downtown Ambassador girl who coordinated the crowds. I’ll let you speculate on who called 911. The guy was taken to hospital. I hope he’s well.

    One particular song came to mind after that; a very old song, which I dedicate to all those selfish, egocentric, Vancouver residents present there today:

    “There was a jolly miller once lived on the river Dee;
    He danced and sang from morn till night, no lark so blithe as he;
    And this the burden of his song forever used to be:
    I care for nobody, no not I, if nobody cares for me.”
    From: Miller of Dee, (1762)

    We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

  • Dan

    frances, dont forget about the BC-Vancouver promo with all the celebs. A grand piece of propaganda that shows a lot of things that none of the people who actually live in the province get an opportunity to do.. the words go “big, beautiful, laid back, sophisticated. And then, in what sounds like a line from a Vancouver Sun ad: “it doesnt get more westcoast than this”

  • Hoarse Whisperer

    Glissando. You are wonderful.

  • Paul

    “And why does EVERYONE have to take the same urban-porno shots of the downtown peninsula. Hey, if you want a picture of the real Vancouver, how about going to Metrotown or Surrey Centre? ”

    For the same reason everyone illustrates Paris with the Eiffel Tower, London with Big Ben… do I need to go on? It’s called travel journalism. Why on earth would you illustrate an article of a place you are writing about for people who might want to go there with a picture of a generic shopping mall??

    “Oh sure there are great old buildings in Florence, but here’s a picture of a typical office building because it’s, you know, REAL.”

    Honestly, I think some people just wake up in the morning and look for something to complain about. World-class whiners – that’s the face Vancouver is starting to present to the world.

  • Frances Bula

    Maybe I didn’t express myself well, but what I really meant is — do we not have anything but the downtown towers and the mountains to show people? Even travel journalists have discovered that there are interesting neighbourhoods and pictures in Paris besides the Eiffel Tower. In fact, most of the travel articles I read lately about foreign cities try to find the new, interesting places — Brick Lane in London, next to that weird spaceship building; the northeast quarter of Paris with its beautiful and unusual parks; Williamsburg in New York. But almost everyone who comes here obsesses over the downtown and doesn’t even notice all the other neighbourhoods — which are nothing at all like the downtown.

  • The porno-shots of downtown line got me laughing. I’ve been fortunate enough to move to Vancouver as of August so I’ve been able to look at the city with unbiased eyes. My conclusion: the only reason Vancouver seems so nice is that everywhere else in North America is just so bad.

    Interested to see how the world responds!

  • mary

    I wish there were stll barns in the lanes of Mt Pleasant. They were wonderful. Little, vernacular barns with shed roofs. Too bad they’re gone.

  • Here are just a few of the things I will be telling visiting journalists and other visitors to do (above and beyond visits to Granville Island and Stanley Park, etc.) to get different perspectives on the city and region:

    1. Take the SkyTrain lines out to Surrey and then to Burnaby…you get a wonderful and inexpensive tour of what makes this region different;

    2. Go to Steveston; while there are similar places in other cities, and it is becoming a bit too touristy, some of the heritage sites are worthwhile and it’s fascinating to watch the fish sales of the boats; go down No 3 Road since at times they will think they are on another continent;

    3. Go to SFU Burnaby Mountain.(Yes, I’m biased), but it’s a good trip up the mountain, especially if there’s some snow around, and the campus, views and new community at the top are worth seeing; The drive out to the UBC campus and a tour of its new communities is also worthwhile;

    4. Charter or rent a boat and see the city by water; a trip along the Fraser River can be especially interesting…if you don’t want to do that, take the SeaBus and False Creek ferries;

    5. Rent a car and head over to the North Shore…get lost in the British Properties and then visit Horseshoe Bay, Ambleside and Dundarave Villages.

    Of course I’ll direct others to Main Street and Commercial Drive, and may even suggest they come down to Southlands to see a place with horse shit on the roads, only 20 minutes from the downtown. I’ll also promote Port Moody and its new development at NewPort Village and waterfront park areas, and then I’ll direct them to Anmore and Belcarra, with the notice that these are places most Vancouverites have yet to visit.

    I may also send some planners out to Chilliwack to see a small west coast town and Garrison Crossing, a very interesting redevelopment of an old army base, which I suspect most Fabula readers have yet to see (it’s surprisingly good).

    I hope this inspires others to think about the places they will recommend to visitors and
    I’ll be interested to read where Urbanismo, Lewis V and others send their visitors.

  • Rick

    Hey Frances when I read your blog after you’ve been at Jericho Beach all day listening to hippy music I get that feeling of seeing the city through other eyes!

    Oh and the stereotype that gets my briefs in a bunch is “gritty East Vancouver” , grrrrrrr.

  • Bill Smolick
  • Here’s an interesting one about our restaurants from the NY Times….are there really 2 million people coming?

  • Will the REAL VANCOUVER please show itself!

    Post 11. Michael Geller says ” Here are just a few of the things I will be telling visiting journalists and other visitors to do . . . ” listing his five-items, sure to . . . errrrr . . . impress.

    If, indeed, “inspiring others” is leading visitors through a chosen looky-loo, well-worn itinerary, that, perhaps, your mother-in-law would appreciate, I suspect your visitors may, on leaving you with a sigh of relief, go off scrimmaging for the real Vancouver: harbouring impression you did not intend. MSM tourism bull-shit notwithstanding.

    Some people are smart yunno!

    I lived and practiced in Vancouver from 1951 until 1997. I was moderately successful: home on Kits Beach with a magnificent view etc., yunno all the stuff the real estate section brags about: lots of professional accolades. Not much money though. The level of architectural conversation was, well, MSM compatible . . .

    It was quite bearable, really, but I wanted more! So I went to live in Mexico City for two years and returned to a funny little town on the Island.

    That funny little town allows me a tenth floor, panoramic views from every window: an amenity I most certainly could not afford in Vancouver.

    But it gets better . . . living downtown I walk to the store and if the groceries are too heavy, they are delivered. All my friends and family are here, within two minutes. Except one who tells me, every time I see her, which is often, she’s coming to live here.

    But it gets even better than that . . . my sailboat is affordably, moored within five minutes for where I live: visible my window.

    And, believe me, sailing around here, arborous little island, challenging rip tides, has to be, excuse the recurring platitude, “world class”.

    Please don’t tell your guests: we’re happy if they’ll keep us out of the WSJ . . .

    Indeed Michael I suspect most of your visiting journalist guests will have a deeper measure of intellectual curiosity than you give them credit for. They may even feel you have patronized them!

    Restaurants? World class? I lived and taught in the largest city in the world. I know world class.