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.