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Is our city good to live in or good to visit only?

June 22nd, 2011 · 99 Comments

In our week in Rome, we had lunch with a friend of a friend, an Italian who works in government. He’s not originally from Rome, but has been posted there for the past two years.

His assessment of Rome: A nice place to visit, but a hard place to live in. It’s a large city with an abysmal transit system. (Only two real subway lines and a tangle of bus and tram lines haphazardly serving the rest of the city.) Our friend, a senior bureaucrat, abandoned using his car or transit and, like many in Rome, commutes on a scooter.

He did not feel that way about other large cities he’s lived in in Europe, including London. But Rome, to him, is a postcard that does not allow for regular existence.

Vacation travel always prompts thoughts about what it would be like to live in the place where you had such a good time (eating pasta, check; walking around lively, busy streets, people-watching, until 1 a.m., check; visiting markets and churches and monuments, check). Sure, it’s fun when you have all the time in the world. But what would it be like to actually have to get to work every day, pay bills, deal with phone/electrical/rent and so on.

Our friend’s remark reminded me as well of the observation I heard from a young couple I got to know in Paris 35 years ago. They, living in a very chic attic room behind the Rothschild’s mansion on Ile St. Louis, said that Paris was a good city to live in if you didn’t have a lot of money. There were cheap apartments, cheap food, and a way to scrape a living together, as they were doing (he, an American, was a translator of agricultural manuals that I was typing for him; she, French, a restorer of oil paintings).

But it was hard to have an American middle-class life in Paris. That was very expensive and difficult. On the other hand, they felt that it was hard to be poor in big American cities but much easier to be middle class.

So what about Vancouver? I have a feeling that many people who once thought it was a good place to live are beginning to see it as a good place to visit only — stay a week, visit the sites, and then head back to home. The house prices, the sense of the city as a place where the main economic base is the city itself as a spectacle: those give the sense to some that it’s not really a city to live in any more.

I don’t feel that way myself. I’ve lived in the city proper for more than half my adult life. It feels workable to me, a place with neighborhoods and a sense of civic life. But are those of us who feel that way dying out?

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