Now that Vancouver is awash in Olympic madness, it’s time to reflect on the city and its unique personality: its extraordinary natural beauty, polarized social classes, laid-back attitude and multi-million dollar condos.  Combined with its unique geography, with a downtown “core” surrounded by water, its various municipalities linked tenuously together by a few bridges, Metro Vancouver is one-of-a-kind.

A great article in The Walrus (Gary Stephen Ross) contrasts “the Vancouver you see and the one you don’t.” Vancouver might have “world-class” restaurants, but it’s impossible to hail a cab after 10pm or have a drink on upper Granville Street after midnight.  Environmentally-conscious thinking is serious out west, and the City of Vancouver often initiates innovative policies and programs. But Ross rightly points out that Vancouver is missing several indicators of “civic heft and maturity”: until the Canada Line’s opening last fall, there was no public transit line to the airport; the main train terminus at Pacific Station does not present the city’s best face; there’s no downtown university campus with an adjoining student neighbourhood, no major civic square or broad pedestrian promenade. Ross recalls a 1960s trip to Vancouver, when the city was little more than a frontier town; compared to the more cosmopolitan Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver was a lightweight.  He points out that this is still the case: with a population of about 600,000, the City of Vancouver’s analogues are more likely to be Charlotte, Memphis, and El Paso than Chicago or New York.

The first full day of competition illustrated some of these complexities. While tourists lined the streets and hung out at Robson Square to see the events unfold, protesters smashed in the windows of Bay’s Georgia Street store, where the entire main floor is devoted to Olympic merchandise. Anti-Olympic sentiment has evidently not faded in Vancouver, where many residents have left the city altogether to get away from an event they didn’t want in the first place. After Expo 86, a world exposition that many people attest “put Vancouver on the map,” international attention focused on Vancouver. Almost immediately after the event, Hong Kong developers bought up acres of prime real estate at the waterfront, and by the 1990s the city was glittering with high-rise condos. Housing prices shot through the roof and the sleepy town’s well-kept secrets of soaring mountains and underused waterfront were now offered up to the highest bidders.

Vancouver grew almost overnight, and the complexities that Ross presents in his article are characteristics of a city still in its youth, one that has not yet come to terms with its “world-class” label. It’s easy to forget that until Expo, Vancouver was a mid-sized city at best. Vancouverites who grew up here attest to this, even those who are too young to remember the 1988 Calgary Olympics. To them Vancouver should still be as it was in the old days of the early 80s: a natural wonderland that was relatively unknown even among Canadians. They resent the crowded hiking trails, the high-rise condos that populate Yaletown, and the implication that others might want to live in their city. Unfortunately, this makes it a city with deep social rifts. The city is home to both the richest and poorest postal code in the country. Labour strikes, whether they involve public transit workers or the City of Vancouver staff, last for months on end because the two sides are so polarized. Pervasive homelessness is a never-ending topic, as it is in Toronto, but it’s complicated by what are often the highest property prices and rental rates in the country. The region’s aboriginal peoples may have been fairly well represented in the Olympics Opening Ceremony, but there are still major tensions between them and the provincial and municipal governments around land claims.

While Ross is indeed correct in implying that many of these characteristics remain unseen and unheard, they go a long way in explaining its citizens’ lukewarm attitudes towards migration, commercial ventures and tourist attractions. So while the many spectators, athletes and media representatives focus on the Olympic events, they can’t help but be intrigued by the complexities of Vancouver and its inhabitants. In time Vancouverites may be happy to host world events and embrace immigration and migration to its shores, but it’s still too young to appreciate growth and change.

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