Vancouver, British Columbia
One year on since officially returning to Vancouver, it still feels like I just returned mere weeks ago. While I’ve fondly been looking back at the last two years on the road, I’m quite happy to stay put, and having experienced everything I hoped for and more out of my sabbatical, the transition back to a non-travel life hasn’t been hard at all. It’s nice to feel like a normal person again rather than the visitor in town, and I’m enjoying the simple things — seeing the same people regularly, being able to follow TV shows, cook, try out restaurants around town, check out live music, or even just do nothing at all. It’s even nice to hold a regular job again, though of course I lament the loss of free time and spontaneity. That’s probably the only “hard” part.
I can’t even figure out where I want to go next, or when. But you know… here’s not so bad at all.
Vancouver and the surrounding regions are stunning places to be, and looking back on all the things I’ve been able to experience here this year, it constantly surprises me how colourful things are, despite the incessant rain for half the year. It’s refreshing to again be in one place and watch the passage of time.
Family weekends out in Tofino and the islands show off the beautiful coastal geography that I’ve taken for granted. Joining up with local hikers and hiking groups out to the Whistler and Squamish areas has been a great way to meet people, get active, and appreciate the natural wonders around. Activity goes beyond the mountain activites of hiking and skiing, with biking, kayaking, snowshoeing, and urban walks. Local flavour appeals to both young and old — farms, flowers, festivals, foliage, food, and fireworks are all things I would have listed without considering the alliteration, though I can’t forget to mention the arts and multicultural offerings. There’s something for everyone. But is it enough?
Things have changed a lot in the 10 years I’ve been away. Amongst locals, there’s one change that’s top of mind: unaffordability. The city’s rise in reputation has brought in an influx of big money, real estate speculation, and a wave of demand, pushing prices up and causing a ripple effect in virtually every aspect of life. Want to buy a home? You’ll need at least a million dollars. Wanna settle for a condo or an apartment? You’ll be shelling out more for that than a mansion in other parts of Canada. Wanna rent? Vacancy rates are near zero and you’ll have to win a bidding war. None of those options work for you? Well, move into the boonies and spend a lot of time and money commuting. It’s pretty hard to raise a family here in this day and age, but it’s the new reality that many face, one that those who’ve grown up here in far simpler times find hard to swallow.
On the other end of the economic scale, this city’s the center of social services (costing the city over a million dollars per day) helping people with low income, mental illness, and/or drug addictions from all across British Columbia and beyond, and there’s a startlingly large homeless population for a city of this moderate size in part due to the temperate climate. (The opioid/fentanyl crisis has only exacerbated an already desperate local situation.) Developments and gentrification are threatening the shrinking space they occupy, which seems to be getting worse of late.
Wages have not risen in line with cost of living. Jobs — particularly those in the food and service industry at the moment — are left unfilled due to low wages, high cost of living, and a lack of affordable housing close to where the jobs are. Same thing goes for white collar jobs too: this city has a lot of talent, but other cities (particularly just south of the border) are cheaper to live in and jobs there pay more. Despite high demand for housing, walk around the city core and you’ll notice a lot of buildings with empty units, no lights turned on at night: it’s more lucrative for developers to build for the high end market, often eyed by foreign buyers who have no intention of living in the city and just want to park their money somewhere or flip the property a few months later for a healthy profit. Gas stations are disappearing to make way for more condos. Shops and restaurants on downtown’s busiest streets are disappearing due to increasing rent…and more condos.
I’ve watched as plenty of people I’ve grown up with have chosen to move away, often citing economic reasons. (Or they might just find other places more interesting!) I don’t blame them, and as the problem grows, studies and statistics showing Vancouver as one of the most expensive or least affordable cities in the world don’t help. (My own presence here would be more uncertain if I didn’t already have an available place to live.) If all you read are Canadian news reports, you’d think that there’s a mass exodus of young people leaving Vancouver for greener pastures.
At the same time, Vancouver consistently appears at or near the top of lists of most livable cities in the world: for many, Vancouver is the greener pasture. This year, I’ve met so many people who have moved *to* Vancouver from other cities in Canada and from other parts of the world, people with social and economic mobility and the choice of other cities and countries. Despite the prospect of more wealth and financial security elsewhere, they choose to come to Vancouver and stay in Vancouver. These are not the ultra-wealthy foreigners flashing their Lamborghinis and Ferraris, living in Vancouver as the rich man’s playground that we hear about. These are regular people of varied trades and backgrounds who have chosen to make a life here.
What do they see? Depends on their eyes, but I’ve heard so much. Peace, stability, sanity, safety. A city where people of all different ethnicities intermingle, with their cultures represented in art, food, and community, ripe for exchange. (Where culturally omnivorous young folks can rattle off their favourite dim sum, Ethiopian food, gelato, sushi, and farm-to-table places in the same breath.) A place that champions a broad spectrum of social causes, from green living to welcoming refugees to caring for the less advantaged. Schools with good specialised education and international recognition, jobs that pay enough to enjoy activities and pay rent, shared living situations that work well enough for their needs. Lots of organised activities for the public, if you seek them out. A city surrounded by nature, gifted with the trifecta of mountains, forest, and ocean; criss-crossed with walkable streets, decent public transit, bike lanes, and navigable waters; with a culture of active living. You might not get rich, but you’d have a rich life.
I’m reminded once again of my own family, and why my parents chose to emigrate and land here. Well, not just here, but anywhere. How do you pick a place? Are there disadvantages or compromises to make? Of course, both then and now, but is there enough of what you’re looking for? This isn’t a city for everyone, it’s what you make of it. For me, I may be from Vancouver, but I’m also trying to make it my home.
But to make a place home, it’s important to feel invested in it. For me, that starts with one thing: community. While I already have and appreciate my family here and friends that I’ve grown up with, a lot of relationships have changed — needing to be reestablished after all these years away — and there’s a need for new ones as well. Of all places in Canada, Vancouver has the reputation for being friendly but not familiar, where it’s easy to meet people but not to get to know them, and even then, it’s hard to find with whom you fit in or feel comfortable. This year’s been a start on that front — hello to all of you who I’ve been hanging out with this year! I’m happy to reconnect, happy to get to know you, and happy to learn new faces: it’s gonna take more time and effort, but I have the time, and I’m still here. So… wanna grab a bite sometime? 🙂