26 Jan

M & I went to Seattle and Vancouver earlier this month. Here’s a bit about Vancouver.

Vancouver is awash with construction cranes and gleaming green glass set before a ring of snowy mountains. The city is preparing for the 2010 Olympics, and it seems a city of pretty surfaces and fashionable people.

Our first day we wandered to touristy Gas Town (the closest approximation to an “old town” and hardly a central part of the city or dense mess of winding streets), and from there right into skid row. At the “steam clock”, the major Gas Town landmark, a glassy-eyed man offered us a silver chain in exchange for food. As we moved along, there was a conflux of bearded hobos, gaunt prostitutes, men sleeping in the street; needle exchange and detox centers, shelters for women, and shelters for children . Payle$$ Meats sat beside Mission Possible. Balconies on a halfway house advertised nouns of encouragement: hope, faith, strength, courage.

This concentration of the needy struck us as odd, perhaps because the needy of New York are more diffuse and spread out, and perhaps more hidden. Here they seem to converge in one area, in stark contrast to the high-end gloss of the rest of downtown– the joggers in Stanley Park, the highrises along Coal Harbour and in the West End, the yuppies of Yale Town. The rawness of skid row, I’m told, is older than the prospering sheen of the rest of the city. The institutions (the shelters, soup lines, etc.) are also relatively new.

We walked a good deal that first day, happy to end our wandering with martinis atop the Empire Landmark Hotel, slowly rotating over twinkling Vancouver. We admitted relief at not having been approached all afternoon. Later M. pondered the differences between the homeless in NYC subways and the homeless in Vancouver and other cities, hypothesizing that the relationship the homeless have with the subways here are unique and not present in other mass transit systems. We didn’t take the Sky Train (though really it’s more of a commuter rail) so we couldn’t test the hypothesis.

The next day we were sore and achy and relied on the car. Abundant Granville Market (lunch: bratwurst and designer soda), foggy snow-crusted Kitsilano Beach (just lovely), and the UBC campus, separated from the city by a small forest. UBC was a bit of a disappointment; I enjoyed the small Belkin art gallery, warm and abuzz over a show opening, but we found the design of the campus odd– parallel malls and apparently no welcoming central area. In the dark of the Thunderbird Arena, M. gave me my first driving lesson; I meant to go in circles and instead drove figure eights.

We finished our trip Saturday morning, with dim sum at Pink Pearl, touted as best dim sum in Vancouver. We were gluttonous fiends, feasting on all manner of shrimp, pork, taro, bean curd, and red bean paste-filled dumplings, in all manner of sticky and glutinous or crunchy wrappings. Two pots of tea and two bursting bellies later, were back on the road to Seattle, one last chance to gasp at cool snow-covered conifers, gauzy lakes, and violent mountain peaks.

Despite numerous comparisons to New York (Kitsilano=Park Slope; Mount Pleasant=Ditmas Park), the ecology and the landscape is wholly unique, and gives the place air of something fresh and vibrant. I can’t imagine becoming complacent about those surroundings, but I suppose anything is possible.

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