UNCOVERING A CITY’S SWEET SPOT
Vancouver’s Eastside stands in vibrant, unabashed contrast to the city’s reputation for slick concrete and shiny glass facades. History, politics and geography shape any place— from Vancouver to Paris, Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo—creating complexities that aren't always visible
to the casual visitor. Sometimes moving beyond the popular perceptions of these well-known cities is as as
simple as wandering east.
MANY ASPECTS COMBINE TO FORM THE IDENTITY OF A CITY. Sometimes they are almost imperceptible details, such as the aphorisms of the locals or the shape of the green man on the crosswalk sign. They can be annoying and hard to decipher, like public transit or restroom protocol.And sometimes the facets are influential on the urban environment on such a large scale that they are almost invisible to the casual traveler, difficult to theorize or instigative of further research. Often, these are rooted in the history of the place, its politics, its geography—the things that lie beyond what you might ask for when looking for a good place to eat. Vancouver, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo—four contrasting cities spread across four different continents—each have burgeoning neighborhoods nestled in an eastern part of the city, vibrant quarters with their own identities that are distinct and in flux.
VANCOUVER IS ORIENTED TOWARD THE WEST, toward the Pacific Ocean. North is the mountains. East is designated in absentia, in the distance from the iconic symbols of the city. The streets are marked with wet names, which fade out to numbers, trees, wars and provinces as you move east. Beach Avenue, Pacific Boulevard, Water Street, Waterfront Road, Marine Drive.The west is the rush to the limit, to the aqueous edge. There is a natural border of the ocean, into which the city cannot advance. So it grows east. With this directional growth, there is a gradient of wealth.All that is supposedly desirable—sunsets on the waterfront, the tight density of downtown—is located west. As you move east through the city, the compulsory turquoise glass dissipates into less highly controlled architecture.
Once you get out of the dense downtown peninsula, you find yourself in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside. A history of political violence has long haunted the area—from the very founding of Vancouver in 1886, during which land was annexed from Coast Salish peoples, to the persecution of Chinese immigrants dating back to the 19th century, the rounding up of Japanese residents during the Second World War and the deinstitutionalization of thousands of psychiatric patients who then settled in the area in the 1970s. Ultimately, the movement of capital away from the neighborhood has always been at the root of its reputation as Vancouver’s “skid row.”
From temporary laborers, First Nations peoples and young, low-income students or artists, to Chinese and Japanese residents or people dealing with mental health issues, many minority groups have been thrown together in this small area over the years. It has become one of the few places in Vancouver where people start conversations with you on the street, where residents openly display compassion
for one another and where a truly local culture thrives. Elderly Chinese residents strike up friendships with DIY artists’ spaces, while students, butchers and the homeless traverse the alleys between streets, which smell at turns of incense and dried herbs, among other acrid scents. The area is now peppered with small businesses that are conscious of the neighborhood’s history and character, providing meal share programs and making spaces that are inclusive. Historic pubs have been updated to supply local craft beer, while still providing cheap food and a space for live music. A new teahouse sells traditional indigenous medicinal tea, foraged from parks and gathered from community gardens. Hip upscale coffee shops and small single-concept restaurants promote a feel of a clubhouse, where most clientele know each other.
PARIS IS MORE OF A CIRCULAR CITY THAN A COASTAL GRADIENT —no less controlled, but labyrinthine and deceiving, its angles never quite right, its famous spiral of arrondissements encircled by the Boulevard Périphérique. The neighborhoods outside are known not as arrondissements, but les banlieue—or, “suburbs”—and symbolic old walls still separate old Paris from these suburbs, so similar and yet outside of the city. This structure is fairly arbitrary, with the Seine designating north and south, and the woods outside the periphery, Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne, marking east and west. In the exact geographical center stands the Notre Dame. This layout is built by history, a protracted honing of identity, rather than geography.
The eastern side of the city—the space between Père Lachaise Cemetery and the Parc de Buttes Chaumont, somewhere between the 19th and 20th arrondissements—is not the Paris that is usually featured in tour books. It also isn’t exactly what you would call low-income (those areas are farther outside the city, where new families move in order to afford larger properties or artists’ squats rise up in old industrial buildings). However, there are no large museums or monuments, and the people that populate the sidewalks stray from the caricatural idea of the “Parisian.”
The west side of Paris is much wealthier—the business district, the embassies, the large hotels and the Eiffel Tower are there. But the east is punctuated with the smell of pho and large Asian markets near Tolbiac, where other languages mix in with the requisite French; the Café aux Folies, where you can people watch without seeing tourists; and Au Chat Noir on Monday nights, where people from all over the world gather in a sweltering basement to read poetry, sing and drink cheap red wine among an amorphous spirit of community that is markedly absent in many areas of the clichéd City of Light.
IN CONTRAST TO THE SURGICAL SECTIONING OF PARIS, Rio de Janeiro feels like a volcanic mass, geologically organized like the structure of the rock that it was built upon, as if it was formed within the hot air bubbles trapped inside the igneous rock. Pockets of the city are separated by steep granite mountains that push up through the rainforest, walls of terrain that are difficult to inhabit. Neighborhoods shift suddenly and starkly from one street to the next and, as a visitor, one becomes hyper aware of small changes in tone. This topographical configuration acts as a metaphor for Rio’s sociological history, which is a blend of South American, Indigenous, African and European populations. Navigating neighborhoods by their wealth does not work here—even though Rio is a coastal metropolis, the waterfront gradient of Vancouver does not apply.
Navigating neighborhoods by their wealth does not work here— even though Rio is a coastal metropolis, the waterfront gradient of Vancouver does not apply.
The steep mountains that act as backdrops for wealthy areas are covered in favelas—provisional neighborhoods marked by extreme poverty—as their proximity to the domestic work available nearby is highly desirable.The landscape and urban development play off of each other in dramatic arrangements.The famous beaches, Ipanema and Copacabana, and their eponymous neighborhoods, are even slightly different in tone: Ipanema is wealthier and therefore defensive, while Copacabana is much more touristic, with many local and foreign people out on the streets.
The small neighborhood of Lapa, just south of downtown and sticking out toward the east into the bay, has historically been a hub for artists and intellectuals. However, it is currently more known for its nightlife, with small bars that often host live music.The streets have an air of unselfconsciousness—a mix of ostentation and unconcern. There are block parties and small jazz clubs, sweaty cumbia dancers spilling out onto the streets. Restaurants that serve nothing but beer, fries and meat. There are few cars on the roads and an incongruously large amount of antique lamp shops, and the local residents are a theater of subcultures. As opposed to wealthier neighborhoods, where militant protection is evident in barbed wire and electric fences, in Lapa the heat has many people leaving their doors open to reveal older men in their underwear playing video games, kids building structures by the doorways, couples fighting.
TOKYO IS ODDLY REMINISCENT OF PARIS in terms of its layout and transit system, though it is much larger and denser than the old European city. Both locales are known for rapid rail transit—and when you arrive in Tokyo, you see why. The sheer volume of people that move around the city would quickly make any glitches in the system glaringly apparent, but rarely do you notice anything but a smooth transfer of people between trains, gates and stations. The Yamanote Line circles the city in much the same way as the Boulevard Périphérique. In
fact, their diameters are almost identical. However, where Paris’s circle acts as a divider, Tokyo’s iconic loop is connective and porous. Districts expand inside and outside of the line, providing an efficient and democratic method of traversing the huge metropolis.
Finding an exact address in Tokyo can be nearly impossible. Main streets fold into smaller laneways, which curl into tiny backyard entrances.The numbers on buildings are given based first on districts, then on blocks—getting more and more specific—and are often assigned based on how old the building is, indicating a natural growth. Because of the gargantuan nature of the city, its crowds and its disorienting ultra-modern aesthetic, direction can be easily confused in Tokyo. Signage and instructions from locals hint that it is organized by a different system, one that is not founded on the four corners of a compass. In a way, the scale of the city makes its urban design a much more important part of how it functions than the landscape itself.
As a visitor, it can be much more enjoyable to wander Tokyo than to pinpoint a specific place to visit. A bike ride through the eastern neighborhoods is a fantastic way to see how the differences in districts flow into one another. On the eastern side of the Yamanote Line is the Sumida River, which flows out into the Pacific Ocean and connects the temples and gardens in Asakusa to the enormous Ueno Park dotted with live performers. You can drift through the Nippori Textile District—packed with narrow, eight-story buildings full of reams of fabric that range from holographic lamés to hand-dyed linens—or look in on one of the small, silent cemeteries, with their elegant wooden sotoba. Throughout the city, corners of activity turn you around, such as hidden malls that open up into mazes of food stalls, with wooden tables populated by an afterwork crowd of women and men smoking with loosened ties as steam billows out of kitchens.
THERE ARE, OF COURSE, HUNDREDS OF OTHER SPOTS LIKE THESE, in countries all over the world. People travel to experience something new, but they are ultimately looking for something that they can recognize in themselves. Locating that sweet spot in each place you visit, where you feel strangely and inexplicably at home, is a navigational process that forces you to learn more about each place’s unique system of economy, geography, culture and history. These pockets of specific identities are built by the movement of people, whether that be from urbanization, immigration, displaced populations, shifting economies or gentrification.As a traveler, you are part of this movement, and by exploring a bit farther afield you can drastically change your preconceived notions of a place.