How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Sub­urbs

Vancouver Magazine - - FEATURE - by Tyee Bridge

Six years ago my wife Michele and I lived at the epi­cen­tre of all things, or what we felt it to be at the time: 17th and Main. We were within walk­ing dis­tance of an or­ganic gro­cery, a Latin restau­rant that served killer tacos and fresh-squeezed mar­gar­i­tas, and a pub with a great quiz night. The Pulp Fic­tion book­store was 10 blocks away, and tran­sit was easy to catch. There was, as they say, big up­side.

The down­side was that we were both near­ing 40 and rent­ing a 480-square-foot base­ment. To para­phrase Un­cle Monty from With­nail and I: just as it is shat­ter­ing for an ag­ing ac­tor to one day re­al­ize he will never play Ham­let, it is sim­i­larly shat­ter­ing for a 40-year-old to wake up and re­al­ize that in his cur­rent postal code he will never own a one-bed­room condo, much less a full-fledged house.

We were able to deal with that per­ceived in­dig­nity— and the re­al­iza­tion that we had spent the last four years pay­ing $50,000 of some­one else’s mort­gage—un­til we had our first and only child. As for many renters in the over­priced but al­lur­ing neigh­bour­hoods that make up much of Van­cou­ver, it was par­ent­hood that fi­nally made us shake off our fresh-squeezed fog and say, “What the hell are we do­ing?”

So we lit out. For the sub­urbs, if I can prop­erly call New West­min­ster a sub­urb. (It is, but it's a cer­tain type. More on that later.)

We were, ap­par­ently, in good com­pany: ac­cord­ing to Queen’s Univer­sity re­searcher David Gor­don, as of 2011, two-thirds of Cana­di­ans live in some kind of sub­urb. And that per­cent­age ap­pears to be on the rise: the num­ber crunch­ers at En­vi­ron­ics An­a­lyt­ics say that be­tween 2011 and 2016 Metro Van­cou­ver’s sub­urbs grew by 7.1 per­cent, while Van­cou­ver proper grew by 4.6 per­cent. Subur­ban growth out­paces growth in the ur­ban core in other ci­ties, too, like Mon­treal and Toronto. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily some­thing to cel­e­brate, but it is a re­al­ity. (For those who find that de­press­ing, take com­fort that the rate of growth

in the sub­urbs has de­clined com­pared with the five years prior to 2011.)

Our de­ci­sion to leave Van­cou­ver for the hin­ter­land of New West­min­ster was some­what fraught. On the “let’s do it” side, New West was in­trigu­ing: a river­bank town of roughly 70,000 peo­ple that boost­ers were tout­ing as “the Brook­lyn of Van­cou­ver.” New schools were be­ing built, and there was an ob­vi­ous push to­ward den­si­fy­ing and im­prov­ing some of its more lack­lus­tre ar­eas—in­clud­ing Sap­per­ton, where my fa­ther lived back in the 1940s. De­spite the no­tice­able lack of Sal’s Pizze­rias, the Brook­lyn com­par­i­son has some merit. Like Brook­lyn, New West has sev­eral bridges, but more sub­stan­tially it has deep bluecol­lar roots, an in­dus­tri­al­ized but ever-more-ac­ces­si­ble wa­ter­front, and rapid tran­sit that will get you down­town in much less time than it takes to drive there.

On the “let’s for­get it” side, Michele had sworn an oath never again to live in the sub­urbs. She is a self-as­sessed suf­ferer of FOMO who grew up in cen­tral Burn­aby, a place that for many decades man­i­festly meant that you missed out on ev­ery­thing. For my­self, hav­ing grown up in a 1908 farm­house sit­ting on five acres—the sort of thing that the ur­ban­ite I now am would call, with some awe, a “char­ac­ter” home—I also re­garded sub­urbs with scorn. This was for all the usual ap­par­ent rea­sons, which boil down to as­sum­ing they are a kind of cul­tural dead zone. Surely the ’burbs were what they were in the ’80s: bas­tions of cul-de­sac neigh­bour­hoods in­filled with tract homes and chain restau­rants, and where the lin­gua franca was a re­quired fa­mil­iar­ity with the ob­ses­sions of dom­i­nant white cul­ture (soc­cer, hockey, lawn care, six-packs, bar­be­cued steaks).

Five years in, I see things a bit dif­fer­ently. True, ho­mo­gene­ity is an is­sue in the sub­urbs, but it’s not about race:

My wife had sworn an oath never again to live in the sub­urbs.

Metro Van­cou­ver’s sub­urbs re­main a rich mix of South Asian, Chi­nese, Euro­pean, Filipino and First Na­tions. New West­min­ster is no ex­cep­tion. Rather, the “same­ness” prob­lem re­lates not to who lives there, but to what you can do and where you can go. Dom­i­nance by cor­po­rate chain restau­rants and big-box re­tail­ers means lim­ited op­tions. Star­bucks for co ee; break­fast at IHOP; din­ner at White Spot. That’s an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, but it points to the ten­dency. When we rst moved to New West in 2013 there were a few cool spots to eat, like Long­tail Kitchen (ex­cel­lent Thai street food) and Re-Up BBQ (fried chicken Fri­days!). But for a cou­ple of years we were a bit down in the mouth about the whole scene. I re­mem­ber Michele com­plain­ing that there was nowhere to get a de­cent birth­day card: it was all Hall­mark, all the time. That kind of summed up the dom­i­nant vibe. Chain restau­rants, chain drug­stores—“chain, chain, chaaaain,” as Aretha Franklin sang. Since then, things have im­proved here. There are new, date-night-wor­thy restau­rants like El Santo (tor­tas and mez­cal Cae­sars) and Piva, an up­scale Ital­ian place lo­cated in the new Anvil Cen­tre. There are mi­cro­brew­eries (Steel and Oak) and ex­cel­lent cafés that are push­ing back against global Star­buck­i­na­tion (Old Crow Co ee). And there are places, yes, where you can get cool birth­day cards (Brick and Mor­tar). There are lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals, out­door vinyl record shows, com­edy clubs.

In New West this is partly thanks to pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship by peo­ple like coun­cil­lor Pa­trick John­stone and mayor Jonathan X. Coté , who, like many of their coun­ter­parts in other bor­oughs, are do­ing what they can with smart plan­ning to bring about a re­vival. Re­quir­ing devel­op­ers to build three-bed­room con­dos is part of it, as is the kind of at­ten­tion the city has paid to re­mak­ing the in­dus­trial river­front, which now has green parks that o er play­grounds and yoga classes, and a sand­lot for beach vol­ley­ball. It also in­cludes putting in green­ways and bike lanes to help mit­i­gate the subur­ban le­gacy of car de­pen­dency—the old-school ap­proach to plan­ning that has given all those Re­al­tor.ca listings such low walk­a­bil­ity scores.

This brings me back to the type of sub­urb New West­min­ster is: in David Gor­don’s ter­mi­nol­ogy, it’s a “tran­sit sub­urb” rather than a car-de­pen­dent “auto sub­urb” like Lan­g­ley. Via Tran­sLink, I can get from our Vic­to­ria Hill condo to Gas­town in 40 min­utes. Most of the trip is a

You can call all of this the rise of ‘hip­stur­bia,’ but it’s not about be­ing trendy.

pleasant, seated ride on the SkyTrain that al­lows me to work en route. For get­ting around close to home, we can walk to those cool shops and restau­rants in about 15 min­utes, which is not hor­ri­ble, and I can shave a good 10 min­utes o this time by ei­ther rid­ing my bike or an adult-sized, fold­able scooter (the lat­ter, as I ca­reen down the side­walks with my shoul­der-slung courier bag, look­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously hip­ster­ish and ridicu­lous).

And that’s the trade-o be­tween tran­sit ’burbs and auto ’burbs. Here we don’t have to drive two hours in tra c each day to get back to our 3,000-square-foot house…but we don’t get to have the house.

Should you seek an ac­tual de­tached house and ven­ture into the ever-widen­ing grids of Lan­g­ley where those are (some­what) more a ord­able, you would be right to fear the dom­i­nance of cookie-cut­ter tract hous­ing. Lan­g­ley more and more re­sem­bles the kind of poorly con­ceived sprawl that de nes Cal­gary. But that sur­face re­al­ity of same­ness be­lies bene ts, too. My friend Dave and his fam­ily moved last year to an hon­est-to-god cul-de-sac in far- ung Lan­g­ley, and damn if it isn’t ac­tu­ally pretty cool. On Fri­day evenings and week­ends the neigh­bour­hood kids gather in the tra c-free cir­cle, skate­board­ing or play­ing bas­ket­ball right out­side the door, and the adults drift out of their front doors for im­promptu glasses of wine (and beer) on front lawns. Sure, it’s all clas­si­cally subur­ban, but it’s also got some­thing like real com­mu­nity—not any eas­ier to nd on Main Street—which should be the gold stan­dard for de ning valu­able real es­tate. And these days the subur­ban beer will probably be S&O, and the steaks or­ganic and grass-fed.

You can call all of this—as the New York Times did in 2013—the rise of “hip­stur­bia,” but it’s not about be­ing trendy. It’s about in­ject­ing some cre­ativ­ity into the lo­cal scene. What the sub­urbs need is what they’re get­ting: entrepreneurial and cre­ative peo­ple mov­ing in and bring­ing thought­ful shops, art and fes­ti­vals with them. They’re push­ing for greater tran­sit, walk­a­bil­ity, tasty food and pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship. Keep on com­ing, folks.

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