Charlie Demers: Our (chosen) neighbourhoods say so much about who we are

Whether it's East Van or the West End, where we choose to live in this city shapes us

April 28, 2016

By Charlie Demers

A few years ago several thousand residents of the northeastern part of our city went to sleep in Hastings–Sunrise but woke up a) in something called the “East Village” and b) thoroughly unimpressed. Similarly, some friends at a dinner party were aghast when my wife referred to their townhouse along the north bank of the Fraser as being in the “River District.” (Such gently awkward social collisions are a regular feature of a culturally mixed marriage like ours; my wife is from Toronto.)

In a city where authenticity-panic is our most deeply-rooted tradition, it’s understandable that we’d bristle against these most obvious and ham-fisted attempts at neighbourhood branding. But in a town where the gold in the ground is the ground itself, our most beloved spaces will inevitably be marketed to us, if not out from under us. And if we prevent the condo people from inventing neighbourhoods whole cloth, they’ll just use the ones we already have more subversively. In that scenario, we’ll keep having those ineffable feelings of ever-so-slight dislocation, like when you’re driving through the now semi-cool strip of North Burnaby and squint at the old neon sign that you’re 99 percent sure used to say “Helen’s” but now says “Heights.” Or like when a friend on the hard left once said to me sheepishly about the East Van cross he’d had tattooed on his forearm: “I got it before it became a brand.”

It’s tough to know how to champion a neighbourhood without giving in to market boosterism. Even though reductive anti-capitalism is my preferred response to any uncomfortable situation, it’s hard to defend one’s district exclusively in opposition to commercial activity when so often it’s precisely commercial activity (in restaurants, bookstores, grocery stores, delis, even bigger delis, etc.) that embodies what we love most about them. In the face of these contradictions, it’s easy to adopt a stance of Vancouver-weary cynicism—that way, you don’t get hurt. And so it goes that nothing really matters, and Kits is just Shaughnessy with coconut water.

But that’s not true. Cities are too big, as units, to be immediately vital to us on their own. The lie of Vancouver’s at-large voting system has always been that Angus Drive and Renfrew are the same place. Despite their ambiguities, and in spite of the marketing campaigns that try to make us forget about them, our neighbourhoods are worth identifying with because it’s through our immediate surroundings that we find ourselves in a metropolis. I can’t imagine my younger brother, for instance, as the adult he is today without the way he was nurtured, as a young gay man, by the West End.

Likewise, I can’t imagine my own path to perennially heartbroken leftist without East Van. When our half-Vancouverite, half-Torontonian baby girl was eight months old, we left her for an evening with my aunt and uncle. In the middle of a fit, they took her for a walk in her stroller, and she calmed right down—except that whenever they turned off of Commercial Drive she started to cry again. “I guess we shouldn’t be surprised,” said my uncle, “given whose kid she is.”

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