How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Suburbs
Writer Tyee Bridge grapples with his exodus from the city.
July 12, 2018
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 & 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 their current postal code they will never own a one-bedroom condo, much less a 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 a certain type. More on that later.)
We were, apparently, in good company: according to Queen’s University researcher David Gordon1, 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 that2 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 to the five years prior to 20113.)
My wife had sworn an oath never again to live in the suburbs.
Our decision to leave Vancouver for the hinterlands 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 blue-collar roots, an industrialized but ever-more-accessible waterfront and rapid transit that will get you downtown in much less time than you can drive.
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 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-de-sac 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, lawncare, 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: 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 coffee; breakfast at IHOP; dinner at White Spot. That’s an exaggeration, but it points to the tendency. When we first moved to New Westminster in 2013 there were a few cool spots to eat, like the 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 2013 things have improved in New West. 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 Coffee). 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.
You can call all of this the rise of ‘hipsturbia’, but it’s not about being trendy.
In New Westminster 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 New West has paid to remaking the industrial riverfront, which now has green parks that offer 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 pleasant, seated ride on 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 off 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 both hipsterish and ridiculous).
And that’s the trade-off between transit ’burbs and auto ‘burbs. Here we don’t have to drive two hours in traffic each day to get back to our 3,000-square-foot house. But we don’t get the house.
Should you seek an actual detached house and venture into the ever-widening grids of Langley where those are (somewhat) more affordable, 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 defines Calgary. But that surface reality of sameness belies benefits too. My friend Dave and his family moved last year to an honest-to-god cul-de-sac in far-flung Langley, and damn if it isn’t actually pretty cool. On Friday evenings and weekends the neighbourhood kids gather in the traffic-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 find on Main Street—which should be the gold standard for defining 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,”4 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.