Painful Crushes Vancouver, Part Three: (Un)happy by Design?

Gentle readers, we’ve reached the conclusion of the Painful Crushes Vancouver series but what have we learned? Well, for starters, there’s no such thing as a fairytale romance with Vancouver (surprise!). As Charlie Demers told us last month, you can be head-over-heels with Vancouver but living here still sometimes feels like dating someone in rehab.

Counterintuitively, it seems that knocking Vancouver off its pedestal can actually help us get over our painful crushes. Once we realize that Vancouver’s not perfect we can begin repositioning ourselves in the city, reimagining the kinds of relationships we’d like to have here, and challenging Vancouver to be a better place.

This is something that my final interviewee, writer and journalist Charles Montgomery has thought a lot about in researching his upcoming book, The Happy City, which focuses on the connections between urban design and emotional wellbeing. Like other critical, outspoken Vancouverites, Charles loves the city but believes we have a lot to work on. In a fitting end to the series, he talks about how to cultivate the kinds of trusting relationships that make us happy even when the city itself sometimes gets in our way.

When it comes to Vancouver there seems to be some discrepancy between what we think will make us happy and what actually does. What makes a city truly happy?

Well, I recently spent the last day of summer at Wreck Beach, drinking cold beer, eating what turned out to be a poorly cooked Bavarian smokey, and watching the hippies cheer and dance the sun as it disappeared. It was a moment of sweetness followed almost immediately by convulsive vomiting. In some ways it’s a metaphor for the city: Vancouver looks like everything you ever wanted and yet somehow it produces a kind of unwellness.

For the past few years I’ve been researching the connection between the science of happiness and the ways in which we design and live in cities. Vancouver gets so much right and yet we know that people in small towns such as Windsor and St. John’s claim to be more satisfied with life. What are we doing wrong? We know that in places where people say they’re the happiest there’s a high degree of social trust which suggests that the most powerful contributor to our happiness is our relationships with other people.

You say happy cities “guide people into intersecting moments” by providing public spaces where people can meet and connect. Why is Vancouver so bad at this?

People in Vancouver have to work harder just to pay for the places where they live. When you’re working harder you don’t have as much time for personal relationships. And for a variety of reasons Vancouver has been actively designing these experiences out of people’s lives. There’s a tremendous demand for two-bedroom plus apartments but one-bedroom apartments are much more profitable to build. We end up having these towers filled with ‘isolation units’ downtown where you eat alone, you sleep alone, you wake up alone.

But we’re also making an effort. I think the Woodward’s development is a really optimistic expression of what it means to live in a city together and to take chances. For the first time we have a roof over a public space so that people from the neighbourhood have somewhere to come when it’s raining. There’s market housing right next door to social housing. We know that Vancouver’s reliance on its supermodel good looks and natural amenities hasn’t fulfilled us but maybe these kinds of experiments can lead us in that direction.

What can we do, short of redesigning the city, to make ourselves happier here?

John Helliwell, an economist at UBC, insists that we just have to try harder. You know that elevator in your apartment building? That’s an opportunity to create new relationships. I’ve also found that spending more time biking has really helped. I used to complain about rush hour and despise other drivers on the road. I began interacting with people in a different way when I started cycling to work. When the city built the Dunsmuir bike path I found that we cyclists began experiencing our own rush hour but rather than avoiding it I timed my trip so that I could ride with all these other people. It’s not that we’re all going to become best friends but a morning culture of conviviality has definitely emerged.

What spaces make you happy in Vancouver?

It’s funny, when I lived in the West End I was a block from the beach and I was a block from shops and services, but I felt inexplicably unhappy and terribly lonely. And that feeling didn’t disappear for me until I found my home in East Vancouver. I don’t have a mountain view, no seawall, no architectural icons, no Vancouverism. But somehow by turning my back on that famous city I found a place that embraced me warmly.

So does wanting to change Vancouver make the city a bit of a "project" or a "fixer upper"? Maybe, but then again maybe that’s not such a bad thing in this case.

This series might be over but the conversation doesn’t need to end here. Find @Museumofvan on Twitter and share your own #PainfulCrushes in our city. What expectations have changed for you since living in Vancouver? What places make you particularly happy or sad?

You can find Charles writing about how cities are making us happy and miserable here and here, and also here.

MOV Guest author Anna Wilkinson is a museologist and oral historian living in East Vancouver. Her Chestbursters blog is a collection of endearingly awkward, cringe-inducing, and heartbreaking crush stories.

Painful Crushes Vancouver, Part Two: The Dialectics of Love

Photo credit: Dennis Whitfield
photo: Dennis Whitfield

In the second installment of the Painful Crushes Vancouver series, things get serious. This month I spoke to Charlie Demers, a writer and comedian who is in a committed relationship with Vancouver, about the dialectics of loving the city.

I caught up with Charlie after MOV’s  KEN Talks  to discuss how he is embracing the contradictions, tensions, and messiness of love. Charlie’s unique relationship with Vancouver is reflected in his 2009 book Vancouver Special which uses a blend of humour and sincere affection to explore the city’s complex political and social realities. In it Charlie moves seamlessly from discussing the Squamish nation’s legend of the Two Sisters mountain peaks (otherwise known as the Lions) to cracking jokes about the abundance of massage clinics with opaque window fronts (“nobody’s that embarrassed about tennis elbow”). His writing reflects both the beauty and ridiculousness of Vancouver and reveals something we probably already knew: love ain’t easy.

You seem to have bypassed a painful crush on Vancouver and moved straight into a pretty healthy relationship with the city.

Well, actually it is painful in some ways. Historically, it’s always weird when you love a place like Vancouver that was created at the expense of a lot of people’s lives. In any colonial context, no matter how far we think we’ve come there’s always memories of those atrocities. Socially, Vancouver can be extremely frustrating. The list of idiocies and flagrant disavowals of common sense are well rehearsed and endless. And from an individual standpoint it can be really tough if you’re someone who wants to make a living in entertainment or arts and culture.

That being said, it’s also just such a powerfully, wonderful city. I think any place really worth loving is going to be worth hating too because if there’s nothing to hate about a place there’s clearly nothing interesting enough to make it worth loving either.

How do you resolve your love for the city with your open criticism of it?

I think you want to get away from thinking, “Okay, I just have to get to that place where everything’s reconciled.” And just realize that there’s always some contradiction. Friction is actually a good guard against complacency. I’m someone who loves Vancouver and thinks that more people should be paying attention to us but I wouldn’t call myself a booster of the city because to me that seems like a really uncritical approach to living in a place.

In your book you bring up a lot of contradictory images of Vancouver and look at how they exist side by side. Do you think these contradictions are unique to Vancouver?

There certainly seems to be contradictions in other cities. I mean obviously one of the biggest contradictions at a civic level in Canada is the whole English versus French thing in Montreal. But in Vancouver it’s interesting, one of the big contradictions that people point to is how this great wealth exists next to great poverty. What people rarely point out is that the wealth exists because of the poverty. Some of these seeming contradictions are actually two ends of the same set of circumstances.

I hear people say, “Complete the sentence: Vancouver is ____.” And I just think what kind of shitty place would you live in if you could finish that sentence. You know like, “Edmonton is eager! Or enthusiastic!” Vancouverites have this thing about Vancouver where they’re like “I can’t sum it up in one sentence.” That’s a blessing. Places you can sum up neatly are places you should leave after an afternoon because there’s clearly not much going on there.

Your book has been called a love letter to the city, is it?

It was a love letter but it was kind of like a love letter to someone who’s in rehab right now and you really need to tell them some harsh truths. It’s a real love letter; I care about Vancouver and it matters to me if it goes off the rails. I wrote the book because I knew there was going to be a lot of brainless cheerleading going on before the Olympics and thought that it would be good to have something out there to balance that out but that didn’t dismiss the city.

What else did I take away from my talk with Charlie? A successful relationship with Vancouver seems to require a sense of humour. Charlie is on Twitter and you can buy Vancouver Special here. Stay tuned for the third and final installment of PCV next month!

Anna Wilkinson is a museologist and oral historian living in East Vancouver. Her Chestbursters blog is a collection of endearingly awkward, cringe-inducing, and heartbreaking crush stories.

Painful Crushes Vancouver: Heartbreak City

New MOV Blog series: Painful Crushes Vancouver
Guest MOV series by Anna Wilkinson

Photo by Paul Clarke
photo by Paul Clarke

As someone who’s had a lot of painful crushes in my life—so many that I curated an art show and created a blog around the idea—I’m pretty familiar with pining after someone who seems just out of reach.

You’ve probably felt it at least once. There’s the good: a fantastic conversation or a shared glance from across the room. And the not-so-good: awkward side hugs, night sweats, not knowing whether they like you “that way”.

Weirdly, I’m starting to think I have a painful crush on Vancouver. Like so many emotionally distant relationships, the city keeps giving me the hot and cold treatment: I endure two months of non-stop rain, then suddenly I'm riding my bike through canopies of pink cherry blossoms. I watch as young ruffians light cars on fire and steal Pringles (seriously guys, worst looting ever), and then see a bunch of lovelies clean up the mess and write sweet love notes to the city. I just can’t seem to quit you, Vancouver.

But then again maybe it’s not so surprising that I have such a confusing relationship with Vancouver. I mean, it is consistently ranked one of the most livable cities in the world and one of the saddest cities in Canada.

Maybe part of the problem is that some of us come here with extremely high expectations. We’ve heard rumours about how good-looking Vancouver is. We see people falling head over heels for it. We hear that the legendary Leonard Nimoy loves it so much he might live here (I want to believe that he watches over us from his West End penthouse. Please don't take that away from me). So how can we help but feel a little heartbroken when we never quite see the Vancouver of our dreams?

Over the summer I’ll be exploring what makes this city so attractive and heartbreaking and asking Vancouver “experts” (that includes you!) about how to get over a painful crush on our Heartbreak City.

Find @Museumofvan on Twitter and share some of your #PainfulCrushes in our city.

Painful Crushes Vancouver, Part One:  Heartbreak City

Holly Flauto Salmon on Granville Street during the 2010 Olympics

Holly Flauto Salmon on Granville Street during the 2010 Olympics

For the first of this series, I had a chance to sit down with Holly Flauto Salmon, one half of the writing duo behind Holly and Holly, a blog dedicated to “un-hating Vancouver one grey, cloudy, drizzling, dizzy day at a time.”   

If you’ve read their recent posts you’ll know that since undertaking this mission, one of the Hollys has actually started to like it here. Ms. Salmon is that Holly and she opened up about finding an intellectual community, unexpected Google searches, and how she ended up falling for Vancouver on her own terms.

How did you get the idea for the blog?

The other Holly and I met because our sons were in the same class. We were both living out at UBC and felt pretty isolated. We just kept saying, “But we should like it.”

And so we started the blog, but decided, “We can’t say we hate this place. It’s so negative.” So we decided to “un-hate” it. That was my goal. I’d lived in a lot of cities before and I’d always found a niche but for some reason it was harder in Vancouver.

From reading your Dear Johncouver post, there’s an image of the city as really attractive but sort of vapid. What were your expectations before you came here?

Well, my spouse got a job here when were living in New Haven and neither one of us had been here before. My friend said, “You’re moving to Vancouver? You’re going to love it!” This was coming from someone who had been here on a trip once and whose favourite book was Stanley Park.

I think it’s definitely seen as being spectacularly beautiful, very international, and culturally diverse.

What are things that come up most often in your blog about Vancouver’s heartbreaking qualities?

It seems to be that sense of isolation, the aloneness. Sometimes commenters on the blog insist that people here are mean but I don’t know if that’s exactly true. For example, it was my second year here, and I would talk to other people who had been here longer than I had, and they would say, “Oh yeah, I didn’t like it when I first got here either. Don’t worry about it.” But then they wouldn’t invite me places. I’d say, “I feel really alone.” And they’d be like, “Oh yeah, I felt that way too.” And then, “Okay bye! Good luck!”

How exactly did you start un-hating Vancouver?

I think finding an intellectual community was definitely part of it. I took a writing class with Lee Henderson at UBC last spring and we became friends. And then one of my stories was published in an online literary journal and I became friends with the editor there, who started introducing Holly and me to people. I call him “Mr. Vancouver.” 

I love the writers I’ve since met and how they all support each other in a way that I haven’t seen another group of artists do. They’re all very proud to be here and really identify as “Vancouver writers.”

Through your blog it seems like you’re building a community of “jilted lovers.” Has it been cathartic?

That’s a great analogy. It’s like a group of people who have been dumped by the same bachelor. You ask yourself, “Why didn’t this work?” And when you meet other people who’ve had the same experience, you can say, “It’s not me! He’s just a jerk.”

If you looked in the search results for our blog, you’d find “I hate Vancouver + want to die.” Now, at what point does a person sit down at their computer and want to Google that? What exactly are you looking for? Holly and I gain some satisfaction in knowing we might have made a difference for some of these people, that they don’t feel so alone.

For now, it seems like at least one Holly has gotten to first base with Vancouver. Some of us, of course, are still just waiting for the city to send us another cryptic text. Stay tuned for the second installment of “Heartbreak City.”

Anna Wilkinson is a museologist and oral historian living in East Vancouver. Her Chestbursters blog is a collection of endearingly awkward, cringe-inducing, and heartbreaking crush stories.

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