IT NEVER RAINS IN VANCOUVER--I HAVE BEEN HERE SIX times now, so I know this for a fact. Also nobody has to work, nobody is sick, and you can leave your front door unlocked when you go away. Basking in perpetual sunshine, with no commitments, no financial worries, no pressure of competition and blissfully happy marriages for one and all, Vancouver is a city whose inhabitants are people of the Blessed Isles, spared all wars and natural calamities, spared even the miseries of urban decline, political corruption, rush-hour hassle or juvenile delinquency.
If you doubt all this, look about you now, upon the seashore walk around the lovely park, and observe those inhabitants. They move unreally through an almost unreal environment, where never a dog defecates or a garbage can spills, and where even the big black crows refresh themselves decorously at drinking fountains. How clean they look, how sensible, how content! Barefoot girls in long dresses build sandcastles on the glistening flats, the sailboats shifting blue and white behind them as in a Boudin painting. Preternaturally slim elderly ladies lie behind driftwood windbreaks, wearing bikinis with perfect propriety and reading romantic fiction. Joggers bound by in supple rhythm. Scrubbed, polite, law-abiding youths swoop athletically about on bicycles. And what have those young people written in such large letters in the sand? Why, “Have a nice day,” of course--what else?
But one need not parody, or even exaggerate, the pleasantness of Vancouver. This is, one might say, the last resort of pleasantness, and especially, I think, pleasantness of a middle-class, middle-income, middle-aged Englishy kind. A metropolis of 1.4 million people of innumerable nationalities, it still has the public manners of an English country town half a century ago. It seldom raises its voice. It would not dream of jumping a light. During 10 days in Vancouver, I never heard a car horn tooted.
Physically it is just as considerate, too. The promontory that stands at the heart of it is everyone’s downtown ideal: residential beside commercial, working port beside tourist attraction, the whole elegantly framed by a backdrop of sea and snow-topped mountain range. Its high-rise buildings (nothing so aggressive as a real skyscraper) are generally discreet, its shops and restaurants are fun. It enjoys a proper contemporary mix of Chinese, Japanese and miscellaneously ethnic neighborhoods and is modestly sprinkled, as by enlightened planners of the 1950s, with manifestations of harmless sleaze (“Female Bar Wrestling at Doc’s” or “Miss Nude Orient ’87, Direct From Hong Kong”).
And all around this exquisitely balanced core, through the inevitable miles of suburbs, there is almost nothing ugly--ordinary of course, monotonous sometimes, but seldom offensive. Refreshing parks abound and glorious excursions beckon: along spectacular fiords in steam trains, among forested islands by boat, to waterside cafes for oysters and chips, up unfrequented creeks to watch the grebes bobbing in the tide water or spot the spectral blue herons motionless on the flats.
Except for its trees and mountains, the scene has little in common with the rest of Canada. Its light is the pale, moist Pacific light that illuminates San Francisco, too, and its colors are fresh, buoyant colors, yellows and pinks and easy grays, such as restaurateurs all down this coast use when they want to emphasize the abalonic or salmonian nature of their cuisine. Vancouver is not a bronzed city, for all the exposure of those women on the beach; its complexions are sensitive, like its tastes, and its gardens are very, very green.
Dear me, how well everything works. After the incompetent decay of the New York telephone system, Vancouver’s seems a very paragon of courteous modernity. Quiet, frequent, meticulously driven are the buses. Sleek and smooth is the SkyTrain, sliding on its elevated tracks above the suburbs. Majestically accelerates the catamaran SeaBus across the Burrard Inlet. There are taxis especially humped to accommodate wheelchairs, and talking elevators for the blind, and the aerial tramway that runs up to the summit of Grouse Mountain every day is operated by brisk, well-exercised girls of unimaginable helpfulness.
But then helpfulness, thoughtfulness--caringness, if you can stomach the word--are standard attributes of Vancouver. This city pullulates with good intentions--saving Indian heritages, preventing the destruction of forests, avoiding wars, raising money for medical research, feeding the Third World--causes social, religious, political, ecological, environmental or just generically moral. I doubt if there is another city in the world more preoccupied with goodness, and it is only natural that Vancouver’s most popular citizen, at the time of my most recent visit, should be Rick Hansen, who propelled his wheelchair around the entire world on behalf of the disabled. He is to the people of Vancouver what Rambo might be, perhaps, to the people of Detroit.
I went one day to the Law Courts, and thought I had never visited a building so comfortingly expressive of concern. If anything could represent in masonry the text “This Is Going To Hurt Me More Than It Hurts You,” or “I’m Not Angry With You, Only Disappointed,” this building does it. Designed by Vancouver’s most celebrated architect, Arthur Erickson, structurally it might double as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or as the foyer of a Hyatt hotel, but metaphysically it is like the consulting room of some cosmic psychiatrist. Soft, how soft are its seats; gentle, how gentle its lights, soothingly silent its air-conditioning, unalarming its decor, and within it, the majesty of the British Columbian version of Canadian law is exerted, it seems to me, with a lack of all rancor or reproach.
It is Vancouver’s virtues crystallized. In what other courthouse on earth would one hear a lawyer say, as I heard it said in this most reassuring hall of justice, “You’re faced, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, with two very, very nice people: the plaintiff and the defendant. . . .”
Does it sound a bit boring? Well, yes, perhaps it is a bit. Vancouver’s merits are not terribly exciting, and they are masked, anyway, in an all-too-becoming reserve. Its two newspapers, both owned by the same chain, must surely rank high among the dullest journals in the English language. Nobody whistles in its streets.
All Canada is reserved, undemonstrative, unassuming. I put it down variously to the size of the country, the generally daunting climate, the lingering influence of those Brits and their debilitating traditions, and the presence of the marvelous, mighty and terrible neighbor to the south. In Vancouver, however, decorum assumes a new dimension and gives the whole city (to a stranger’s sensibility, anyway) a peculiarly tentative air.
Consider the Smile Test. This is the system I employ to gauge the responsiveness of cities everywhere, and it entails smiling relentlessly at everyone I meet walking along the street--an unnerving experience, I realize, for victims of the experiment, but an invaluable tool of investigative travel journalism. Vancouver rates very low in the Smile Test: not, heaven knows, because it is an unfriendly or disagreeable city, but because it seems profoundly inhibited by shyness or self-doubt.
Pay attention now, as we put the system into action along Robson Street, the jauntiest and raciest of Vancouver’s downtown boulevards. Many of our subjects disqualify themselves from the start, so obdurately do they decline eye contact. Others are so shaken that they have no time to register a response before we have passed by. A majority look back with only a blank but generally amenable expression, as though they would readily return a smile if they could be sure it was required of them and if they were quite certain that the smile was for them and not somebody else.A few can just summon up the nerve to offer a timid upturn at the corners of the mouth, but if anybody smiles back instantly, instinctively, joyously, you can assume it’s a visiting American, an Albertan or an immigrant not yet indoctrinated.
The buildings conform. Vancouver enjoys one of the most splendid of all city settings--better than San Francisco’s because of the greenness, better than Sydney’s because of the mountains all around, rivaled perhaps only by Rio and Hong Kong. It is almost as though the surroundings have been artificially landscaped on the most colossal scale, and this necessarily gives the city an exhibition flavor, as if consciously on display.
Vancouver is new, of course. There is hardly a building in the entire city more than a century old, but so perfectly is everything cherished and maintained that even the oldest feels far younger still. This gives the city a sense of flat-timelessness that I find rather dispiriting but that adequately reflects, I suppose, the flatness of the city’s style.
Consider Gastown, for instance, which is the oldest part of Vancouver and is named for Gassy Jack Deighton, a talkative early publican of the town. Even in my own memory, Gastown used to be run down enough for the most perversely nostalgic tastes, but it has been enthusiastically restored and is now so assiduously paved and picturesque, so pretty with kiosks and ornamental lamp standards, so whimsically crowned by its Steam Clock, whose vapors drift evocatively among the sidewalk trees, that nobody would suppose it for a moment to be anything but contemporary pastiche.
Halfway through my visit, something cracked in me.
Walking along a pleasant, wooded track on Grouse Mountain, where those well-exercised girl attendants had deposited me for an hour of recreation, I was attacked by a mad ptarmigan. It lay in wait for me beside the path and, as I rambled by, it hurled itself upon my ankles, uttering sinister gurgles and prancing around me in so crazed a way that I was obliged to beat it off with my handbag.
This grotesque scene, high up there above the city, had for me an allegorical or mythical meaning, for I knew exactly how that bird felt. I too had come to think, during my stay in Vancouver, that I would like to wring the necks of the more impassive passersby, dance dementedly around them or make peculiar noises. I too found myself exasperated by the self-control, the moderation, the logic of everything and was tempted toward antisocial activities, such as scrawling graffiti on those courthouse walls or driving my rented car at 90 around Stanley Park Drive, blowing the horn and allowing hard rock to blare through my open windows.
After five days, you see, I was pining for imperfection or excess. I pined for the dingy, the neglected and the disregarded old, for a scowl now and then, for swagger, for flash. I pined for blacks, punks, French Canadians. I would not go so far as to say I pined for AT&T;, but I did occasionally wish those girls would press the wrong button on the Grouse Mountain tramway or that the SeaBus would break down in mid-crossing and be carried, floundering ludicrously, out to sea.
The ptarmigan, recognizing perhaps that we had something in common after all, begrudgingly broke off the engagement after a few moments and retreated skulking into the woods.
When I told Vancouver people about my preposterous encounter with the bird, they were not at all surprised or entertained. “You should go to Lighthouse Park,” they said, “you often see bald eagles there,” or “Did you know they’re putting a loon on one side of the dollar coin?” At first I thought this was just another symptom of their indigenous tact, but later I began to think they themselves might have a sneaking empathy for the ptarmigan’s paranoia.
For by no means are all Vancouverites content with their civic flavor. Only one in 36 of them, I am authoritatively assured (by a woman I met at Safeway), was actually born in this city, but perhaps they are vicariously nostalgic for Vancouver’s rip-roar days of old, days of Gassy Jack and Silly Billy Frost, days when the smell of dogfish oil hung on the morning air, when you paid for your pre-breakfast whiskey with gold dust on the counter, and at the House of the Nations, so it was said in 1919, a man could “get everything from a chocolate-colored damsel to a Swedish girl.” “Feral” is an adjective that recurred in conversation, and possibly Vancouverites hunger for some revived ferality in themselves.
Many of them were anxious to show me something ruffianly. Everyone, even the most genteel, urged me to take a walk along East Hastings Street, where a few halfheartedly inebriated Indians and a scattering of panhandlers and unobtrusive layabouts still offer a wan impersonation of Skid Row. Everyone told me to eat at The Only Cafe, a counter joint of legendary rough-and-readiness--"They don’t even have a washroom!” “The Wild West!” exclaimed my young taxi driver one evening, pointing out to me with satisfaction an old man with one trouser leg rolled up dancing to a sidewalk guitar.
But they need not have pressed their case, for I knew well enough, really, that Vancouver was not just a town of tame gentility. Claims or complaints reached me every day of political mayhem, financial malpractice, academic intrigue and racial bigotry. I heard of inter-Sikh hostilities, of South American drug smugglings, of currency racketeers and flamboyantly shady entrepreneurs. If I was told once I was told a dozen times about the local luminary accused of profiting from pornography and the captain of industry with a taste for flagellatory teen-age prostitutes. . . .
Besides, I had only to look around me, almost anywhere, to know that this is a city built not upon respectable appearances but upon brawn. The yellow mounds of sulfur on the shores of Burrard Inlet--the mist of grain around the north shore elevators--the long lines of wagons rolling along the bay-shore railway tracks--the huge logjams of the Fraser River, the tugs with their barges, the hefty foreign freighters swinging with the tide--the constant traffic of the seaplanes, splashing their rumps in the water as they lurch to a landing--the thicketed masts of the fishing fleets jampacked at their Steveston quays--the brightly lit floating fuel stations of Coal Harbour, in sleepless echelon through the night--the ferries perpetually on the move, the helicopters whirring across the water, the futuristic liners moored below the billowing white tent-shapes of Canada Place--all these are inescapable reminders that Vancouver is really a place of virile meaning.
Above all, perhaps, the seaplanes, for though they are part of Vancouver’s time warp, especially the ones with bulbous radial engines like aircraft of the 1930s, still they tell us how close this city is to wild and inaccessible places. Only a few miles outside its limits, all suggestion of civility evaporates. Go one way and you are in the fierce mountain country, where the peaks called The Lions peer with a distinct malevolence, I always think, over the shoulders of the foothills to the city below. Go another and you are in the dank marshlands that fringe the Fraser estuary, soggy salt-flat country where cattle graze among the sedge, sea birds whirl, and gray radar installations stand hunched eerily in the waste.
And, of course, this is Indian country.
The matter of the Indians runs deep in Vancouver and does something to undermine the cool of the place. It is queer to remember, looking out upon this city’s prospects, or for that matter coasting through the residential streets where the Musqueam band lives, that not so very long ago all this country was the domain of another culture altogether. One of Vancouver’s most eminent citizens is the artist and carver Bill Reid, half-Haida himself and the Haida’s grand protagonist, whose images of raven and owl, serpent and killer whale can hardly be escaped even by the hastiest visitor to the city.
I went to visit this old champion at his studio in Vancouver, and more than anything else the experience brought to life for me the immemorial human presence that preceded and underlies this particularly modern city. He showed me the great oceangoing canoe he had built for Expo ’86, at present upside down in a shed but still magical with gleam and craftsmanship. With a few bold strokes, he drew a whale for me. But I most enjoyed just watching him wandering around his workshop, where three young Haida apprentices were working on totem poles (the totem-pole market being bullish just now): a formidable stooped figure, rather pale, moving slowly here and there among the worktables, sometimes bending to check the elevation of a dogfish, sometimes picking up a knife to chip a raven beak or sharpen the teeth of a bear--carrying within himself, I thought, in this calm contemporary place, a power incongruously old, tragic and elusive.
Underneath a road bridge, at the top of False Creek, is the small peninsula miscalled Granville Island, once the city’s manufacturing vortex, now transformed into a mixed enclave of arts, tourism, commerce and surviving industry, with an esteemed brewery, a popular food market, yacht basins, craft shops, boat repairers, cappuccino cafes, a school of art, a houseboat community and Reid’s studio. It has been kept quite deliberately higgledy-piggledy, down to the disused railway tracks still running through it--"This realm,” says a planner’s memo in the information office, “must be Robust"--and it offers the visitor the rare Vancouver pleasure of socially acceptable jaywalking.
Vancouverites are proud of this delightful little retreat and indeed sometimes talk of it as being the True Heart of Vancouver. This only confirms my suspicion that, like many another Canadian community, Vancouver is yearning for self-release. It is a city, one feels, that wants to be something else--like a chrysalis approaching metamorphosis. It surely cannot stay as it is forever, eternally young, eternally different, defying all the odds of urban development. Vancouver feels half-empty to me, though natives complain of its growing congestion, and half-fulfilled as well.
Sometimes I think the yearning, in its inchoate way, is just a yearning for mystery or surprise. The totem poles that stand here and there within the municipality, clumped so unexpectedly in Stanley Park, dreaming arcanely in the sun outside the Museum of Anthropology, are evidence of a past that is almost lost. But they also seem to represent a desire--the very desire that I feel myself, among so much neatness and rational conduct--for that element of the transcendental, the immaterial, the instinctive, the unexplained, which comes from a sense of wider meanings and more universal standards.
More prosaically, I sense the city worrying its way toward a closer involvement with the world at large. Isolated here on its idyllic shore, thousands of miles from its own federal capital, a wilderness to the north of it, a foreign country to the south, Vancouver feels particularly alone. One of its dreams now is the dream of pan-Pacificism, based upon the theory that the Pacific Ocean is becoming the world’s epicenter and that the cities all around its rim are destined to form a great brotherhood of mutual prosperity.
According to this fantasy, Vancouver would discover a new self in pan-Pacificism (a self, I suspect, not unlike that of Sydney, a city toward which Vancouverites seem to look with almost pathetic envy). It would become a teeming metropolis of banks, investment houses and cosmopolitan speculators, electronically hyperactive 24 hours a day--all flickering computer screens, shirt-sleeved money manipulators keyed in to Tokyo and Hong Kong, power breakfasts with Japanese brokers at the Vancouver Club.
And, to a degree, it is happening. The Asians are certainly coming, whether they be sushi masters or trade delegates; so rich is the town in Asian faces that Vancouver’s long-established Chinatown is hardly noticeable these days. Wide expanses of downtown belong to Hong Kong interests, the Bank of British Columbia is a subsidiary of the Hong Kong Bank, the Pan Pacific Hotel is Japanese-owned, and one is not at all surprised to find that the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden, said to be the finest outside China, has been financed by such scholarly philanthropists as British Columbia Telephones and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. (So pervasive are these developments that for some time I assumed the logo of the Royal Bank of Canada, which depicts a sort of squashed-up lion holding an orb, to be a Chinese ideogram.)
Anyway, however Asian it becomes, however pan-Pacific, Vancouver will doubtless always depend upon the old staples of its economy, upon the lumber industry, upon the port trade, upon tourism, upon canning and fishing and milling and refining. If I dare make a prophecy, as a matter of fact, I would myself hazard an unpopular guess that in 50 years’ time, Vancouver will be much as it is today, only less so.
Less pristine and meticulous, that is, for even Vancouver cannot permanently escape the urban rot. Less fresh-faced and imperturbable, as the ethnic balance shifts. Less reserved and unassertive, perhaps, as competition bites. Less orderly and uptight, as the legacy of the British wanes at last. Less restrained and considerate, as the free trade in violence and vulgarity inexorably proceeds.
Less beautiful? I think not--nothing can really spoil the natural glory of it. Less boring? Oh certainly, sure to be less boring.
GUIDEBOOK: BASIC VANCOUVER
Getting there: Both Canadian Pacific and Delta offer several daily nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Vancouver.
Where to stay: Though author Morris has no specific recommendations, the top centrally located hotels in Vancouver include The Four Seasons, West Georgia and Howe streets (telephone 604-689-9333; for reservations call 800-332-3442); Le Meridien, 845 Burrurd St. (telephone 604-682-5511; for reservations call 800-543-4300), and the more traditional Hotel Vancouver, 900 W. Georgia St. (telephone 604-684-3131; for reservations call 800-828-7447). A more modestly priced but still central hotel is Chateau Granville, 1100 Granville St., (telephone 604-669-7070; for reservations call 800-528-1234.)