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Friday, 20 September 2013

Vancouver Uncouvered


Rising out over the Pacific with a population of about 600,000, about an hour's drive north of the 49th parallel, lies Vancouver, Canada's only West Coast metropolis. It's a combo deal.Think Seattle (Starbucks and knapsacks); San Francisco (high rises, high culture, and high times); and Los Angeles (Tinseltown's other favourite location city). And palm trees. (Transplanted, to be sure. Still....) And rough and tumble.(Since Vancouver is also Canada's only West Coast port city, add that longshoreman paradise, Long Beach, California, to the resemblance list). Oh, another thing.... With more than 40 percent of residents of Asian descent, there's more than a bit of Oriental spice here. (Vancouver's Chinatown is the second largest in North America after that in San Francisco). Shades of Shanghai?
About the aforementioned marijuana high. Its medical use is legal in B.C. It's all about the definition, then, of medical.
First, the Beauty
What underscores the city's magnificent vista is a mixture of natural beauty and man-made marvels. Scores of high-rise buildings form the city's core, skirting the northern and southern edges of the Vancouver peninsula. At its tip jutting into the Strait of Georgia (technically, the city lies on the strait, not the ocean) is Stanley Park. This parkland (mostly rough and woolly, and a considerable bit manicured in the West End) puts Vancouver in for another second-place finish -- the park is the largest urban park in North American after Fairmount Park in Philadelphia.
The northern harbour in English Bay lies below the Grouse Mountain range, forming a long-shot backdrop of spectacular splendour. In a close-ups, seaplanes skim the harbour. Cruise ships anchor away. Kids ride uni-wheel Sedways. (Yes, the exist. Just not back East. Yet). And people walk. Centre city is a tight, dense core. In my 48-hour visit, I think I walked most of downtown. Some parts even twice.
Public transport for longer cross-town journeys, enhanced in the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, is a combination of elevated rail and underground rapid transit, and now extends to a new airport just southwest of the city. As in some systems in Latin Amerrican countries, the so-called SkyTrain carriages here are open to each other for convenience of movement and safety. Until recently, the 'subway' was also based on a honour system. That was changing, with the installtion of stiles when I was there recently. What hasn't changed is the overall cleaniness of the stations and carriages. I know. I know. 'Canadian Cleaniness' is the No. 1 cliché in describing this country's appearance. Yet, name another rapid transit system where cleaners sweep the cars at all hours -- even with passengers aboard. As the saying goes, 'The World Needs a Bit More Canada.'
By George!
A number of years ago, I was visiting a cemetery in Richmond Park, in southwest London, just scoping out interesting and, in many cases, historical grave stones. I came across a small group that was entranced with the stone before them, and I soon recognised their Can-nook accent. Buried at ther feet was Captain George Vancouver.
Vancouver, a subaltern to Captain James Cook, had been deputised to investigate the waters in the Northwest, and so he did in the late 18th century. So, well, in fact, that and the crew of the Discovery discovered Puget Sound and points as far inland as Mount Ranier, now in Washington state, and in what is now British Columbia. Important navigational benefits resulted. But now, of course, we best remember the intrepid captain for this eponymous city and nearby island, where B.C.'s capital is sited.
Given Vancouver's almost blanket discoveries in the Pacific Northwest, it's wonder his name hasn't been bestowedd to the larger region. After the 49th Parallel was established in 1846, creating what is now euphemiscally called the world's 'longest undefended international border,' parts south got more local names. Seattle was a Indian chief. Washington's name was just new-American chauvinism, akin to something like naming Vancouver Victoria. (Actually, B.C.'s capital city on Vancouver Island got that moniker).
After basking in the new-found glory of what is now Vancouver's harbour, Captain Vancouver returned to England, retiring to a place not far from where he was buried (at age forty!) and where, I subsequently learned, many Vancouverians and British Columbians still make pilgrimage.
I was having a coffee with a new acquaintance in an over-priced café in the southside Granville Island neighbourhood, a hipster hood -- though dotted with requisite mall shops. 'You know, I once visited Vancouver's grave site in London,' I said to my new friend. Her response was something like 'Vancouver who?'
Granville Island (***) Dominated by food markets. Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. (Carr was an early BC artist). The Vancouver Writers Fest, from 22 to 27 October, will be held at different island venues.
West End (***) High-end shopping. Though much of it is déja vue, the shops represent a downtown version of King-of-Prussia's A-team. High-rise apartment buildings.
Stanley Park (****) How this parkland survived as Vancouver burgeoned from Small-Town Nowhere in the last century to Canada's Western capital is a miracle. Most of 'new' Vancouver is less than fifty years old.
Gastown (****) The Old City, bordering the harbour and Burrard Inlet. (Captain Vancouver discovered that too). Again, it's a marvel that so much of the cobble-stoned 19th century and early 20th century city has survived. (Be sure to have your picture snapped in front of the 'ancient' steam clock on West Cordova Street. Actually, the clock is modern replica. Who knew that clocks were ever steam driven?)
Chinatown (*) Forgetaboutit. Yes, the second largest Chinatown in North America. In the case, size doesn't matter. The area is seedy and difficult to navigate. (We ate at an upscale, late-night noodle house downtown on West Georgia Street). Worse, Chinatown is adjacent, just streets away, really, from Vancouver's raunchy Skid Row on East Hastings Street. (Philadelphians haven't seen anything like this since the demise of its 'row' near where Pennsylvania Convention Center is now located). Scores of forty-something druggies (mostly men) loiter about aimlessly. I suppose they're awaiting an institutional hand-out, something like the once notorious feeding and watering on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philly. Dangerous? Maybe. But if dangerous, at least clean dangerous. Remember, this still well-scrubbed Canada.
Downtown (*****) The heart of the city. High-rise office and hotel towers. Vancouver Art Gallery.
And, in the downtown midst, the Hudson's Bay Company flagship store at 674 Granville Street. When I walked around the corner and first eyed this building, I was gobsmacked. It were as if I had stepped onto Oxford Street in London and stood before Selfridges. Though the two buildings were built years apart (Selfridges in 1909) and The Bay (in 1927), both are six-story neo-Classical wonders with Corinthian columns. I wouldn't be surprised if the Vancouver store was modeled after George Selfridge's miracle emporium as something of a homage.
About twenty years ago, I sat in an auditorium at the Kennedy School of Government, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, awaiting the lecturer. I was an adjunct at Harvard's Extension School, and, between and after classes, I had become accustomed to killing time before commuting home by hanging at the Kennedy School.
As a faculty member -- even a part-time one -- I was given special access to sit in on seminars and the like. I remember meeting Christopher Hitchens that way. That afternoon, I awaited Avril Phædra Douglas Campbell, otherwise known as 'Kim' Campbell.
I'm not certain I remember why I attended Campbell's lecture, other than for her status as the only female Prime Minster of Canada. Despite its brevity, from January to June 1993. (She still claims that status). Campbell was also the first Prime Minister to have been born (1947) in British Columbia, then hailing from Vancouver.
I just recall two or three things about my encounter, first at the lecture and, later, during a brief personal introduction to Campbell at a reception. That she was terribly blond, really blond. That she seemed a bit dim-witted. And, lastly, that I sought and received her autograph. I'm sort of embarrassed about that last groupie-like memory.