Vancouver, the City of Glass

After making two flippant references to Douglas Coupland’s City of Glass on Metroblogging, Ryan had to lend me the book to let me know what I’m referring to. This also provides me my first exposure to Douglas Coupland’s writing, if you can call it representative, since the coffee-table book consists of alphabetized bite-sized and unrelated chapters.

As the back cover suggests, “imagine that Doug is at the wheel of the car and you’re the passenger…. This isn’t the ‘official’ take on Vancouver, but it’s [his] take”….

Here I’ve included some of my favourite sections (i.e., where I was nodding most vigorously, or laughed out loud when I read it). My comments follow some of the sections.

“Fleece” section (On going to MEC)
In the same way you might clean up the house before the maid arrives, you dress more athletically before shopping there so as not to feel like a complete slug.
Ha! So true….

“Kits” section
Whenever you see a beer commercial and wonder where all those beautiful, athletic, fun-loving, Jeep-driving beer drinkers live, the answer is that they live in Kitsilano, or “Kits.”… Kits is so perky…
And full of Kits snobs. =P

“Mt. Baker” section
About 100 kilometres away from downtown liees Mount Baker, an American Fuji…. Mount Baker is important to the Vancouver psyche in that it stands there, huge, record-breaking and serene, shooting off just enough steam every few years to let us know that if it really want to, it could bury us. It’s a metaphor for the United States: seductive but distant, powerful and at least temporarily benign.
I love getting a glimpse of Mt. Baker. But I’m not usually facing that way.

“The Rest of Canada” section

  • Vancouver is not part of Canada. Not really. There’s a genuine sense of disconnection from the Rest of Canada that we feel here. While Ontario looms large in the minds of most other Canadians, said province simply doesn’t enter our minds from one week to the next.
  • In looking through the souvenir book from my high school… I noticed that dozens and dozens of classmates had married Americans from Washington, Oregon and California, and only a small number had connected in any way to the east….
  • There’s nothing unpatriotic about Vancouver’s psychic disconnection from the Rest of Canada – it’s a reality fostered by Vancouver’s distance from Canada’s centre, and from a tradition of abandoning that very centre to try something new.

I am one guilty of abandoning the traditional to try something new!!

“Lions Gate”
Perhaps in your city there is a structure so potent and glorious… a structure through which all of your dreams and ideas and hopes are funnelled… there is one such structure, a fairy-tale bridge called Lions Gate Bridge…. it looks to be spun from liquid sugar….
Halifax has not one, but two suspension bridges, buddy. Twice the fairy tale. Okay, fine, there is a prettier backdrop of the North Shore Mountains to Lion’s gate.

“Seattle” section

  • You’d think two cities so close to each other, with similar populations and geography, would be alike, but you’d be wrong. Seattle sees itself as being a spit away from Alaska… like to think of themselves as resembling the guy on the Brawny paper towel label. Or Bill Gates. On the other hand, Vancouver sees itself as the warmest place in Canada, a sort of colder, rainier Malibu. Vancouverites drive around with the top down in February and sit at outside bistros in March, activities that would be unthinkable three hours south in Seattle. Vancouver also sees itself as the end of the line – if you live in Canada and you want to either reinvent yourself or enter you own witness relocation project, Vancouver is where you go. Seattle, in being the gateway to Alaska, by default forfeits its role as End of the Line.
  • Also, Seattle also actually makes things – 747s and such – whereas Vancouver isn’t really a thing-making place. Like simpletons, we ship away all our raw materials – but we do make cable-access movies and grow pot with record-breaking THC counts.
  • When Vancouverites think of Seattle, they think mostly about eighteen-lane gridlocked freeways that run in all directions, frequently with lanes stacked on top of each other. They also think of the huge mounds of food – vast heaving groaning portions of food – dished up at restaurants along I-5. When Seattleites think of Vancouver (which is not as often as you might think – and many Americans who really ought to know better call Vancouver Island “Victoria Island”), they think of it as a weird city that has no freeways and where getting from anywhere to anywhere involves complex routes and many stoplights. Both views of each other are correct.

Gave you nearly the whole section for the benefit of my one/two? Seattle readers. =D

“See-Throughs” section

  • A case in point are what locals call “see-throughs,” the glass condominium towers, pale blue or pale green, that have come to dominate the city skyline since 1990….
  • These glass towers strike many visitors as a key element of the city’s character. A friend from the States told his mother that Vancouver was a city of glass buildings and no curtains, and everybody gets to watch each other. A voyeur’s paradise, so to speak…. it takes only a few weeks to build a see-through. Citizens go away on holiday and return to a completely different place.

I’ve never heard of them being called “see-throughs,” by the way. But I didn’t live here for decades either.

“Vansterdam” section
The New York Times calls Vancouver “Vansterdam” because of its Dutch laxity on the issues of sex and pot. Exotic dancers, male and female, need not wear nipple tassels, pasties or G-strings. Nobody’s really sure what the pot laws are, but there seem to be an awful lot of very funky-looking people roaming the streets.
The majority of Vancouverites are only dimly aware of the depth and breadth of what goes on here.

“Weather” section
To complain about the weather is the sure mark of an outsider…. we [do] get the most spectacular springs on the continent, where all the trees and shrubs go berserk with colour in a way reminiscent of Polynesia….
Interesting comparison and much better than Tamara Taggert’s CTV promo where she’s flat-out gushing about how it’s sooooo beautiful here.

“Whistler” section
A large part of Whistler’s social texture comes from its labour pool, which shifts with the seasons. It’s highly transient and almost entirely youthful, largely fuelled by Eastern Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders harbouring (it really must be said) outdoorsy fantasies of consequence-free sex, drugs and downhill skiing. For the first-time visitor, the smell of pheromones, marijuana and Piz Buin can be overwhelming, and for young service industry workers, it’s indeed almost irresistible. And the fact remains, the resort does have some of the world’s best skiing.

“Cantonese” section
The city that Vancouver most closely resembles, if it can be said to resemble any other at all, is Honolulu, which also has a lot of people squished into a small area bordered by mountains, hyperinflated real estate values, a sense of disconnection from the rest of the world and, not least, a racial and ethnic mix of Natives, Europeans and Asians.

It’s all subjective, right? So when I say, “City of Glass”, it’s one part begrudging that the condos that look awful and wholly unfinished by day are rather pretty sparkling at night, and another part snidely adhering to my stance that Vancouver is a nascent hedonistic paradise or a shiny, happy Wonderland. I suppose Mr. Coupland spent more years here and can see, despite all the surface changes, that the core of Vancouver is solidly rooted in Canadian values. Suffice it so say, that was not the first impression I got.

On this day..