Vancouver is not the city I expected it to be. While the mountains surrounding the city, especially through the fog, give it a charming ghost-like quality, I can’t help but be disappointed by most of it. I am usually able to stay quite positive about the cities that I visit, even when I’m suffering from some illness that comes with travel, but the truth is that I’m more than a little bored here.
I’m in Vancouver for a conference on modernism and the novel, and that too have proven to be somewhat of a disappointment. The conference is small, which I tend to prefer, but I am not quite able to get over the academic jargon that has infected the conversation (I almost wrote “public discourse, so you can see how infectious it is). So, as a bored spectator whose paper was delivered earlier in the day, I decided to head out to the Vancouver Public Library.
There is not really much to see in Vancouver that would take more than a well-planned day to accomplish. Although the more touristy parts of Vancouver, like Gastown and Robson Street, do hold some appeal for the visitor, all of that can be experienced in an hour or two. The most interesting part of the city is the corner the guidebooks and Internet commentators tell you to stay away from: East Hastings and Main Streets. So, overcome with boredom and a curiosity to walk on the wild side, I headed east yesterday evening to Chinatown (another disappointment) and made my way to the seedier section of Vancouver.
The reality of this part of Vancouver does not come upon the traveler gradually, but all of a sudden, as if he had stepped off the curb and into another world. I turned the corner onto Main and there it was: the passed over. This side of town is full of junkies, prostitutes, the homeless, and the mentally ill. The intoxicating smell of pot, which is quite strong in places, is alternated frequently with the strong smell of human piss and shit. It’s no wonder the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce tucks this side of town out of sight from its guidebooks; if I lived in Vancouver I would be ashamed too. The decay is strong here, and not just in the human subjects. The buildings are all old and in various states of dilapidation. Vacant lots stand out like a mouth with several of its teeth missing (I think I stole this line from something I read by John Gardner, but I can’t recall). There are several bars and taverns, all of which seem to have a steady stream of people moving in and out. This is an all-too familiar picture of a society that has all but forgotten its own.
As my curiosity about this corner began to subside, I became angry. Why wasn’t the city doing more to help the neighborhood? Why were the buildings and sidewalks in such need of repair? There was no pride here, only neglect. I kept reminding myself that only two or three blocks away was Gastown and its population of yuppies and tourists. There were no gastro pubs on these streets, no boutiques, no high-end shoe stores or celebrity chef restaurants. There was only pain, despair, and reality.
The corner of Hastings and Main is loud. Its chaotic mess, replete with hideous laughter and shouting, with girls looking you up and down, with guys giving you a side stare, grates on the nerves. This was not a neighborhood on the verge of crisis; I had walked straight down the middle of the crisis. I wanted to take my phone out to snap a picture, but fear got the better of me and I did not want a confrontation so I kept it in my pocket like a coward. I wanted to approach some of the people standing around and ask them to tell me their stories, but I didn’t have the guts. Who was I but an intruder in their world, which was clearly not mine. The people on the street were not a threat; I was the threat, because I didn’t belong there. I had not earned the right to ask them about their lives. So I kept walking down Main and toward the more civilized light of Gastown.
Later, as I wrote up my impressions in the Vancouver Public Library, I was overcome with emotion and confusion. Around me were students and the clearly homeless, all busy in their lives. The corner of Hastings and Main is a long way from Robson Street with its high-end shops and restaurants. I spent a good deal of time window shopping on Robson, but it only occurs to me now that the only time I wasn’t bored in Vancouver was when I was on the corner of Hastings and Main.