High-end Vancouver, like its high-end hockey team, has alienated working-class fans to the point of anger.
If you believe Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, as well as a commentator for this online publication, the rioters who set fire to parts of downtown Vancouver last week after the Canucks’ Stanley Cup loss were mindless, unCanadian hooligans. Unequivocal dismissals are pithy – hardliners always offer the best quotations. I don’t actually know what started the riots, but dismissing any social phenomenon is more lazy than tough. Worse, such dismissiveness mirrors a dissonance between the tranquil image Vancouver exports and the lie the city has become.
Gregor Robertson lives in a comfortable 23rd Avenue house one block west of Oak Street. Until the mid-1980s, Oak was the division between the city’s wealthy and middle classes. Moving east from Oak to Cambie, Main, and Fraser, each major north-south street was a further step toward working-class homes, immigrants, and the rundown schools that defined Vancouver as an affordable city at the continental edge.
That Vancouver’s western peninsula was also spectacular did not alter its grungy identity. The Canucks were part of this grunge. To compete with large markets in Chicago and New York in a pre-salary cap National Hockey League required overachievement from blue-collar grinders. Stan Smyl, Darcy Rota, Harold Snepsts, Tiger Williams, and Powell River’s Gary Lupul were neither swift nor snipers. Even the King, Richard Brodeur, was a castoff.
This was the bliss of 1982: the workers from a third-class industrial port sticking it to the plutocratic dynasties of Reagan America. If not for Snepsts’ devastating turnover at the end of regulation in Game One, the momentum might not have shifted toward the Islanders; Thomas Gradin, remember, staked the Canucks to an early 2-0 lead in that game. And had King Richard’s blood not stained his crease after taking a Dan Daoust slapshot to his ear early the next season, the Canucks could have continued surging, even with Edmonton in ascent.
Despite being swept, Mayor Mike Harcourt threw a parade for our team. (They were losers, but they were our losers!) The triumph coursed through an underdeveloped downtown, everybody singing and still waving plain white towels ecstatically. Nothing glamorous: a harbour of floating timber and barges loaded with sawdust; an old mining town of mac jackets and mullets, mingling with fatigued natives and hippie draft dodgers living in a soaked provincial refuge, unknown to the world because there was not much to know. The Beachcombers was the rage.
Contrast that city toasting its losers with the decadence that turned Vancouver from a forgotten port to a poor man’s Hollywood. There is no undeveloped property anywhere – every nook and niche claimed by condominiums, stadia, coffee, and casinos; timbermen’s jackets replaced by adorable Lululemon asses, the costume of a leisure class with time to shape their figures; hippies gone wealthy, local festivals marketed worldwide, mountains transformed to Monte Carlo; the mines – though still economic bedrock – obscured by film crews and marijuana monopolies.
Who are the Canucks of this city? A cosmopolitan Franco-European crew, bankrolled by a mining titan beloved by Bill Clinton, a roster adorned by cranky $5 million stars who cannot thrive without serene pre-game walks to meditate along the seawall, and whose only local boy hardly plays. If I’m a second- or third-generation diehard fan watching Tim Thomas dive and lunge for every puck, the way you expect of a blue-collar Michigander from a dying (actually dead) industrial town, it’s tough not to be outraged by Roberto Luongo’s blueblooded butterfly or the east-west evasiveness of a Sedin cycle. If you are going to look so pretty on the ice, you better win.
Gregor Robertson took office in the autumn of 2008, at the peak of global economic panic. Atop what policies did he ride to city hall? More bike lanes and making the city more hospitable to artists. There were pro-poor economic platforms, yes, but hand-wringing about homelessness and drug addiction is hardly a social-democratic philosophy.
There were also outrageous promises of affordable middle-class housing.
Until I was 13, I lived four houses up the hill on 23rd Avenue from where Robertson resides. We had a plum tree and raspberry bushes. There was a schoolyard across the alley where we shot hoops and practised wrist shots. We walked to school. Our friends lived in the neighbourhood. It was a good place to live.
Today, a single-floor postwar home on 23rd is worth a cool million. The districts across Cambie, Main, and Fraser, once avoided by puny Jewish kids who knew nothing about fists and fights, are coveted grounds for swanky young parents. Coupled with obscene food prices, living in the heart of Vancouver – anywhere near the Sedins’ Yaletown condos – is no less expensive than life in Manhattan.
Were I now living in Vancouver, I would have to move further east. No matter my ordinations from the educated class, I am a data point on the downward trend where the purchasing power of middle-class offspring is exponentially lower than the income of the parents who spawned them.
Because the million-dollar range stretches past the Pacific National Exhibition and the old Canucks Coliseum, my hypothetical move east displaces still further the working classes and immigrants who once occupied these formerly grunge areas. The people upon whose backs the city – any city – hums are not part of the post- Expo ’86, Hong Kong, Whistler-Blackcomb, cannabis capitalism, cult-of-celebrity, and Olympics economic boom that make the 2011 Vancouver Canucks possible.
Nevertheless, the Vancouver mayor glamourizes the city as a beacon of “sustainable” urbanism. I am sorry, but sustainability has nothing to do with bike lanes to cross bridges connecting one affluent neighbourhood to another. Sustainable development is equal parts environmentalism and social justice; it is the principle that every individual, class, race, nation, and generation has equal rights to prosperity and resources – an ethics of distribution. And for the past 30 years, up to and including Robertson’s administration, Vancouver has veered away from, not toward, the ethics of sustainability.
Testifying internationally to Vancouver’s glory does not change the crisis. You cannot be a sustainable city when no working-class resident can afford to live within a 45-minute drive of the city centre, a universe away from Luongo’s seawall. Neither can you call a city sustainable when no brown or yellow person with an accent – half the city – can be elected to your city council. Nor is it sustainable when gangs have more control than municipalities; ask them if more bike paths might calm their violence, or if they are warring because Vancouver does not have enough artists.
Meanwhile, the commentator who thinks the rioters “mindless” because he is watching the Arab Spring from Dubai (where, incidentally, Emiratis must commute from neighbouring emirates like Sharjah because they, too, can no longer afford to live in the boom-of-all-booms), does not see his own deception. You were inside Rogers Arena. You were at the game. Like the mayor, you can afford the price of admission – unlike the drunken masses watching from the street.
Like baseball in America, the politics and economics of hockey are always a perfect reflection of what is happening in society at large. To brand the hockey rioters unCanadian, to call them mindless, reveals the disaffection of the political class from the troubled soul of Vancouver, not theirs. Not ours.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.