Vancouver Accelerates: Thirty Years of Dwelling

Al Neil’s blue cabin, picture by  Carol Itter .

Al Neil’s blue cabin, picture by Carol Itter.

Bringing myself to reflect on the various aspects of the city I have known, nearing 30 years of life here — the feeling I’m left with is not so much that Vancouver vanishes, but rather Vancouver accelerates. To my memory, Vancouver was always transient and impermanent – the result of people and objects assembling in unused corners and spaces.

This is how Charles Campbell describes the location of jazz musician Al Neil’s famous Blue Cabin in a previous issue of SubTerrain (#79):

“The house is a remnant of a life that’s been obliterated in Vancouver. Call it the last squat. Yet because the Blue Cabin sat on a very particular in-between place. It survived”.

Vancouver used to be full of these in-between assemblages, but recently with the housing shortage, these dwelling places—and concurrently our capacity to dwell in a place—have been under siege. 

  1. the lot

A symptom of acceleration is in part, a hollowing out: of people, or relationships, of feeling, of habits, but mainly, of difference.

One night, our neighbour across the alley blew herself up. It was the late nineties/early noughts, and our neighbour, an old woman named Mrs Smith, would smoke while breathing through her oxygen mask. What happened was sad but predictable. The resultant fire destroyed her home and the one next to hers. Her neighbour, an elderly Italian woman, had stayed at her sister’s the night of the explosion. She came home the next morning and promptly died of a heart attack upon witnessing the devastation in front her.

It was out of such “vanishings” that Mrs Smith’s Lot was born.

Very quickly, the concrete foundation of her vanished home became a street hockey court for us neighbourhood kids; the overgrown yard became a hiding place during capture-the-flag games between warring blocks (the alley being the neutral zone). We even painted a sign to designate this unofficial community space. 

Eventually, after many years, the lot was developed into duplexes. Around this same time, I began to notice other changes in the neighbourhood. Although my family and most of our neighbours occupied what were technically single-family homes with a front- and back yard, these homes were most often divided into 3 and sometimes 4 or 5 separate suites. Multi-family dwellings created the lively streets and alleys that people began associating with Vancouver’s Commercial Drive (lively, at least, compared to the relative desolation of many Vancouver neighbourhoods). After the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, property values increased throughout the city; an eastward migration began. West Siders sold their 2 million dollar homes and began to occupy the East. These multi-family complexed became true single-family homes. Mass renovation ensued—new two-car garages, game rooms, the works. These 3-storey homes went from housing 12-15 people to 2-4 [i].

To my mind, this signifies Vancouver’s acceleration. A symptom of acceleration is in part, a hollowing out: of people, or relationships, of feeling, of habits, but mainly, of difference. Indeed according to recent census data, Commercial Drive is less culturally, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse.

Less difference, we know, brings less plurality. Less plurality, according to my favourite biologist Kalevi Kull, brings less life, for what is life but that ‘which makes things plural’:

“The difference between anything meaningful and anything that has no meaning can be described as a difference between the unique and the plural, or one and many.” [ii]

A less diverse place, is one that thinks less, for to think at all we must encounter some thing, some meaning beyond ourselves. 

2. the demolition

In my early twenties, after spending my childhood and teenage years on Commercial Drive, I moved away to the rambling sea of three-storey walk-ups that line the area from Southslope to Metrotown in Burnaby. Most of these beige econo-lodges, built in the seventies, were home to a diversity of folks. There was a strong Ukrainian population, many Franco-African families, East Asian seniors who had lived in these apartments since their erection—and many young couples (as we were) taking advantage of the affordable rent.

Metrotown/Southslope , Burnaby, BC. In the shadow of mammoths.

Metrotown/Southslope, Burnaby, BC. In the shadow of mammoths.

Then the demolition came, and it was sudden and fierce. 

Pretty soon, ours was the only building not sold to developers left on the street. Giant craters opened up in the earth to make room for thirty storey apartment blocks, casting the older dwellings in mammoth shadows. These newer developments made it clear from the outset that they were targeting the well-off. Our neighbourhood became bombarded with billboards: “the most luxurious homes in Metrotown”, “Sleek, modern apartments” “modern, high-class, living”, among other empty advertising platitudes. [iii]

Soon, there were open houses and showrooms happening weekly in the neighbourhood. I went to several, to make sense of the commotion. I observed that a good portion of the attendants were international students – 19 or 20 years old with luxury sports cars in tow – and that many of these sessions were solely conducted in Mandarin. I point this out, not trying to blame or ‘other’ these wealthy young people, but rather to express who the target demographic of these new homes was from the perspective of the business and politics of real estate.

Developers, as well as municipal and provincial politicians, allowed and in fact fostered this pattern of luxury development to replace low-income rental housing. There never an intention of fostering dwelling spaces for people, nor any intention to enhance the existing ‘dwelling community’. It’s safe to say that it was a widespread and systematic displacement in an attempt to cash-in on a booming international market. It didn’t seem to matter that the area was a traditional NDP stronghold and that we had Kennedy Stewart as our MP. [iv] I watched how quickly many of the families who lived in these apartments – our neighbours – left the neighbourhood. When it all got too much, we too, moved across the train tracks to rent a 400 square foot studio in one of these new developments. 

Long-time mayor of Burnaby, Derek Corrigan periodically appeared in the media to tell us that low or middle-income folks couldn’t expect to live near the SkyTrain corridor—they would have to seek cheaper accommodation in “less central areas” of the region. “Those are the realities” he said. The city would make money from profitable housing sales in desirable areas to make room for non-profit housing away from the SkyTrain. The funny thing about this argument is that the sea of newcomers to the Metrotown-area by large didn’t seem to be overly dedicated to public transit us. This was evidenced by the sheer number of luxury vehicles you’d find in our new strata-run building’s parking garage, and the insane amount of competition for multiple parking spots and street parking in and around these new developments. In fact, we rented out our own parking spot to residents in the building who needed space for a second car—when they were a five minute walk from one of the best transit systems in North America (Skytrain)!

This is perhaps the deep-seated irony about our region’s green ambitions: that working-class folks who represent the ideal demographic for public transit are forced, due to rising un-affordability, into areas further and further out of city centres and away from viable transit options.

While it may seem separate and siloed, this displacement removes the availability of services and small business in these areas of now inflated land values. In some areas of the Lower Mainland, the result is increased traffic and congestion as workers make their way to the areas in which they work but cannot afford to live. North Vancouver is linked to the Mainland via two bridges which are consistently clogged by commuter traffic. Construction workers, skilled tradespeople and service workers commute from the Valley and the surrounding suburbs because they cannot afford to live where they work. There were 1,880 more people who work on the North Shore in 2016 but live elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, compared to 2011 census data. This number continues to grow quickly. [v]

In other places within the Lower Mainland, businesses have closed down, leaving an empty streetscape. A quick online search for Robson Street yields these sad but funny results.

We would do well to follow the examples laid down by cities like Vienna, which emphasize that a livable city means that all residents have “a right to the centre”; not only the elite or the lucky, and that social housing is for all of a society, not only the destitute.

3. returning

But what is the real price of this kind of space? Is this housing crisis truly the end of dwelling spaces, or the end of a particular kind of dwelling, or a North American dwelling ideal?
Photo from  stopdisplacement.ca

Eventually, we left South Burnaby and back to an econolodge in my childhood neighbourhood of Grandview-Woodland. Over the five years in Burnaby, our rent had risen to the point where it was now no different from an average Vancouver apartment, within a neighbourhood with much less to offer in terms of public amenities and neighbourhood cohesion. In these ways we experienced the divorce between land-value and dwelling value. Our new (old) neighbourhood with its old businesses and immigrant footprint cost as much as the old (new) neighbourhood of condos and box-stores.

These days, many 30-somethings rush to grab what little piece of the housing market left to them, even if this means moving hours out of town to under-serviced suburban regions. Clearly, an average family can’t expect a four-bedroom/three-bathroom/two-car garage home in the centre of the city. But what is the real price of this kind of space? Is this housing crisis truly the end of dwelling spaces, or the end of a particular kind of dwelling, or a North American dwelling ideal?

In Building Dwelling ThinkingHeidegger asks:

“do the houses in themselves hold any guarantee that dwelling occurs in them?”


Dwelling implies something more ecological and foundational to our being than mere housing — it requires rootedness, as well as time and place in historically dynamic environments that don’t reduce neatly to mind-body, culture-nature separations:

“Dwelling is about the rich intimate ongoing togetherness of beings and things which make up landscapes and places, and which bind together nature and culture”.[vi]

At a deep level, the problem is educational: the end of dwelling comes not from a housing shortage, nor crisis, nor a mass exodus to the suburbs. It appears out of an inability to suspend the world and make sense of it with your community.

This is the essence of the etymology of school, in the Greek form scholé (or free time). School is time free from productive time. Kids of all backgrounds and demographics freed from having to ‘earn their keep’ so that they can have a fair shot. Schooling, in this understanding, is expressed in the possibility of suspension; where the younger generation can put what they’ve received from the previous generation ‘on the table’, suspend it from the demands of everyday life, and imagine things anew. Schooling is in this sense a de-acceleration, a slowing down and an opening to the future[vii]. A housing crisis is a disruption of this essential and foundational intergenerational continuity that keeps people in touch with the places they inhabit.

Accelerationism, from the  NewStatesman

Accelerationism, from the NewStatesman

The term accelerationism refers broadly to some streams of social and political theory that assert that all the various efforts to reform late-stage capitalism, and its persistent technocratic and utopian undercurrents, ultimately function to prolong and extend its inevitable demise, not to mention the ecological destruction that comes with this prolonging. Accelerationists want to encourage the inevitable speeding up of global capitalist processes — to enhance, not mitigate, its self-destructive tendencies, so that radical change becomes possible. The logic is essentially Marxist: that the basic structures of ‘global’ capitalism (not ruling out the inevitability of more local forms of trade and commerce) ensure its own destruction and collapse, from the basic premise that infinite growth in a finite planet is not possible. So, the question becomes, not ‘will capitalism end?’, but ‘how will capitalism [as we know it] end?’ [viii]

One important and perceivable sign of this speeding up is evident within increased speculation and financialization – how the flow of capital is now no longer tethered to labour; free to travel at ‘the speed of thought’, as Marx predicted. This is well displayed through the Vancouver housing market, in which the price of homes is not even remotely in line with what people actually earn.

Another irony: there can be no deliberate thought at such a speed (no suspension, no scholé): simply unconscious persuasion. Italian social scientist Franco Ferraroti explains this feeling of time-destroying urgency and its effects on the human psyche: 

I can’t think now; I’m in a hurry; I’ve no time. In the phrase, there is the idea of postponement, an indefinite one, until there will be time, until the hurry, the urgency will be over. However, urgency and lack of time are interrelated concepts, terms, and existential situations. The greater the hurry, the less time one has. Urgency destroys time in advance. In the end, there is no more running toward, hurry with a direction, an aim, a telos; there is only the pure and simple act of running, not knowing where or why. This is pure urgency, made into an internalized habit and a way of life, without any aim which could give it meaning. [ix]

Does the following sound like the kinds of conversations you hear in the streets at anytime of day and anywhere in the city?

“The housing market’s taken a dip this month, eh? Is this the time to finally give it a go?”
”Be careful divesting though, the American dollar is strong right now so that means…”
”I’d have to do some renovations if I wanted to get a good return on mine...”
”Well, you better hurry cause this bubble won’t last long…”

Thought requires the possibility of dwelling, of entering into habit with another, but as investment capital pours into the city as quickly as Metrotown is redeveloped, all possibility of this evaporates. When globalized capitalism and the increased financialization that comes with it extends to the places we live and dwell in, what you are left with is property. Property endowed, with massive commodity-value, but property emptied out of meaning.  

To be a young person is to wake to a world that feels decidedly not our own — a world created for others, with a different set of opportunities and values that you can’t seem to fully make use of — a world that seems to be the final spinning out of cycles and processes that were created long before we were born. These cycles will ensure our collective eco-destruction and societal disintegration, you’ve been told over and over, but still, they are all that is afforded to us. A mass dis-imagination machine (as Henry Giroux would call it) is at work: media tells us everyday to imagine the end of the world; not the end of our current globalist trajectory. We are told, especially in our Canadian context, that meaning ultimately resides in property ownership, while very few opportunities exist for this outside of intergenerational wealth accumulation and transfer…

Yet, here in this liminal place, where our current values and structures present themselves as being manifestly unsustainable and a new order and new values have not yet fully shown their form, here is nothing but opportunity. Increasingly sterile and standardized institutions can be reconsidered from a perspective that is rooted, not in top-down implementations from outside, but in terms of how people find meaning and value in their local communities.

A new kind of localism is clearly needed. [x] The city itself is ultimately the site for such re-imaginings; for its structure and potency frames and channels the way we come together in public space.

-end-


 

[i] This migration west to east that accompanied rising home prices is well represented by this popular data visualization.

[ii] In: Magnus, R., & Tønnessen, M. (2010, p. 77-78). The bio-translator–interview with professor in biosemiotics Kalevi Kull. Hortus Semioticus, 6, 77-103. 

[iii] See Peter Babiak’s article “Good Buy, Vancouver: Dwelling on the Pretty Vacancies of Real Estate” in issue #79 of SubTerrain for a hilarious discussion of the semiotics of real-estate language in Vancouver, and more on the ‘existential makeup’ of dwelling.

[iv] Source: Where is NDP on Demovictions?

[v]  This number has continued to grow since 2016

[vi] Cloke, P. and Jones, O. (2001) “Dwelling, Place and Landscape: an Orchard in Somerset” Environment and Planning A 33, 649-66.

[vii] For this argument and more, see Masschelein and Simons’ 2013 (free)book, In Defence of the School: A Public Issue.

[viii] See, Wolfendale, Peter (2014). "So, Accelerationism, what's all that about?"Dialectical Insurgency, and Streek, Wolfgand (2016) How Will Capitalism End: Essays on a failing system.

[ix] In: Ferrarotti, F. (2005, p. 4). On the science of uncertainty: The biographical method in social research. Lexington Books.

[x] See Andrew Stables (2019), new book “New Localism: living in the here and now”, published by Springer, as part of the Numanities Series.