If you’re old enough to remember those “I Live in Surrey by Choice” bumper stickers, you likely also recall why some people felt compelled to point out that no one was forcing them to live in the oft-maligned municipality. They were just doing their part to counter the negative public image of their chosen home being created by the incessant mocking of Vancouver radio DJs and the proliferation of “Surrey girl” jokes. (An example, included only for the sake of historical context: What’s the difference between a Surrey girl and the Titanic? Fewer people went down on the Titanic.)
I lived in Surrey for a decade, but it was not by choice. When you’re 10 years old, you don’t get much say in where your family relocates. It’s no exaggeration to say that in moving from the West Side of Vancouver to the Bear Creek Park area of Surrey, I experienced profound culture shock. Some of this was actually very pleasant. This was 1983, and much of our neighbourhood was undeveloped. From the Surrey Arts Centre on 88th Avenue all the way down to Surrey Memorial Hospital, there was pretty much nothing but forest. (This didn’t last; all the trees were cut down in a systematic fashion as residential subdivisions spread in every conceivable direction like something out of a Rush video.)
There was also culture shock of another sort. If you dared venture down to the neighbourhood around Surrey Place Mall, you would inevitably encounter the Whalley Burnouts, who liked to hang out at Rock-o-Motion and the Stardust Roller Rink. The prevailing fashion code of the day dictated mullets for the guys, feathered hair for the ladies, and mack jackets, skintight jeans, and black Reeboks for all. The look wasn’t complete without a three-quarter-length-sleeved Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden shirt—purchased at (or shoplifted from) Rock-o-Motion, naturally.
Despite what the local newspapers would have had you believe, the Burnouts weren’t really a gang. They were just a bunch of kids—well, skids, to use the parlance of the time—who were, like generations of young people before them, bored as shit by living in the suburbs.
Existential ennui shouldn’t be an issue for the current generation.
Make no mistake, Surrey still has a major image problem (a rash of gang-related shootings and a rampant illicit drug trade will do that), but the self-proclaimed City of Parks has come a long way. Whalley, for instance, is barely recognizable—and many local businesses would prefer that you call it Central City, thank you very much. Surrey Place Mall is now Central City Shopping Centre. Rock-o-Motion is long gone, and Stardust is a fading memory. Being a young person no longer means loitering in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven, drowning your sorrows in Big Gulps and dreaming of the day you get the hell out of Surrey so you can go to university. You don’t even have to do that anymore, with campuses of Kwantlen Polytechnic University and SFU located in the city, plus a clinical academic campus of the UBC Faculty of Medicine at Surrey Memorial Hospital.
Nor is Surrey the cultural wasteland it once was, where if you were lucky you might catch a long-past-his-prime Sebastian Bach limping through a solo set at Champagne’s Cabaret. If you’re a music fan, this is a fantastic time to live in Surrey. (And if you don’t, it’s a good time to visit.)
The city now plays host to festivals of a calibre that was unthinkable in the past. B.C. artists take the spotlight at the annual Winterfest (which has featured acts like Hot Hot Heat, Daniel Wesley, and Kyprios) and the headliners at this past April’s Party for the Planet included Good for Grapes and Five Alarm Funk. The calendar for July alone includes a Canada Day blowout at the Bill Reid Millennium Amphitheatre (with Blue Rodeo and the Zolas) and the multicultural smorgasbord of Surrey Fusion Festival, which takes over Holland Park on July 18 and 19 with performances by Jazzy B, José Feliciano, the Belle Game, Chin Injeti, and dozens of others.
Perhaps the surest sign that Surrey has officially arrived, however, is FVDED in the Park, which brings an array of international EDM, hip-hop, and R&B acts to Holland Park next Friday and Saturday (July 3 and 4). The Canadian superstars at the top of the bill—deadmau5 and the Weeknd—would be impressive enough, but add in Afrojack, Flosstradamus, Excision, the Chainsmokers, Borgore, Danny Brown, Chuckie, Vic Mensa, Pete Tong, and Tyler, the Creator, plus more others than I have space to name here, and you’ve got a damn good reason to head to Surrey. Even if you lived there 20-odd years ago, and not by choice.