Two weeks ago, the Red Gate Arts Society, a nonprofit that provides affordable working space for artists and musicians, announced that it was being evicted from its Strathcona space. They are just one of many cultural institutions whose existence has made this city that I love a better place. And its disappearance is one more sign of a city that is rapidly losing its soul.
In my conversations with friends, we mourn for the parts of this city we have loved. Favourite small businesses and the stories of what they meant to us: study groups at Calhoun’s Bakery, a meaningful job, lunches at Little Nest, a good book from Duthies.
We mourn the loss of already rare local arts spaces and the memories of how they shaped us: films at the Ridge Theatre, live music at Richard’s on Richards, events at W2. And we lament news of long-time Vancouverites who’ve been evicted, priced out, or departed in search of a home and a life with more financial breathing room than was possible here.
Each one of these stories is compelling because of the individual personal details. But the truth is that these stories represent a massive collective loss.
I don’t need to be an artist to want to live in a city that has a thriving arts-and-culture scene. I don’t need to own a small business to feel passionate about living in a city full of them. I don’t need any more reminders that I want to live in a city that people of all ages and incomes can call home, that protects tenants and prioritizes safe housing for vulnerable populations, that nurtures community.
Fortunately, we don’t need a study to tell us what gives a city soul. We know it within our own lives. The soul of any place is made up of its people and, beyond that, of its neighbourhoods, its culture, its local businesses. The soul of any place is in its history, and the way its residents—not reckless global capital—shape and transform that history over time. And it will require all of those people to shift the direction that Vancouver is headed.
In Vancouver, we have an abundance of good people working to do just that. Against enormous pressure, and usually requiring enormous amounts of unpaid labour, communities across Vancouver have been organizing to resist unaffordable developments that don’t meet neighbourhood needs.
In Chinatown, the community came together across generations to say "No" to a for-profit development at 105 Keefer Street that didn’t meet the community’s cultural, historical, and socioeconomic needs. In North East False Creek, the Hogan’s Alley Working Group came together to ensure that cultural redress formed a significant portion of the neighbourhood plan. And despite their eviction, the Red Gate Arts Society says they are in better shape than ever before, providing space for hundreds of artists and musicians, exposing them to thousands of fans and supporters, and putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the economy.
But as these folks will tell you, all of that work is exhausting, and we are still losing too often. Communities shouldn’t have to be fighting against the city to protect the soul of this place. The city should be on their side. We need government to radically shift the way that civic engagement and consultation happens, to create processes of deep democracy that invite these community groups in. Processes that don’t nurture NIMBYism but that foster connection, strengthen local culture, and prioritize providing for the most vulnerable among us.
The “free market” that got us into this crisis—the relentless drive for private-real-estate profits at the expense of actual places for people to live—isn’t going to fix it. Instead, we need to put people first by putting more land trusts, cultural land reserves, co-op housing, commercial-tenancy protections, heritage-business designations, and other nonmarket solutions squarely on the table.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, author and activist Jane Jacobs wrote that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” That’s how we protect and revitalize the soul of this place we love: deep engagement, deep democracy.
Vancouver should be a place for people to live, to make lives, and to experience a sense of belonging. It’s time we really tend to the soul of this city.