It is remarkable how much the color of the sky changes the colors of everything else. This morning, the sky is gray, with a diffused sort of light. Not quite bright, but not dark. The gray has a mottled quality to it: lighter in some areas, darker in others. It mutes the grays of the concrete and asphalt, the whites of building facades, and the neutrals of unpainted wood — but it makes the flowers pop. Even more vibrant against the dullness of everything else, the budding cherry blossoms seem impossibly pink, like little fireworks, and the new leaves on the tips of branchlets like little green candles.
On my morning walk, I pass beneath rows of blooming Cherry trees. They don’t grow very tall, these Cherry trees, maybe twenty feet at most, but in bloom they are dense. Sometimes you can’t even see through to the other side.
That’s how it is, the Cherry Blossoms and the Black Pines and the Japanese Maples interrupting this urban jungle with their leaves and flowers, rudely demanding attention with their opulence.
Luckily, these showy flowers only congregate around residential clusters. Turn a corner or cross a street, and they end abruptly. Things can change so much in just a handful of footsteps. You are walking down a quiet cherry-tree-lined residential neighborhood, turn a corner and BOOM! HVAC Services and industrial laundromats, squatting on paved parking lots like large rectangular toads.
With the trees gone, the cityscape opens up. Focal points change: roof lines, telephone poles, tapestries of old and new concrete, shipping crates; geometric and architectural. Here and there, graffiti stamps on dumpsters and curbs and sign-posts.
It is all beautiful, and all so wonderfully impermanent. The neighborhood where I live is going through a puberty of sorts — parts of it seems polished, matured confident, and parts of it repugnant… hairy armpits and pimples and weird smells. Often it seems confused about what it is turning into. The pressures of gentrification are transforming some blocks into perfect suburban gardens. But waves of previous settlers are not so keen to give up space for their hard-won communities. So middle class suburbanites co-exist with immigrants, street urchins, homeless, LGBTQ, and First Nations in an eccentric mash-up of visions and political opinions and ideologies; all the ethnic and economic sub-groups crammed into a handful of city blocks from Clark Street to Nanaimo, Hastings to Broadway.
I enjoy the clashing and contrasting, the heterogeneity, the juxtapositions of this part of Vancouver. So much of the city seems polished, glazed over, homogenous with its high hedges and chic shopping centers and manicured lawns and organic supermarkets. The edges are different, and ‘East Van’ is certainly the edge. It’s an unplanned mess, a chaotic half-gentrified scramble of all the people and culture and communities that had nowhere else to go. Mostly, it’s just weird.
And that weirdness brings with it a host of its own sitcom characters and tableaus — some perfectly sane, others, decided not. One such character, a middle-aged Italian known as ‘Opera Man’ (it is rumored that his real name is Frank), parades up and down Commercial Drive, inflecting gutturally in a deep opera voice. It is impressive, although not always harmonious. Frank oscillates between singing and issuing torrents of the most creative profanity I have ever heard at passerbys. You can hear him from blocks away.
Or there is “Womyns Ware,” the sex shop on the corner of Venables and Commercial, whose bright pink awning announces “Vibes! Lubes!” in enormous humanist sans-serif lettering to anyone within eye-shot. It dominates vision in its absurdity. A crayon illustration of a naked ‘womyn’ with voluptuous breasts, a big belly, and highly emphasized armpit hair cavorts joyously around the bold signage. It is impossible to miss, and nearly impossible not to stare at as you travel past. After years of living in this neighborhood, it never ceases to draw my attention.
And then there are the cafes. Joe’s Continental, bedecked in fraying Portuguese flags and surrounded at all hours with Portugese men of all ages smoking, drinking cappuccinos, hollering at televised soccer matches. Cafe Calabria, with its worn chandeliers, cheap roman sculpture replicas and peeling vinyl frescos, like an overdecorated scrappy monument to everything Italian.
There are also Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, and even some Salvadoreans here, spread amongst the patchwork quilt of small used bookstores, records stores, cannabis clinics, and cafes.
To the North and West, these shopfronts fade again into interminable concrete and metal. Warehouses, shipping crates, and parking lots take over, until they collide abruptly with other clusters of residence or commerce. One might stumble upon a small bar, cafe, or restaurant nestled tightly in-between these, like a long-forgotten Easter egg just waiting to be found. While proprietors probably locate such businesses here because of cheaper rent, I always feel like I have discovered something special when I encounter one.
Who knows how long this will last? Already, dive-bars and warehouses alike are being bulldozed to make room for high-rises and office buildings. Demand is, as always, outpacing supply here, and the endless march of development continues. The edges recede, ever Eastward and Southward. Perhaps eventually there will be no edges; no places for the Portuguese and Italians to cheer at televised soccer matches, no warehouses and parking garages between which to hide unexpected coffee shops.
So, the city changes, as all cities do, block by block, and those who cannot or will not abide migrate to kinder pastures.
As I prepare to migrate to such pastures myself, I think of these things, and of many moments I have had here in these years: joyous, jaded, nervous, needy, prideful, peaceful, and many others.
I am not sorrowful, although I cannot exactly say why. My relationship with Vancouver has often been complicated, sometimes strained. The city, at its worst, has felt like it is missing “soul” — that abstract and nebulous quality you can never quite put a finger on, but always feel keenly in its absence; or that it is full of friendly people but empty of friends; that it is a place to live, to exist, to inhabit, but not to thrive.
Yet, I cannot deny that I have enjoyed my time, here amongst the Japanese Maples and Cherrys; amongst the Italians and the Portuguese and the Black Pines; amongst the concrete and asphalt, the shipping crates and the coffee shops. As others have before me and will after me, I will leave those things behind, but they will always be with me, as all memories are; the good, the bad, the wonderful and the strange.