Alone Together: Urban Life In Vancouver

There’s been a lot of fuss of late in the Vancouver media about dating, meeting people, and the perceived isolation that seems so typical of Vancouverites.

I don’t know how we have a reputation for friendly people, but I’m betting those folk who think so are judging us from sunny days. This is Jeckyll/Hydeville, and it’s a rainforest. When weather rolls in, so does a whole new grumpified citizen.

But I read a reader’s response in VanMag this week and the writer later suggested on Twitter that perhaps our anti-social bad-flirting ways is because of our dearth of truly public gathering places, like European plazas and public courts, where people can really mingle together.

Unbelievably, it’s been nearly two years since the Olympics landed in Vancouver. Those halcyon days were truly amazing for us because we’ve never been that gathering kinda community in this town. It was a new world.

Cynics would say every time we get together it ends in a riot, but that’s bullshit. Riots happen in civilized cities too because asshats are omnipresent. Welcome to life.

It’s true, though. Vancouver doesn’t “gather” a lot. We’re not into community like some other places. We like to think we are, but we’re not.

We’re the city Arthur Erickson helped build, for all its pluses and minuses.

Instead of grand sweeping public places where you’re all in it together, we’ve got spaces filled with hideouts, different levels, and either manmade or natural divides.

Look at Arthur Erickson’s legacy project, the heart of Downtown Vancouver, Robson Square.* Littered with little spaces where you can shun others and be alone, it’s almost as if to suggest being in public is good, so long as you don’t have to actually mingle. Three people here, five people there… it’s still a gathering spot, just filled with micropockets of people. Alone together, the Vancouver way.

Ducking into alcoves for privacy and hiding seems like a great option, a wondrous thing for readers and lovers, but it encourages us to have distance from one another too.

With all our forests and twisty long miles of beaches for us to get lost in, and the pockets of ethnic neighbourhoods and the growing economic/class divides, it kind of makes sense that we’re this disconnected community here in Vancouver. We don’t chat or talk on streets. There are endless commutes between communities, which means picking a neighbourhood means likely committing to a neighbourhood, unless you’re driving a car.

Add it all up, and we’ve stopped talking to strangers, and have become insular. It’s frustrating for anyone who doesn’t want to be in that mode. Deep down inside, I’ve got New York-meets-small-island sensitivities, and this town confuses me.

Plus, this insular world is a game-changer if you’re single but don’t want to join a club or do the online-hookup thing.

So, this fuss about “Vancouver men suck” for dating, well, it goes both ways, sugar. I know I’m guilty of not flirting, smiling, or starting enough conversations.

That’s oversimplifying things, though.

I think it’s bigger than that. I think the cost of living here affects how much we want to date, I think the changing economy and how so many of us in the city have ditched cars doesn’t help the dating life either. Every added inconvenience or wrinkle makes dating, et al, a bigger social chasm to cross. This thing, that thing, those things — oh, lord, can’t it just be simple?

For me, personally, I’m in that “life is complicated” stage and dating’s inconvenient. Hell, life’s inconvenient. 168 hours a week, and I don’t know where they go.

I know a lot of folks who think the same as I do, “Well, sex would be nice but I don’t want to feel obligated to anyone right now” or however you want to define the resistance. Relationships are made for compromise, that’s what it’s all about. Give, take. When you feel like you’ve got little left to give at the end of the week or the pay period, well, why try at all?

Does money, commute, weather, geography, and everything else all conspire to make Vancouverites more insular and sucky for dating? Probably all of the above, yes.

I’m leaving town at just the right stage, I think. I’m ready to have a more insular work life that encourages more after-hours socializing, rather than vice versa, but I’m happy I’ll be in a smaller city where it might be easier to do all of the above, and on a more friendly budget.

I’m sure I seem like the non-dating type these days, but I wasn’t always this way, and I’m excited to change gears on that front, and many others. I’m open to blind dates once I move, and plan to dial up my Flirt Number too.

After I cross the pond, gaining an outsider-looking-in perspective on my hometown will be interesting, because much of Vancouver’s allure baffles me in my jaded hamster-on-a-wheel present lifestyle.

I don’t know what’s broken in this town, but it’d be nice if the locals would learn to smile more, talk more, and celebrate that we’re all in this life together. Being civil to people on the streets actually feels good. Engaging with humans, it’s a positive thing. Feeling like we’re all a little more connected makes the big expanse a little less scary.

Live a little. Get out of your head. Say hi to people. Smile. Character is who you are when no one’s looking, but it’s also who you are in passing, too.

And if they don’t say hi or smile, do it again until someone else does. Don’t stoop to their level of isolation. Be in the world, not just of the world, as the old Biblical quote goes.

And what do you think? Why are we so… Vancouverish?

*Arthur Erickson’s “alone together” style of design also makes Simon Fraser University what it is. The campus is bleak but beautiful in the dark season, filled with isolated spots and, ironically, convenient places to jump from.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted January 13, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Steph. Great balanced post. I think that too many people focus on gender but it’s an overall mood. My family is from Nova Scotia originally (Halifax and Newport Corner to be exact). It’s almost expected that you pop your head over the fence and say hello to your nieghbor and shovel the snow off the elderly couples walkway across the street. Growing up on the Westside of Vancouver was quite the opposite — everyone seemed to be from somewhere else and there were as you said — lots of little pockets — but a broader open community didn’t really feel present.

    The dating world is very new to me. 12 years or serial monogamy — and all of sudden here I am single in Vancouver. I’m not proactively dating or seeking but it’s a very fragmented scene. One thing is for sure — you have to be a bit more assertive than I’m comfortable with. Good luck in Victoria a fresh start sounds like an awesome plan.

  2. myself
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Funny, I was having this convo with a friend who was time here in Montreal for the holidays. She isn’t single, actually having moved from here to Vancouver initially for her boyfriend (a transposed Montrealer also).

    She was saying one of the things she finds most striking about there is the clique-iness, the attention to your income,the distinction of the square footage of your home as opposed to numbers of bedrooms like here, the complete seeming lack of social interaction.…she & the bf have the plan to be back here within 2 years, where, for all our rudeness, being social is like breathing…

    I’m pretty sure a great deal of the above just doesn’t help people trying to date.….

  3. Posted January 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    I live in Miramichi, which is very similar to Shane’s description of Nova Scotia. There’s also an aspect of everyone in town being related to everyone else (the question “who’s your father?” is common). I didn’t actually grow up here so I find it a little more jarring, especially since I’m not particularly disposed to engaging with other people. But at the same time, I don’t know if I would really find Vancouver all that appealing either.

    Good luck with your move.

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