Bittersweet Beginnings

I know I haven’t been blogging, but I’ve obviously been settling into a new life and don’t feel badly at all that my attentions are otherwise focused.
But I have to drop in for a quick hello, even if I have a busy day ahead. It’s worth commenting on this.
My heart’s breaking as speculation mounts that the Book Warehouse in Vancouver might be closing its four locations, the last indie book chain in town, sounding an almost-imminent death knell for independent bookselling in a city of 2 million.

The Playhouse's last night inspired protests. Photo by Arlen Redekop of the Vancouver Sun.

In the two weeks since I left my hometown, which was a decision two years in the making, the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company has closed down after 49 years, a found 70+year-old “ghost wall” reflecting a time long past, uncovered in a demo, was unceremoniously demolished, and word was announced that the venerable arts-house theatre The Ridge would be shutting down and replaced with, yes, more condos.
I’m broken-hearted for Vancouver, and have been for a long time.
Many of us residents felt it was a joke that the City had so many arts events happening during the Olympics, and we were right, because as soon as the Games left town, so did this newfound arts embrace demonstrated by government.
It seems now the slippery slope of not respecting arts and not playing an active role in finding a way to keep culture alive in Vancouver has resulted in people wondering nationally if Vancouver’s not just a little kid in the sandbox, since the town clearly doesn’t grasp the effect a cultural scene plays in keeping a city vibrant.
And, the thing is, it’s not just about the City Council kicking arts when they’re already down and out, by giving developers carte blanche to go ahead and mow down iconic locations like The Ridge, but it’s the incessant stupidity of continuing to allow foreign investment in Vancouver, when it’s driving rents into ludicrous territory, because there’s no person making under $40,000 who can comfortably live in Vancouver — anywhere — now.
It’s the people who make under $40,000 who answer your phones, serve your coffee, teach your kids, act in the theatre, read poetry in cafes, sell you movie tickets, and more.
And soon none of them will be able to afford Vancouver.
Don’t think I’m the only one who had an exit strategy. That door out of Vancouver’s a revolving one now, man.
There’s no sense living in the world’s most beautiful city if you can’t afford to live there in a way that allows you to enjoy it.
I was born and raised in Vancouver. The Vancouver Playhouse was instrumental in my cultural upbringing. I’ve seen musicals and ballets and murder mysteries there as a youth.
The Ridge Theatre was where I saw my first independent arthouse flick, and turned me onto all things cinematical — from Easy Rider to Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout. From Baraka to Rear Window. I saw ’em all on screen at The Ridge. Across town, The Rio Theatre is fighting to stay alive by trying to become a hip place where you can see live performance, filmed entertainment, and have a drink — but governmental idiocy will likely kill them too.
And, Book Warehouse, well, they were never my cup of tea but they have been an important part of Vancouver’s independent bookselling scene for a long time, and the more informed reader could walk in and score deals on writers that met the returns pile but should be more read here in Canada, like James Kelman, Iain Banks, and Colum McCann.
These aren’t just “businesses.” They’re the soul of a city.
Vancouver is a young town and it disses its heritage, saying “well, it’s only 70/80/90 years old, so…” because other towns have been around for centuries.
But heritage is where we come from, and I don’t give a fuck that Vancouver’s become a city of immigrants. It’s OUR HISTORY.
There’s no cultural soul anymore. It’s tech industry and more.
But here in Victoria, they’ve attracted Microsoft, largely because of the quality of life offered to those living in Victoria. I predict we’ll see more businesses deciding not to open in Vancouver because they know it’ll be too hard to attract entry-level employees making under $50K, who are the backbone of any enterprise.
Soon, Vancouver’ll be a city full of Lululemon pants, people who never say hi to each other, toy dogs, and business folk — no artists, no creatives, no funky people.
And I won’t be there when it is.
Yeah. It breaks my heart. I love Vancouver. I just don’t like what it’s become. Vancouver, to me, is like that girl who was always pretty and fun and great to be around, but didn’t know it — then one day she figures out she’s hot, gets in with the cool kids, stops being a geek, wears high fashion, and loses all the personality that made her great in the first place. Now she’s just another vapid hottie.
Vancouver’s quickly becoming the vapid hottie with no soul, and it never needed to happen. There have long been incredible artistic peoples in Vancouver.
There just won’t be, soon.
And if Vancouverites don’t demand change, if laws around investments don’t alter, if tax credits for artistic societies don’t improve, if housing options for those who aren’t working in big biz don’t improve, then, yeah, expect to see a continuing demise in Vancouver’s arts scene.
Please, don’t let Vancouver become a vapid city. Even from afar, I don’t think my heart can take it.

9 thoughts on “Bittersweet Beginnings

  1. Sara

    Make less than $40,000, try less than $30,000 or often less than $20,000. I’m constantly asking myself why am I still here and still trying to make a difference.

    1. Darcy McGee

      Sure, but seriously Sara you dn’t really pick a career path where regular, reliable income was a priority did you? Basically,you chose a path where people are either poor (working creative artists) or rich (Angelina Jolie.)
      The Playhouse closing is sad. The Playhouse never once making a profit in 49 years of operations is sadder. The business wasn’t being run properly: it should die.
      Victoria vs. Vancouver? Vancouver FTWMF every time. Lack of head offices has to do with east/west alignments in Canada. Victoria ads a ferry ride/plane transfer to the equation and that will always be a detriment.
      Y’all might want to aspire to higher incomes too, but that generally means not working at the branch office. In Canada that probably means going east.

  2. David

    It looks as if the Playhouse was a victim of a lot of mismanagement, poor planning, and some really bad budgeting. They’d been losing money for years. If we also see the demise of the Arts Club Theatre, the Fringe Festival, the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island, the Firehall Arts Centre, the Cultch and a half a dozen other College and University theatres, then I’d start to get really worried. The fact is, the market for live drama may have been a little bit saturated. It certainly seems that way compared to live classical music, which I really miss compared to what I attended in Boston. To be sure, the Arts funding cuts have been horrific, and I hope that the city will fix that. We may be suffering from a bit of post-Olympian hangover for that, but I’m confident it will right itself, because the Arts are a great investment for the success of a city to both residents and tourists. Not funding the Arts is just plain stupid and shortsighted and I don’t think our current local leaders are that bad.
    If it will make you feel any better, I’m not sure that the closing of Book Warehouse contributes quite as much to the loss of cultural events and venues in Vancouver. Bookstores at every level of the market (from Chapters all the way to Macleod’s) are feeling the pain of technology making them less relevant, the same way that HMV and other CDs stores became in the recent past. The iPod killed HMV, and probably the iPad is killing the bookstores. Yesterday that Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it published its last print edition after 244 years in print. The Ridge Theatre is probably also a victim of technology (in this case, video streaming over the Internet). Eventually, only blockbusters that absolutely require big sound systems and 3D will bring people out to movie houses, but that doesn’t mean that small, independent films will perish. I’m willing to bet that in about 2-3 years, you’ll be able to see just about any independent film on demand for roughly the same cost as a movie ticket (or less).
    Technology is a double edged-sword, though: At those same big movie theatres, I can see the Metropolitan Opera beamed live by satellite from New York in HD on 1 or 2 Sundays a month (it starts in the morning because of the time difference). Not having to take a plane to New York to catch a world-class opera is pretty amazing. I can get the BBC radio at home in better fidelity than FM radio had, and can even get it (live or timeshifted) on my iPhone. I’m cheered by the appearance of nearly all the local newspapers on tablets. I can now order nearly any book for the iPad from a number of different vendors (not just the iTunes bookstore), and even take out electronic books from the VPL. What’s more, the rise of blogging has meant that I can now read the thoughts of opinions of people who I would not have had access to previously, including this blog.
    I think that there is more to read in a single day then I ever have time for. It doesn’t mean that the city has lost it’s soul. It may be that certain local activities need to be adapted to make their local-ness more important, as the world becomes more connected and more options present themselves.

    1. Roberta

      Hi David,
      I don’t get the sense you understand the significance of Vancouver having lost The Playhouse in particular, nor what led to its closure. As a matter of fact, the company had a no-win rental agreement with the City, which the current AD had been trying for months to renegotiate, but which the City did not act on. Also, unlike some of the *venues* you listed above, The Playhouse was its own production company (the Waterfront isn’t a theatre company; it’s a performance space), and a company which was absolutely integral to most other theatre companies in the city… through co-collaboration, access to rehearsal space and costume sharing, just as examples. It also produced *Canadian* plays, amongst other works — unlike the New York opera you can see at Scotiabank, the Playhouse endeavoured to speak to Vancourites about our own culture, not to mention employ its own residents….
      So, you see, The Playhouse is indeed a grave loss and one which is not easily replaced.
      If you do believe the arts deserve more funding around here — and I heartily agree! — please contact the Mayor, City council, and Ida Chong (Minister of Culture). All of the above need encouragement from people who care about the cultural scene in Vancouver.
      Hope you get to see some good theatre soon! đŸ™‚

  3. Victoria

    My husband & I have our exit strategy. We’re actively looking to a transfer to another of his work’s location. I can’t wait to leave Vancouver. I have likened the city to Oz for years. All you hear is “It’s pretty here. It’s Hollywood north. It’s a great place to live!”
    I’ve struggled finding affordable decent accommodations, starved trying to make it in an artsy profession and now have a job the government refuses to give me a cost of living increase at. I’m done. We can’t get transferred fast enough!

  4. Sheila

    David makes a great point. There is still A LOT of theater to see in Vancouver. Vancouver has a thrieving indenpendent theater scene and the closure of the Playhouse is less of a sign that Art is dying, and more of a sign that its the returning its roots. Its very difficult to support a 700 seat theater. Especially when people can go to a 30, 60 or 100 seat theater, see just as amazing theater and pay less for it. Don’t get me wrong, the closing of the Playhouse is a devestaing and a massive loss for the city. But its hardly a sign of cultural armegedone. Its a reminder of the dark cloud that has and likely always will be looming above the arts scene in this city, province and country. People do not join the arts world to make big money or even money for that matter. If they think so they are terribly naive and misguided. And because of that they need to learn to do something that countless theater companies are bad at, manage their money and live within thier means.
    This was the Playhouse’s downfall. Is the City of vancovuer partly responsible, yes, they didn’t make it easy, are the citizen’s of Vancouver partly responsible, yes, they didn’t go to shows, is the Playhouse partly responsible, yes, they didn’t operate within their financial capacity. That being said it is not the city of Vancouver’s job to put bums in seats and I don’t believe that a person should be forced to enjoy the Arts if they don’t want to.
    Finally, I fail to see what the state of culture in Vancouver has to do with the cost of living. I did grow up in Vancouver, not in a suburb, but on Main Street, the same street I live on now. Has the street changed in the last 30 years, hell yes. But a lot has stayed the same. Sort of like me. I truly believe that the street and I have grown up together. Its a choice that often comes with sacrifices to live in the city, it was for my parents too, they made it work, and I intend to also make it work.

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