To again quote Colin Marshall: “My own time in LA has, in fact brought me to see many other world cities as theme-park experiences by comparison, made enjoyable yet severely limited by the claims of their images.”
What claims do our images make?
If Vancouver is a theme park, what theme park experience does it offer?
Before there was ever a need for civic self-actualization cum branding, this was in geographic and economic fact the Terminal City –the place where WASP capital ran out of road. That is, the last substantive piece of property left for the taking.
There was just enough space for a really big small town. And so it became: a fog-bound, pulp-scented lowercase wild west, scant of gold but rich in fish, wood and schemes. A decidedly unsophisticated place, where –as Douglas Coupland put it in Polaroids from the Dead– “‘fine dining’ meant a T-bone steak, three double scotches and a pack of Chesterfields.” It was full of loggers and mechanics, and bureaucrats practicing their Received Pronunciation -the apparatchiks of Empire, working the soggy fringe.
And despite, or because of, the lack of sophistication, it was where you went to play.
The provision of entertainments is in our civic DNA. The “aggregation of filth” better known as Gastown owed its existence to a saloon, constructed overnight on the promise of free drink.
It was the last stop for provisions before heading into the bush and the first stop on the return trip. And so, Skid Road and the bawdy houses of Dupont (Pender) Street, the original “entertainment district.” From the 1930’s on Vancouver was a main stop on the West coast “show business railway”, eclipsing “Montreal as Canada’s capital of vaudeville and burlesque in the post-WWII era.”* All this before the ubiquitous strip joints of the 1970s through to the ‘90s.
But entertainment for the genteel, too: neon lit Theatre Row, the “Playground City” of greenery and exotic totems, the PNE, and the ski-in-the-morning-blah-blah-blah-in-the-afternoon, punctuated by Expo and the occasional riot.
Stanley Park Totem Poles – Vancouver, Dan Propp
The loggers are gone. The wild is in retreat or heavily manicured.
But the playground remains. This inherited characteristic is suddenly ascended, like some kind of sudden onset hirsutism. To these eyes, the place is looking more and more like an unbounded, over-sized amusement park.
There’s Viva Vancouver: “During the summer, the City closes roads to vehicle traffic … and converts them into public spaces for walking, lounging, and lunching.” With puking and brawling thrown in for nothing.
There’s the themed experiences: from olde timey Gastown, Klahowya Village, and FlyOver Canada, to the intensively controlled and consumption-heavy “nature” of the Aquarium and the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.
One the proposed redesigns of our defacto main public square calls for a multipurpose floating circular ring, supported on masts, and incorporating lighting and sound: party central.
It’ll be the latest addition to the spectacle:
And of course there’s the casino, the money-sucking carbuncle for the sucking maw that is BC Place. And you can have a casino without an outlet mall grotesquerie.
Pulling all these disparate images together, a pattern forms. I think of it as Temperate Vegas Lite.
* Vancouver Noir, Diane Purvey & John Belshaw, Anvil Press, 2011. Pg. 95.