Something Less than Perfect

by Zbigniew

Dissatisfied by the criteria employed by The Economist and its ilk to define the world’s “most liveable” cities (“I imagine them being compiled by a terrified, monogamous young couple dressed head to toe in Uniqlo or Gap“), Paul Mason suggests an alternative approach in “The 10 things a perfect city needs.” (The Guardian, Monday 25 August 2014) Taking his cue from George Orwell’s characteristics for a perfect pub, Mason offers “an antidote to league tables that judge cities against Ikea-like qualities” to describe the city he would like to live in.

I think I might like to live in it, too.

Do I? Below each of Mason’s criteria are reproduced in full, followed by my subjective assessment of our favourite burgh and the associated score.

1. It is near the sea, or another body of water warm enough to swim in.

Aye, near the sea. But for most of us swimming is limited to some four or six weeks -between middish July and the end of August- when the water temperature rises from “testicle decimating” to a balmy “refreshing” (assuming, of course, that fecal-coliform counts are not off the scale); outside of that very narrow window -and the aptly named Polar Bear Swim- only a hardy or demented few avail themselves of the local bathing opportunities.

Score: 3

2. It has entire neighbourhoods designed around hipster economics. Though currently maligned, hipsters are crucial signifiers of a successful city economy. Their presence shows it is possible to live on your wits even as neoliberalism stagnates. Such neighbourhoods (I am thinking of Little Five Points in Atlanta) typically contain: vintage clothes stores, a micro-brewery, a gay club, burger joints, coffee bars not owned by global chains, and a lot of small workshops for creative microbusinesses. In the ideal form, these areas are home both to hipsters and ethnically diverse poor communities, who refrain from fighting each other.

“Hipster economies” are evident -particularly on Commercial Drive and Main Street. However, it’s complicated here, where local economies are a niche phalanx fighting a losing battle against an overwhelming real estate development horde. Enabled by City Hall’s arcane-yet-developer-friendly zoning policy, rising land values fuel rising property tax assessments. At best this results in rising rents –which puts the squeeze on already marginal economic activity. At worst it displaces and encourages further rounds of development and displacement. Because only capital can resist capital, the higher end of Mason’s examples –the craft breweries, backed as they are with some decent cash- manage a toehold, while everybody else –the vintage shops, the used bookstores, the casual eateries- are halfway gone, making way for baby clothes boutique and dog spas.

Small workshops to support microbusinesses? More marginal, still. The land under those hold buildings we’ve relied on to house new ideas is simply too expensive for long term and diffused returns.

And while our hipsters and poor refrain from fighting each other, it’s a no-show: the poor are being forced out.

Score: 4

3. The finance sector has to be big enough to mobilise global capital and local savings, but not so big that it allows the global elite to run things through their usual mixture of aristocratic men’s club and organised crime.

Our primary financial intermediaries are not only enormous, they’re absentee and disinterested in everything but shareholder value. For “aristocratic men’s club” try the Arbutus, Vancouver, Terminal City, and Urban Development Institute varieties, for a start.

While this sorry state of affairs is somewhat mitigated by the presence of some of the world’s largest credit unions, local capital in service of local economies is still in very short supply.

Score: 3

4. This is crucial, it has to have theatres. Not just big ones, such as the Vienna State Opera, where the elite can parade their jewellery and their furs, but tiny theatres, in warehouses or open courtyards (this ideal city is somewhere sunny). The city has to have a recognisable demos: you have to be able to go somewhere and, as in the Paris of Zola’s Nana, point across the stalls to celebrities and statespeople, misbehaving in public.

See the response to 2. The revitalization of the York and “pop-up” spaces are insufficient compensation for the continual loss of theatres and related creative spaces.

“This ideal city is somewhere sunny.” Sure it is -just not for the next nine months or so.

Score: 3

5. Bicycle lanes and trams. The most touching thing about the Chinese city of Tianjin, when I first visited in the mid-2000s, was its bike lanes separated by concrete kerbs from the traffic: on cold nights, young couples would ride home side by side holding hands. Equally important to trams and bike supremacy is a heavily regulated taxi system, as efficient as Uber but under the control of old-style London working-class cabbies, who’ve been persuaded to give women and ethnic minorities equal access to the trade, and who are banned from giving you their opinion.

Putting aside cockamamie ideas like Chip Wilson Boulevard, and substitute quiet, pollution-free trolley buses for trams, and we have a winner.

Cabbies notwithstanding.

Score: 8

6. A massive ecosystem of gay, lesbian, transgender, BDSM and plain old sleazy heterosexual hangouts: clubs, bars, dancehalls, cabarets and all the dim-lit alleyways and grassy knolls inbetween. For it is a truth unacknowledged by those who make the official league tables that Joe Corporate, with his squash racquet and sober suit, and Joanna Corporate, with her nanny and pushchair, really want to live many other secret and parallel lives, and the ideal city is one big, analogue version of Craigslist.

Are such dens of iniquity available? Of course, but a “massive ecosystem”? Once ubiquitous, the sleazy hangout has all but disappeared, summarily replaced by television bedecked sports bars and what I like to call “drinking warehouses” (eg. Craft.) Whither thou, Marine Club? Once I walked the Arbutus corridor for a cheap mug at Frams and the saddest show in town, but no more.

Perhaps Joe & Joanna Corporate don’t need dimly lit dives to do their deeds, as they’re openly fucking over everybody else in broad daylight.

Score: 4 (because I’m feeling generous)

7. Like Orwell’s mythic pub – it must be happy with its Victorian and Edwardian architecture, and with anything salvageable that used to be a factory or warehouse. Harlem in New York, Fitzroy in Melbourne, Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin all derive an intangible positive atmosphere from their combination of brick, ornament, renovation and re-use.

If it hasn’t already been spot-rezoned, demoed, and erased from human memory, somebody is probably closing the deal on it right now.

Score: 1

8. It must be ethnically mixed and tolerant and hospitable to women. Some of the “safest” cities on these world league tables are actually ones where women can’t live an equal or modern life, because whole areas are locked down by religious conservatism, or harsh policing of minorities. The city of Gijon, in northern Spain, has a government that plasters the streets with ever more inventive propaganda against sexual harassment, domestic violence and general sexism. Stuff like that.

Definitely ethnically diverse, but mixed? Are we tolerant? Are we hospitable to women? I honestly don’t know how to answer this.

Score: 5

9. Any slums have to be what UN Habitat calls “slums of hope” – staging posts for upward mobility, self-policing and non-chaotic (ideally you would have no slums at all).

I experience a great difficulty in applying “hope” to “Surrey”, but perhaps that’s unfair.

Historically, Vancouver has been a bi-nodal city. Once the focus of its commerce and creativity lay on the Fraser, at New Westminster, before shifting west to accommodate the CPR’s terminus. But as Vancouver treads firmly down the path of pied a terre and playground for the globally mobile, a sort of temperate Las Vegas, methinks the focus of possibilities is shifting back, to the east and across the Fraser, precisely because it’s gritty and chaotic.

Score: 9

10. Indispensably, is a democratic political culture the inhabitants are proud of, that calls them regularly to the streets, to loud arguments in small squares, keeps their police demilitarised and in check, and allows them to assimilate the migrants that will inevitably flow inwards, and to self-identify as products of the city as they themselves navigate the global labour market.

“[O]nly about a third of the citizen’s of Canada’s third largest metropolis think it’s worthwhile to participate in the selection of their civic government,” wrote Stan Persky in The House That Jack Built -in 1980!

For the current day add in corruption, a well behaved mainstream media that refuses to articulate the word “corruption”, and a significant lack of social capital.

Score: 3.3

TOTAL: 43.3/100