fear & loathing in Lotusland

Category: Compare/Contrast


by Zbigniew


“The World Soundscape Project (WSP) was established as an educational and research group by R. Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It grew out of Schafer’s initial attempt to draw attention to the sonic environment through a course in noise pollution, as well as from his personal distaste for the more raucous aspects of Vancouver’s rapidly changing soundscape.

“The project initiated the modern study of Acoustic Ecology. Its ultimate goal is ‘to find solutions for an ecologically balanced soundscape where the relationship between the human community and its sonic environment is in harmony.'”

The World Soundscape Project


Excerpt from “harsh noise” performer The Rita’s response to Pietro Sammarco’s Vancouver Noise & the Harmoniously Productive City, December 9th, 2015:

What Happened?

by Zbigniew


“Millions of newcomers were once drawn to the Los Angeles area by the promise of homes and orchards soaking in sunshine at the foot of snow-peaked mountains. Postcards and orange crate labels advertised this idyllic image to the world for decades, and unlike so much else of about the region, it was not entirely fake. Even at the end of the Second World War, metropolitan Los Angeles still possessed inestimable scenic capital as well as compelling if utopian vision of how the city might yet use its open spaces to make itself more beautiful and more egalitarian. What happened?”

Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster


Lions Gate Bridge

Imminent Displacement

by Zbigniew


“Then as now, there was a recession, a global banking system in shambles, a housing crisis and a shadowy external threat (the Cold War then, terrorism now), all of which are formally similar even if they have very different causes and our governments propose very different solutions. One thing peculiar to the postwar period was the reorganization of urban life in virtually every city in North America. The case of Vancouver, BC, is a local example of a continental condition: the suburbanization of the middle class and the razing of ethnic inner-city slums so that the poor could be warehoused in modernist towers. The 1,200 or so homeless veterans who initially squatted the old Hotel Vancouver are emblematic of the former, and the multi-ethnic residents of Hogan’s Alley whose homes were earmarked for demolition as early as 1947 represent the latter. In the end, the hotel was torn down before the alley, but the fear of imminent displacement is a source of anxiety for all of our characters.”

From Circa 1948, Artist Statement by Stan Douglas


by Zbigniew

“In Toronto, researchers recently found that people living on tree-lined streets reported health benefits equivalent to being seven years younger or receiving a $10,000 salary rise. As well as studies revealing benefits from everything from improved mental health to reduced asthma, US scientists have even identified a correlation between an increase in tree-canopy cover and fewer low-weight births.”

Introducing ‘Treeconomics’: how street trees can save our lives,” Patrick Barkham, The Guardian, August 15, 2015


“Trees grow, die, are topped, pruned, clipped, limbed-up, moved, run into and over, and are replaced with other trees, or too often, with buildings or parking lots. Do not be surprised if certain ones referred to specifically in this book are no longer there when you look for them.”

Gerald B. Straley, Trees of Vancouver


Barbara Yaffe: Depletion of Vancouver’s tree-cover a ‘nightmare’ – In an ‘arboristic homicide,’ we have lost 50,000 trees since 1996 — with 96 per cent of the loss being trees on private property


A Sewer

by Zbigniew

The liner notes from The Doors: Live in Vancouver, 1970 quote Ray Manzarek: “Such a cool seaboard town. Smell of smoking salmon in the air. First Nations people’s vibe in the air. Clean air in the air.”

Jim Morrison’s views on Vancouver’s air quality, caught between tracks, are somewhat less florid and fancy: “You guys sure have a beautiful city here, you know that? You really do. You can’t imagine how refreshing it is to come out of a sewer like Los Angeles and breathe some fresh air for a change.”


Forty-five years on and Vancouver -always a sort of far-flung suburb of the City of Angels, a Bedroom Dreamland- has finally caught the big city mojo.

We’re warned to stay indoors to avoid the particulate matter of forest and dockland fires. A short stroll risks exposure to rancid humours rising from the city’s bowels and the high-pitched reek of apparently cooking garbage. Meanwhile, the stink that wafts off False Creek is enough to warrant a rechristening -Shit Creek.

The sewer is in full flow.


By the by, The Doors concluded their Pacific Coliseum performance with, naturally, “The End.”

“Waiting for the summer rain ….”


Down to Earth

by Zbigniew


From afar, medieval Florence, San Gimignano, Lucca, Oltrarno, Bologna and other northern Italian city-states looked like pin cushions.

Wealthy families constructed the towers, slender needles of stone reaching as high as 100 metres.

These served as refuges –bolt holes stocked with resources: food, water, weapons, friends, allies and private armies. Where city walls dissuaded a rival’s city’s hired condottieri and their “free armies,” the towers served as redoubts against the far more frequent incidents of civil strife; primarily inter-clan warfare. Between disputes -typically ignited, Romeo & Juliet style, via street level rapier-induced punctures- the competition expressed itself in the expenditure of wealth and the construction of ever taller towers.

While many endured for centuries, most of the towers vanished with the growth of civil society. Dismantled, their stones were recycled into the construction of more modestly-scaled and utilitarian structures: shops, offices, dwellings and public facilities.

A very few remain, serving such solemn duties as tourists traps offering panoramic photo opportunities that can only hint at the street life below.


Sheer Beauty & Loveliness

by Zbigniew

“It is not enough merely to build a clean, healthful, orderly, smooth-functioning urban organism, although every agency of government should strive toward this end. In every possible way it must erase from the mind of the city dweller the monotony of daily tasks, the ugliness of factories, shops and tenements and the fatigue of urban noises. It can do this by showing a decent regard for its appearance, and by various devices it must occasionally touch the emotions. The city becomes a remembered city, a beloved city, not by its ability to manufacture or sell, but by its ability to create and hold bits of sheer beauty and loveliness.”

Harland Bartholomew, “A Plan for the City of Vancouver, 1929”


Excerpts from “Developer producing instant luxury condos in six weeks for resource towns,” Business in Vancouver, June 10, 2015

An Alberta developer with his own Chinese factory claims he can build a 48-unit luxury condominium in Vancouver in six weeks at half the price of conventional concrete construction.

“We can offer luxury urban-style living in even the most remote areas,” said David Weiss, project director for New York City-based Primco Holdings LLC, which has partnered with Stack Modular. “That’s what every small community is looking for, whether it’s an LNG [liquefied natural gas] project in British Columbia or a mining town in northern Ontario.”

Weiss said he has been in talks with a Vancouver developer, who he would not identify, in delivering a similar project into the city’s white-hot condominium market.

Instant CondosImage: Aerial view, Stack Modular apartment buildings | Stack Modular



by Zbigniew

“[T]he High Line is now suffering from its own success: with more than 5 million estimated visitors to the site each year, this greening initiative has managed to transform the entire socio-economic character of the neighbourhood that surrounds it. Many small businesses and moderate-income residents have been forced to relocate due to rising land values, while even those who can afford it have begun to experience the downsides of living or working in an area that panders to tourists.

“The High Line is thus a perfect example of “environmental gentrification” – the growing phenomenon of rising property values in the wake of a large-scale urban greening project. It’s a bit like the introduction of a new transportation hub or other major infrastructure project: while intended to serve existing residents, in reality it tends to increase land values to the point that those who live there are forced to leave. This exodus in turn transforms the sociological contours of the area and, by extension, the spatial segregation of the entire city.”

The dangers of eco-gentrification,” Jeanne Hafner, The Guardian, May 6, 2015

Us & Them

by Zbigniew

“And as more of what used to belong to ‘us’ was sold off and developed by ‘them’, the hunger for floorplates and square footage and award-winning design and river views became insatiable. If they ran out of land to build on, no problem. They would now literally monetise thin air. The principle of ‘air rights’ development in London was nailed by architect Terry Farrell’s Embankment Place. A client could commission a great design saturated with Farrell’s trademark postmodern wave-it-through-planning magic, acquire the air rights above Charing Cross station and whack a massive office block on the roof. Ingenious. A private incubus squatting on an anaesthetised public space.”

Ian Martin, “The city that privatized itself to death,” The Guardian

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