Five-ring Circus

Blank Slate City

I associate Vancouver with adolescence. I spent my own here, so it evokes in me teenage feelings: a sense of being contained by rules not my own but also a sense of promise, from knowing that all possible lives still lie ahead. I am old enough to fantasize about going back to the beginning, and this is where mine is.

There is also something adolescent about Vancouver itself. It is young by the calendar, to be sure. Incorporated in 1886, it was burned to the ground and begun anew that very year. Its attachment to the land feels loose, as though the promised earthquake, when it finally comes, could erase it completely, sending it out to sea or into a crevasse—as though it were as flimsy as the Squamish and Musqueam camps buried somewhere below. It is a shiny, wet place where nothing is old, not physically nor in the collective subconscious. Novelist William Gibson, in Spook Country, called the city’s translucent high-rise apartments “a variegated hedge of greenglass”; that the book is set in the near future enhances, rather than detracts from, the accuracy of this description. Things will be different the next time you come. There will be new towers in shades of aquamarine and pewter, a new SkyTrain line, and new swatches of suburbia where forests once stood.

Vancouver is adolescent in character, too, which is to say not entirely sure of its identity but keen to experiment. Once the site of an actual gold rush, it now feels like a gold rush town for the globalized age, where speakers of English, Punjabi, and Cantonese ignore one another even as their tents abut. They cross paths in the mad rush for profits from video games, offshore banking, real estate, and—still—real gold. As the local film industry has grown, the city has become a Hollywood back lot, playing every place from a plausible West Virginia to an unconvincing Bronx. In 2009, it’s playing Washington state’s Olympic peninsula, as filming of the Twilight teen vampire series continues. Vancouver tends not to play itself.

In 2010 it will, though, when, over 25 days in February and March, it hosts the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games. Organizers expect about 2.3 million visitors, which is almost exactly the population of the greater city itself. So Vancouver is making itself over once again with the enthusiasm of a reality TV star. Construction cranes are whirring, and there’s a whiff of fresh concrete in the air.

False Creek, a finger of water demarcating the southern border of downtown, was, well into the 1980s, a post-industrial wasteland of former sawmills and rail yards. It was revamped for Expo ‘86, a world’s fair that left as its legacy condos, waterfront trails, and a civic sense of being not only known but liked by the rest of the world.

Today on False Creek, BC Place Stadium is having its 10-acre white tundra of a roof spruced up so that it can host the opening and closing festivities and nightly award ceremonies. A nearby sports arena called General Motors Place, home of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, has been rebranded Canada Hockey Place for the duration of the Games. (Vancouverites call it “the garage.”) A new waterfront athlete’s village under construction will eventually become more condos. (Things will be different the next time I come.)

Across downtown from the two stadia is a third Olympic venue, the all-important media center—for what if you gave an Olympics and nobody watched? An international mob of journalists will be watered and fed in Canada Place, a glorified pier that juts into Burrard Inlet and houses a convention center, a luxury hotel, and a cruise ship terminal. The convention center is covered with five vast white fiberglass sails, making the whole complex resemble a futuristic tall ship, prow pointed north. From the point of view of city tourism boosters, Canada Place is a fine corralling station for the camera and keyboard set. It’s steps from the water and from Stanley Park, a forested peninsula surrounded by beaches and a sea-wall path. It’s close by one of the city’s rare preserved cobblestone streets, where the correspondents will be able to buy souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with Northwest Coast Indian designs.

“Back East”—in Toronto and Ottawa—they call Vancouver Lotus Land. I wouldn’t say it’s likely that the clouds will part during the Olympics, but if they do, the visitors may think they understand why. For the city can be obscenely beautiful: One clear day makes you forget the sprawl, the architectural misadventures, and the fact that for three-quarters of the year, the metropolis is encased in fog and rain. Just when half the city’s denizens are ready to buy one-way tickets out, the mist clears to reveal glass towers against snow-topped peaks against blue sky, and the bedazzled lotus eaters stay another year.

The Lotus Land nickname also goes to the heart of the city’s adolescence. It’s all very well to live in this lush place, the moniker says, to hit the slopes or the sea every evening, but you can’t live in such an Eden and understand the seriousness of grown-up things. In the same vein, I once had a colleague from Toronto—we were both working for the same company in London—who called Vancouver, and me, “Vangroovy,” a tag I had never heard in my hometown.

In 1989, my high-school class celebrated graduation below the sails at Canada Place in the Pan Pacific Hotel. The sleek silver-white edifice had been built just a few years earlier, for Expo ‘86, and I couldn’t imagine a more glamorous location. That my own Burnaby South Secondary had somehow arranged to hold our prom there surprised me and nurtured a dim hope that we were not so inconsequential as we had previously been led to believe.

I remember best the things we photographed. The inside of the hall is a blur, but I can vividly recall the hour we spent outside, leaning on the cable railings under a few high clouds and a vacillating sun. In taffeta and tuxedos, we couldn’t measure up to the vertical grandeur of our backdrop. We were blank slates barely written on, our years of trying on identities still ahead. But we felt the happiness of newfound freedom. For the first time we wore strapless dresses, stayed out all night, and embraced the city as our own.

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