Vancouver Notes

The Old Station – back in April, it was, perhaps, twice as busy yesterday.

I popped across the Strait a couple of days ago to see my older son and do a bit of business. I had not been in Vancouver since January.

It was a beautiful day, a tiny bit of fog but it burnt off.

It is difficult to grasp, living on largely COVID free Vancouver Island, just how devastating COVID has been in other locations. Where I live we have lost some businesses but there are lots which continue. About half the people mask if they are in a store. The streets are busy.

I spent a lot of my younger life in a stretch of Vancouver known as South Granville. And that is where my son lives now. The key thing about this area is that it has dozens of low rise and some mid-rise apartment buildings. They range from a bit sad through very elegant, pre-WWII, multi bedrooms. The key thing about South Granville apartments is that they never, ever, come vacant. People know people, lists were kept by building owners and managers. Walking towards the bus on West 12th every single building had a “Vacancy” sign out.

I walked down Granville Street for a couple of blocks. This is a high end shopping area. 85% of the people on the street were wearing masks. There was about half the normal foot traffic. And, most significantly, at least a quarter of the storefronts were “For lease”. There were still plenty of stores open and the majority of them had a mask requirement for entry.

The Granville bus was empty enough that “social distancing” was not a problem. I was heading downtown and looking at the empty storefronts and the “liquidation” sales. But the shock was downtown Vancouver itself. The “Granville” entertainment (read many bars and clubs) has simply ceased to exist. There are few bars hanging on, but where there were 30 or so venues it looked to me as if there are now maybe 5. Vancouver has always had a homeless population and, sadly, a population of street addicts. When I was a kid there would always be a few of these people at the south end of Granville street. They largely disappeared after about 2000 as the area gentrified. Now they are back.

Going all the way downtown three things hit me. First, the absence of people. Noon, on a sunny, warm, October day normally would see hundreds of people on the streets, grabbing lunch, doing a bit of shopping: yesterday there were, at best, dozens. Second, the number of storefronts for lease and businesses which are no longer there. At a guess, a third of the businesses which lined Granville and Pender and Howe are gone. The third thing which struck me was the absence of “international students”. There are, or were, dozens of English language schools downtown – actually a little east of where I was – and part of the fun of downtown was seeing gaggles of students. They stood out against the ranks of the office workers. While there were only a few office workers, there were no foreign students at all.

At noon I turned up at a restaurant at the corner of Howe and Hastings. I waited outside for my lunch partner. I could see the restaurant owner hovering at his door. This is a restaurant where, normally, you pretty much have to line up for a lunch table. It was empty and stayed empty through our lunch.

After lunch I headed off to the old station. I always have a cigarette on the plaza just before the entrance to the station. It has a grand view of the mountains but also of the bright reddy orange cranes of the Port of Vancouver. On a sunny day the plaza will usually have a couple of hundred people having lunch or just sitting in the sun. It is a favourite spot for tourists to take pictures. Yesterday there were less than fifty (likely less than thirty, I didn’t count) people all well distanced. There were no tourists.

I walked down to the trains. Again, usually, there is a steady stream of people coming and going even at 1:00. I passed exactly one person coming up from the trains and the great hall of the station was, effectively, empty. As were the train, the bus and the return ferry.

Overall, while it was great to see my son and one of my favourite CEOs, it was the most depressing trip I have ever taken. I could not have imagined Vancouver on a sunny, warm, October day being dingy, but it was. Storefronts are the multi faceted eyes of a city. When they are dark, the city is dark at noon. People, in their thousands, are the life blood of a city. Without people a city, even a beautiful city like Vancouver becomes pale and anemic.

British Columbia has done well through COVID. We’ve done it without lockdowns or mandatory masking but not without huge costs. Most of those empty storefronts were occupied by businesses which are not coming back. The absent foreign students and tourists will only return slowly, if at all. The empty offices may very well stay empty either because the jobs they contained will vanish or because staying at home during a pandemic makes a lot of sense and COVID seems far from over.

In one way, Vancouver is better off than most cities because “downtown” is mixed use. Lots of people live in the condos which surround the business district. That will keep some of the businesses alive. But that is the only encouraging thought I had. No office workers, no foreign students, no cruise ship passengers, no tourists: it is difficult to see how Vancouver will ever recapture the vibrancy, the sheer vigor, it had when I was spending time there last fall.

Wonderful, complex things like cities and downtowns are also fragile. You cannot shut a city down without there being short and long term damage. Nor, I suspect, is there any good way to “restart” a city. You can rebuild a city after an earthquake or hurricane, but restarting is a very different challenge. Especially if the “shut down” was largely voluntary, as it was in Vancouver.

Whether COVID simply dies out or a vaccine is produced or therapeutics are invented which allow the thing to be controlled is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the healing of the city. What has been lost along with the businesses and the tourists, is a sense of trust and optimism. Those will take much more than an end to the pandemic to restore.

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8 thoughts on “Vancouver Notes

  1. Jay Jardine says:

    And yet prices for detached homes in the suburbs continue to rise. We finally capitulated in May and pulled chute for urgently needed space in the province next door. The pandemic wasn’t the sole cause but it certainly accelerated the decision. It will be fascinating to see what emerges after all the urban reshuffling, particularly in heavily leveraged cities like Vancouver.

  2. Justausername says:

    The media, and government, caused this problem by not approaching the issue with honesty and common sense. Sweden did it right. They are still doing it right, and we are getting a “second” wave and the bed wetters going nuts trying to shut everything down because “covid kills Grandma and Grandpa!” (BTW, I am a Grandpa, and I’m not frightened by this garbage) The daily “cases” are now topping the worst of the pandemic back in March and April, but the deaths are extremely low, although not non-existent.

    Here is a link to a video that talks about the “cases” issue. This guy has been making vids all along that have been calm and rooted in science and common sense.

  3. John says:

    On a death per capita rate, Sweden has more than twice that of Canada.

    • Jay Currie says:

      The Swedes had a very high death per capita rate at the outset of the pandemic, largely because, like Quebec and Ontario, COVID got into the long term care homes. Sweden’s current performance suggests COVID is pretty much done: https://fee.org/articles/5-charts-that-show-sweden-s-strategy-worked-the-lockdowns-failed/

      • John says:

        Well, as I said they had over twice the death rate. So the data shows that Canada had a better response at the start. As for the future, maybe their longterm strategy will pay off. I hope so, but I do not think we can tell that for a couple of more weeks.

    • Justausername says:

      Here is a short video by the same guy as before.

      Every country handled this in different ways. Why not learn from, what appears to be, success.

      • John says:

        I started to watch the video you linked to above and I wasn’t impressed. He starts by implying that the UK would experience an increase in covid cases this fall similar to what you would experience for other influenzas. The data for the UK shows that this is not true.

  4. Jay Currie says:

    John, I suspect the facts of the matter will turn out to be that no one had a clue what to do for the first couple of months. People looked at Italy and Spain and panicked. No one had much insight into treatment. Very few people made the surprisingly obvious connection to the effects of flu on really, really old people.

    Sweden completely screwed up its long term care response as did England, France, New York State and a bunch of other jurisdictions. COVID is not a particularly lethal virus but it is nasty if you are both old and already sick.

    The panic has been feeding on itself for months. The Swedes, having figured out that old people were vulnerable and having lost a lot of old people, have managed to contain the virus and save their elderly. We’re going to have to do much the same thing.

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