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.