Main Street Gentrification
When my parents first moved to Vancouver in 1981 they noted a distinct psychological devision between the East and West sides of the city. This split lay like a zipper down Main Street, the historical separation between the municipalities of Point Grey and East Vancouver, perhaps a subconscious legacy of each district's attitude towards taxation and infrastructure. Whereas historic Point Grey had invested heavily in its organizational longevity, residents of East Vancouver resisted, choosing instead to build their homes at varying distances from off-grid streets, and the visual hangover of this haphazard pioneering was evident 100 years later.
My family moved to Main Street in the late 80’s. At the time it was a useful neighborhood to live in if, like us, you were renovating a house: its streets were lined with plumbing and painting suppliers that seemingly supported a demographic rooted in trades. Our location enabled us to be a one-car family: my father would bike to work at his downtown firm and my mother would drive our wood-paneled minivan to UBC, dropping my brother and I off at preschool on her way to work. We attended the local elementary school in a catchment that included Vancouver’s largest social housing project, a large number of young families, recent immigrants and low-income households. The son of a family friend taught us soccer in the school gym: his family had been on Main Street since the early 70’s–a time when there weren’t many children his age to play with. The demographic of our neighborhood was shifting even then, and my brother and I didn’t want for playmates: just off Main Street we both learned to ride our first two-wheel bicycles, played street hockey during the Canucks’ famous ’93-’94 playoff run, and ate sticky summer Freezies until the corners of our mouths were raw.
Many of our school friends lived at Main and 37th in that childhood hide-and-seek dream known as “The Projects”. Their parents, like mine, became actively involved in neighborhood improvement projects, fostering a sense of community that I am now thankful for. These houses have now been torn down save for a small hold-out row of off-white stucco residences, a fenced peninsula of well-loved homes extending into the dark heart of a soil reclamation project.
In high school, in the fall, my friends and I would scour the no-man’s-land of VCR and vacuum repair shops between 28th and 33rd looking for illegal fireworks. The convenience stores that sold these to us have now gone the way of the family-run sports shop, replaced by an up-scale grocery on the ground level of an up-scale apartment building. The commercial alcoves they once occupied are slowly filling with boutiques and coffee shops, old news for Main St residents a few blocks north but a marked change for the once trendless neutral ground. Duffin Donuts, once a too-regular stop on my walks home from school at 33rd Avenue and Main St, is now a hole in the ground edged with covered walkways and plywood barriers. A building with the inspired moniker “33rd & Main” is set to fill the hole, and the a 1- and 2-bedroom development claims that “As the city transforms, Main & 33rd will be the new gateway to Vancouver”. Boarded up across the street is the shell of the former Abbey’s Sporting Goods, where Abbey and Abbey Jr. sold my parents miniature shin guards and cleats for their two “footballing” lads. For better or for worse, the car dealership is now gone: I can no longer walk past and reminisce about heel-flipping its landscaped gaps on my skateboard, but it can no longer swindle station-wagon-driving mothers like mine over timing belts and brake pads.
In the early 80’s my parents witnessed these later stages of gentrification in other neighborhoods, as independent businesses–those intoxicating barriers to sobriety and conformity–were flushed out of the commercial veins of 4th Avenue and Robson Street as property values raced population density skyward, neck and neck. Today Main Street is undergoing a similar transformation, the seemingly innocuous boutiques and coffee shops playing the role of unwitting Trojan horse (now the enemy is within our walls, and he is building condos). As a city bounded by ocean, river and, to the east, Burnaby, our land base is finite. With a large percentage of offshore stakeholders in Vancouver’s housing market, and with an international reputation for livability, Vancouver is in danger becoming a resort municipality, and we may soon learn that our baristas and grocery clerks can no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods they work in. The boom of gentrification is many things–safer neighborhoods, better schools, one-stop shopping–but the bust is felt by small businesses, young families and artists: the purveyors of culture that make cities great, and the canary in the coal mine in the ongoing experiment of social sustainability.
I photographed Main Street on my iPhone: a tool of necessary evil in my line of work, but the quintessential identifier of the generation that is transforming the neighborhood.