East Vancouver: a case study
Some history, some reflections about an edge city
East Vancouver is best described as an outer-edge suburb, or an edge city. Over the years, the differences between what exactly constitutes a suburb and an independent town or city have become blurred, as the "burbs" and outer-edges have become more independent of core urban areas. These entities have increasingly been able to exist by themselves, creating their own capital for investment and development, and creating their own consumer class. So it's hard to say what is a suburb, when the suburb could likely survive without the big city.
Yet there are places where alot of unfortunate circumstances exist simultaneously, and we would generally call them suburbs or edge cities.
In the case of east Vancouver, it seems that it developed from the high-tech businesses like HP and Wafertech, which were built in what must have been farmland at the time. These businesses spawned neighborhoods which sprawled toward the urban core, and also further into the rural countryside. The sprawl came from the urban core too, and eventually the two instances of sprawl met with each other, so that now from downtown Vancouver, one can travel east for about eight or nine miles before reaching the end of the major sprawl.
The giant corporations that build their companies far from urban centers seem to be saying, "We don't want a city messing with us, we'll save money this way, and we'll be far removed and safe from the rabble." To a degree their plan works; yet they also end up designing their own prison cell from which escape is impossible. Eventually they have to pay, and they come face to face with the rabble--they find out that rabble comes in many shapes and sizes.
East Vancouver is a special case, for it seems that it is sustaining itself not just on the high-tech employers, but on a variety of retail and restaurant establishments. There is a several-acre Wal-Mart across from a several-acre car lot. A few miles down Mill Plain there is a Target and attached feeder stores. On that stretch of Mill Plain there are a dozen little insurance and medical offices, a dozen banks, a dozen gas stations, several quite unappealing business plazas, etc...Toward the end of Mill Plain, the end of the eight or nine mile run, there are half a dozen construction projects--future restaurants, oil and lube shops, and even a future Wildoats market, just a mile down 164th Ave. from Albertsons and Fred Meyer, which are across the street from each other.
It is overwhelming and absurd, and just like anything that is awful, its hard to take your eyes off it. This place is part of me. Its hard to admit it, but its inescapable.
Why do people come here? I think I know why so many Russians and east Europeans have come to Vancouver--its better than where they're from. It may not be great, and after a while it may get worse, but for now its just better than where they're from.
Its been rumored for years that in this part of Vancouver, many people are refugees from southern California, and that makes sense. I've seen the edge cities around San Diego, and I can see how people from there would be comfortable here. The edge city is a state of mind, and different weather and environment might not penetrate the artifice for refugees from other edge cities.
One interesting aspect of east Vancouver is that it's officially part of the city. It was annexed years ago, and the city limit to the east is now 164th Ave. That means the city can collect revenue from the 20,000+ people who live here, and the people get regular basic services in return. This raises property values, so that rich people looking to buy a house go further into the countryside and rural areas. The city generates more revenue, so that in theory it could spend more on making the central city more liveable. In downtown there are numerous buildings under construction, and some already built, as part of a revitalization effort. There's even rumors about developing a commuter bus/train to connect with transit centers in north Portland...sometime in the next 20 years. In the meantime, the edge cities to the north and east continue pumping out Wal-Marts, shopping plazas, and techno-business parks. There are two Wal-Marts in the edge cities, and plans for at least one more, and this along with all the malls and shopping plazas will effectively keep small shops and groceries from surviving in the downtown area. The average lifespan for any kind of business in downtown is about 9 months. Across the river is Jantzen Beach, which at any given moment has more cars per acre than anyplace in the Northwest, and its not pedestrian or bicycle friendly. The new residents in downtown Vancouver will find themselves relying on Jantzen Beach for supplies, and the short drive over will be more than they bargained for.
This is how the edge city sucks the life out of the urban core, and its only for the sake of saving money and staying aloof of the unwashed masses.
Why focus on this area? Its an interesting case, because its so obvious how these edge cities are part of a large problem. They are a leech on the natural resources of the Earth, and the forests and fields must be subdued before they can be built. They are socially organized in a way that makes mental well-being non-sustainable. In the edge city, there are dangerous collective pathologies bubbling just below the surface.
One of the most obvious indicators is the traffic situation. In east Vancouver, traffic poses a real threat to people. One can see from the design of the roads (as if they were designed) that the human form is not part of the plan--by itself, it is at risk. To an alien that has never seen cars or people before, it would obviously seem that cars are hunting people, and the bigger the vehicle, the more aggressive the hunt. To a sociologist, it is clear that the vehicles are at least trying to intimidate people, and the people inside the vehicles may not even be aware of it. In this sense, vehicles take on a life of their own, with little internal guidance from the driver, in a world that was constructed almost exclusively for them. It's a world similar to the ones Kafka dreamed of, but with its own peculiarities.
The intersection of Mill Plain Blvd. and Chkalov Dr. is the nerve center of east Vancouver. This is where no less than 18 lanes of traffic intersect--11 on Mill Plain, 7 on Chkalov. This is where the vehicles come; this is why they exist. They face off with each other, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Their tinted windows conceal the pained expressions of longing and desire. These symbols of rage, these "psycho-sexual dreamboats" as Ralph Nader would say.
Exhaust takes on new meaning. It chokes and kills us, yet it is our victory. We must keep on rolling.
(Note-the author has lived in east Vancouver for the past 9 months and worked there off and on for years)
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