Discovering Vancouver

Aditya Bhagirath imagines traversing the streets of Vancouver as a new student with three handy guides to the hidden secrets of the city.

I don’t know what exactly I expected from Vancouver. My first month has been quiet, and when I have the opportunity to go out into the city for grocery shopping or for a walk, I find myself wondering what a busy street would feel, look, sound like. So here I am, walking through Downtown Vancouver. As an 18-year-old starting a new life in a new city, can you really blame me for wanting a magical immersion into the city I will be living in for the next four years? I even have a couple of trusty books about Vancouver on hand to make sure I soak up as much of this new city and its offerings as I can. Besides, the first month of Zoom University has positively bludgeoned me with work–I deserve a bit of a break.

Right now, I am in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. I traipse to the steps, my backpack slung over one shoulder, and look up at the sign etched on the stone, displayed above the looming pillars that proudly hold this space of creativity up. According to Eve Lazarus’s Vancouver Exposed, this building used to be a courthouse, and was turned into an art gallery in 1983. This place is the second iteration of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Lazarus says, and the original was demolished in 1985. As I absorb the affectionate and concise way that Lazarus describes these monumental changes to the city of Vancouver, I think about the work it takes to shift all of that art. It cost $15 million to migrate all of those pieces to its current home. I don’t know if that figure included the care taken by the art handlers, or the wistful observations of passersby watching this movement, or the injuries of the construction workers. I have no idea how anyone can survive that big of a transition–what comes next?

Well, on my self-guided tour, the Downtown Eastside is next. If Eve Lazarus speaks about shifts in the city, Aaron Chapman talks about the glorious days of Vancouver nightlife in Vancouver After Dark. I’ve never been to an actual club before, but swarming masses of flashing lights and a heavy scent of alcohol rush into my head as Chapman talks about The Smilin’ Buddha, a now-closed cabaret in the Downtown Eastside. It was a space for the misfits and the downtrodden to come together and celebrate themselves while mashing to the harsh noise of punk rock. Looking at the faded buildings in the Eastside, I can feel that rhythm vibrating alongside the distant humming of buses arriving just a bit too late. It’s waiting for me to discover it, and welcome me in its sweaty arms.

I let those arms carry me to Pigeon Park in Gastown. I joke to myself that I should become the town fool and cause a commotion right here, following in Joachim Foikis’ footsteps. The kindness and humour in Jesse Donaldson’s evocation of Foikis’ contributions to the history of Vancouver, Fool’s Gold, rushes through my body, because I see a town fool in so many people nowadays. Yearning to cause a commotion, drum up some noise, make a scene in the middle of the road–what I would give to even watch that with a crowd, share amused looks with others, and maybe join in. That’s the kind of city Vancouver is starting to feel like to me: even if you get lost, you’ll find yourself in a corner so filled with that joy, you forget how you got there.

Don’t miss hearing these three writers discuss the hidden secrets of Vancouver’s history at Incite on Wednesday, February 17 at 7pm PT. Click here to register for free now to receive the event link.


Aditya Bhagirath