Review: Vancouver Special, by Charles Demers

>>Published: November 2009

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

Charles Demers is a man torn between the Vancouver of his youth, and the one that exists today. Reading Vancouver Special was an interesting experience, one that inspired almost as much knee-jerk defence as it did warm and fuzzy vibes.

I was five when my family abandoned my birthplace of Calgary for South Surrey, BC. (The “South” is always emphasized, lest we be unfortunately lumped in with the Whalley crowd. It was often easier to just say “White Rock” and be done with it.) As a suburban kid, living on the outskirts of Vancouver, the city always had a bit of a mystery to it; everything was bigger, brighter, and more boisterous. What did all that mean? In a nutshell: excitement.

In my university days, I gravitated away from the ‘burbs and took up residence in the theatres and stores and restaurants of Vancouver as if I’d been walking the streets my entire life. But I was a transplant—the city held all the adrenaline and none of the black marks or the history that I knew were as much a part of its pavement as anything. When I’d hear West Enders bitching about the Kits crowd, or the Yaletowners turning their nose up at the Downtown East Side’s most unfortunate, it didn’t register—not like it would for a true Vancouverite, not for a long time after I’d implanted myself into the city proper. Even now I still see more of the beauty and rush of the city than I do the conflicting social hierarchies and more-than-obvious problems, ranging from insufficient policing to rampant gentrification, from drug use and homelessness to racism and exclusion.

Charles Demers’s Vancouver Special is at once a love letter to the city he knew in his youth—and knows is still there, somewhere—and a condemnation of what the city has become as a result of so much social and political divergence. Over 29 chapters, Demers breaks down the neighbourhoods, people, and culture of Vancouver—the good and the bad. A comedian and activist, Demers writes with an intelligence that is rooted in research and shared experience. He laces the text with enough humour to keep the book light in tone. But between the lines, it’s impossible to miss the snatches of sorrow he clearly feels over missed opportunities for Vancouver to make right for so many wrongs and truly become the city it’s meant to be.

While reading, it was difficult not to feel slighted—as if Vancouver was being attacked without reason. But my adoration for the city is a teenage love affair still in bloom; it is a beautiful, amazing place, but it is also a liar of the highest calibre—when the world stopped in to see us for the 2010 Winter Games, they saw our best and brightest face, the glamour that obscured the scar tissue of the DTES. Because we’ve always donned our best designer tracksuits and gone out for a run, rain, rain, rain or shine (or rain). Vancouver is a city divided into clearly defined ethnic and social sects, each one looking forward with tunnelled vision, not wanting to look to the periphery should they happen to see something they might not like about their fair city.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone; I choose to see the city minus its acne. But no city is perfect, and no populace is without fault. I miss Vancouver every day, in spite of its many problems. Because it is still a world-class city, even if it unnecessarily feels it has to prove that fact to the world watching from beyond our borders. Vancouver Special never forgets this. Though it often feels as if Demers is lamenting the death of a loved one before they’ve been put in the ground, the love he has for Vancouver is undeniable.

And as a man who denies his ties to Surrey (for reasons which are many and obvious, should one spend an afternoon at the King George SkyTrain station and manage to get home without getting mugged), I was certainly able to appreciate a lot of the shots taken at its expense:

Surrey is the cultural whipping boy of the GVRD; it’s Vancouver’s New Jersey, except that New Jersey gave the world Philip Roth and Bruce Springsteen. Surrey is a city seemingly without zoning, and so it makes no sense as you drive through it (which you essentially have to do, even though the SkyTrain line cuts deeply into the city—fitting, because people in the city get cut deeply next to the SkyTrain).

Spot-on, Charles. Unfortunately.

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