Day 25: Vancouver, B.C.
Despite its overwhelming beauty,
Lotus Land has lost some lustre
Saturday, September 2, 2000
The last stretch of mainland highway shoots down the Fraser River valley through a canyon of shopping centres and "adult living" colonies until Vancouver rises on the horizon like a Pacific Oz.
In the glow of twilight, colour seems to radiate from the Strait of Georgia, splashing oranges and pinks on a cityscape that is as much natural as constructed. With spectacular beauty at every turn, with mountains on one side, beach on the other and Stanley Park's rain forest in between, Vancouver seems as blessed as a city can be. And as grumpy, too.
Whether on the gritty east side or in the comforts of North Vancouver, on the skid row of East Hastings or the sailboats of Horseshoe Bay, it's difficult to find a smile in a place that few seem to call Lotus Land any more. Average incomes have fallen since the mid-1990s, and prospects are not bright. For the first time in memory, people last year left British Columbia and its stagnant economy in greater numbers than they came.
That Canada's West Coast mecca is losing people to Calgary and Toronto is hard enough. Its pro basketball team, the Grizzlies, may not be around for long, either. And then there's the PNE, the Pacific National Exhibition, once the highlight of a Vancouver summer, but now a relic.
Held every year in the last weeks of summer, the PNE used to represent Vancouver at its basic self, drawing people from across the hinterland to a pleasant fairground on the city's working-class east side. Like most summer fairs in the age of jumbo amusement parks and Internet shopping, it has struggled and now its fate is up in the air. In 2002, the PNE must leave its historic site -- the place where Roger Bannister ran the Miracle Mile and where Elvis and the Beatles played -- to make way for a new series of parks, lagoons and playgrounds built by the city to make east-side residents, well, less grumpy.
Among the PNE's recent efforts to bring crowds back is a pig race. The four-way race around a horseshoe-shaped track is the work of an Arkansas carnie, Richard Humphreys. His event draws a standing-room-only crowd.
Over in Playland, organizers tried to spice up this year's PNE with two new rides, the stomach-churning Hellevator and Revelation, only to meet the wrath of B.C.'s rising Christian conservatives (they felt the rides had Satanic overtones).
The consumer exhibition faces a different struggle for attention, perhaps understandably. This year's lineup includes "The Professional Spatula" (no amateur spatulas for sale), Longevity's Missing Link (one tablet is equivalent to 10,000 glasses of orange juice) and the Great Canadian National Buckwheat Pillow.
There once was a lineup to get into Vancouver. Now, at the PNE at least, a hawker complains "there aren't enough people to meet a quorum."
John Stackhouse's Notes from The Road concludes on Monday in The Globe and Mail and on globeandmail.com. His conclusions will be published next Saturday.