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Aaron Scott Hildebrandt Headshot

I Love Vancouver, But It Doesn't Love Me

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coal harbour vancouver

When I first moved to Vancouver, it felt like living in the future. Hell, a lot of TV shows and movies set in the future use Vancouver as their backdrop. It just feels like a place where so much is going right -- the buildings shine, the water glistens, and the grass is green year-round, and there's a progressiveness and thoughtfulness that permeates everything. The city cares about social justice, about the environment (Vancouver aims to be the most environmentally-friendly city in the world by 2020), about the day-to-day lives of the people who live in it.

It's not just beautiful. It's beauty overkill. You can stand on the seawall and watch the sun set gloriously over the mountains while otters play in the water next to you. After living here, so many other cities just feel flat and lifeless (ironic, considering some people have dubbed Vancouver "No-Fun City" because of its relatively tame nightlife -- but I bet those people haven't walked Granville Street at two in the morning to take in the hilarious procession of the drunken, dishevelled 19-year-olds in ill-fitting clubbing clothes).

For six years, we lived in the West End. I loved it there. We had an apartment overlooking English Bay -- it was tiny, but I grew to love that, too. I could walk to work, and grab groceries on my walk back, and then eat a hot dog on the beach. It was great. I wanted it to last forever.

I love Vancouver.

There's only one problem.

Vancouver doesn't love me.

vancouver fog fogcouver

The first thing to really bite us was the reality of how hard it is to make friends here. It's a problem that plagues everyone. Growing up in Manitoba, it took a lot of effort to get from place to place, so plans were never tentative. In Vancouver, you have options. It's so easy to get from place to place, and always so much going on, that social commitments are tenuous. People bail all the time.

You can plan a party, have a dozen people RSVP, and then have every one of them cancel an hour before the party. That exact scenario happens often enough that we have a term for it: getting "Vancouvered". And yes, I've been party to it. I've cancelled on people at the last minute only to find out later that they spent their evening alone. On their birthday. It's one of those memories I try to keep buried.

I'm sorry I did that to you. Me and a dozen other people.

It's hard to make friends when everyone is so noncommittal. But another factor is an oddity we discovered over the years -- because space is small, and people spend so much time out in the city, no one invites people over. Having friends over to your apartment isn't something that happens casually, which makes it really hard to play four-six person board games.

Making it work

Ask anyone about this stuff. They'll confirm it. Socially, Vancouver sucks, and almost no one here has particularly close friends. Just a selection of good acquaintances.

OK, so I miss having a really tight-knit group of friends. That alone hasn't been enough to make me want to move away. I'm an introvert. I'm doing just fine. And, after seven years, I'm making some headway in the friends department. Just in time to move away from them! Great job, Aaron.

No, these were issues we could power though. We could still make this relationship work. Or so I hoped.

It was about a year ago that the city calmly told me it didn't love me any more, and wanted to see other people. Younger people, I'm sure. That asshole.

You see, when it was just my wife and I, gallivanting around the city, things were great.

Then, we decided to have a kid.

vancouver stroller

To the surprise of no one, Vancouver has top-notch facilities and resources for this sort of thing -- we had two excellent midwives and, when our daughter was born, we spent several days in a beautiful private room at one of the best women's hospitals in the world. We never saw a bill for any of that, by the way. Not even for the midwives. I'm fervently Team Socialism.

When we returned home, the three of us crammed into our tiny (about 450 square feet, I think) one-bedroom apartment, knowing that our love affair with the apartment couldn't last. Alas. We loved the West End, and tried to find a place nearby, but six months after she was born we were still coming up empty.

Do you know how many two-bedroom apartments are available downtown right now for under $1,500 / month? I just counted. There's one. And it's spam. If you can manage $2,000/month, there are eight to choose from. But not many families can float $2,000 / month on a single income.

"But this is 2016," you say. Yeah! Problem solved! Dual-income is the way to go! My wife had been in school for a few years and was itching to get back to work. We could double our income, nuke our debts, and live like goddamn royalty, complete with an heir. It was a brilliant plan, and one that would have worked flawlessly if it had any basis in reality.

We'll get back to that five paragraphs from now. For now, just assume the plan has a fatal flaw. So, no, we're dealing with one income.

Keeping claws in the city

Pursuing a cheaper place to live, and hoping to finally get our daughter her own room, we ended up moving to Oakridge. If you haven't had a pleasure of visiting Oakridge, don't. Yes, it's technically still in Vancouver. Yay! We managed to be one of those families that kept their claws in the city proper, and didn't retreat to Burnaby, or Richmond, or worse.

But Oakridge is the opposite of the Vancouver dream. It's endless rows of giant houses owned by foreign investors, devoid of playgrounds or groceries or anything of interest. There's a mall, if that's your thing. There is Queen Elizabeth Park, which is lovely in summer and has a nice little duck pond, but there's no seawall. I mean, good lord, you can't even get a decent cup of coffee without hopping on a bus. And any place where you can't find decent coffee shouldn't be allowed to call itself Vancouver.

As for social justice, progressiveness, environmental awareness -- in the previous election, Oakridge voted Conservative. Our MP made the news when she declared (in front of a church) that she thought the government should have the right to spy on its citizens, and detain them indefinitely without cause, because it's what Jesus would have wanted.

(Thankfully, she was booted this last election, and replaced by the Minister of Badassery. Yes, the one you're thinking of.)

vancouver coffee

Anyway, fine, we had to leave downtown. Vancouver has one of the highest standards of living in the world-it makes sense that the city core is a little inaccessible. But the truth is, it's hard to find a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the city limits. They just don't exist. People have claimed that there's a three-bedroom apartment out there, somewhere, but it's only accessible to those who possess the key.

OK, so then we decided to look for a daycare for our kid, and I can tell that you're already laughing, and I don't appreciate it.

A couple of problems

We put our names on the waitlists for 50 daycares. Oh, how I wish I was bullshitting you. The number was actually 50. We could show you the spreadsheet. In two years, slots became available for us in two of those. Asking around, it seems the average wait to get into a daycare is two to three years.

This presented two problems.

Number one: Vancouver doesn't have enough daycares to keep up with demand. If you want to have a dual-income family after you've had a kid, you need to wait a few years before that's even possible - which means you're trying to survive on a single income in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

But we did get a slot. Remember when I told you that you could get a two-bedroom apartment if you're willing to fork over $2,000 / month? Well, that's how much daycare costs, too.

Just let that sink in.

Yeah, if you do some digging you find that there are cheaper options. $2,000 is definitely at the high end, but if you want anything cheaper than that, you have to wait for years to get a slot.

One-two punch

We took the slot and put our daughter in daycare, for a while. To be fair, this ended up being a great decision, and did so many amazing things for our daughter. But in order for it to afford it, my wife had to be working-and in order for her to work, our daughter had to be in daycare. Which meant that we had to eat $2,000 / month while she looked for a job.

The job market here is tough, especially for a new grad, and our window to make it work quickly vanished. We had to give up daycare before my wife could find a job.

It's a terrible one-two punch. There aren't enough daycares, so you have to spend years trying to get in. And when you get in, they cost money you don't have, because you waited so long to get to this point. Even maternity leave won't save you, because you can't go back to work if you don't have childcare. The reality of Vancouver is that the average family with a young child isn't going to survive.

Just to be clear: yes, our own decisions brought us to this point. We decided to have a kid, and assume all the responsibilities that came with that. But the moment we were no longer a couple, the moment we became a family, the city spit us out. And there was no way around it.

Living in Vancouver is like living in the future, but it's a future where families don't exist.

vancouver empty christmas morning(Photo: John Bentley)

Each year, the Vancouver public school system loses between 600 and 700 students as families leave the city -- and these are only the children whose parents managed to make it to kindergarten before throwing in the towel.

Living in the city as a young family is just a game of trying to see how long you can hold on while the city tries to kick you off. Some last for quite a while. Some even emerge grinning and toothless from the other end. But these are the outliers. For almost everyone, your first ultrasound photo is also your eviction notice.

A lot of people try to stay close by, to stay part of the Vancouver zeitgeist -- Burnaby, or Coquitlam, or New Westminster, or Richmond.

We're going further, to Vancouver Island. It's a stunningly lovely place that, in many ways, is Vancouver's opposite -- a place that's quiet and steeped in history (versus Vancouver's shiny-new gleam). But it's also a place that retains a lot of what we love about Vancouver. It has mountains, and ocean, and I think -- I hope -- I'll do some of the best work of my life out there.

Affordable daycare and rentals that include a studio space mean that my wife can start her own business. It's an oasis of Vancouver expats, and they brought some of the best pieces of the city with them -- including, thank god, decent coffee.

Most importantly, it's a place that wants us to be there.

west vancouver waterfront

Maybe, one day, I'll have my $10 million to buy a penthouse in downtown Vancouver, and I'll return to live as a god among Vancouverites. Maybe I'll even retrieve the key to the three-bedroom, then do a backflip into my glass-bottom pool while sipping a craft beer.

But even if I could, would I want to? Do I really want to spend my life trying to win the affection of a city that doesn't love me back?

I don't know. All I know is that I gave it a shot, and now it's time to spend some time apart.

Goodbye, Vancouver.

You were the best. I loved you.

I just hope that, one day, you'll learn to love in return.

(A version of this blog was originally published on Aaron Scott Hildebrandt's blog.)

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