Everyone knows the story of New York. The Dutch come in and buy the island of Manhattan for a few beads from the natives. It isn’t quite true, the tribe was just passing through so they just got some beads for free, but it’s a good legend. People know, or think they do, that a penny dropped off the Empire State building can kill you like a bullet. They just do.
In London, Dick Whittington came to the city, looking for the streets of gold, but found only misery and suffering. Then his cat was sent on a trade expedition and rid an Indian kingdom of a plague of rats, and he became thrice Lord Mayor of London Town. Oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clemens…
Vancouver is a young city, just as Canada is a young country. At one hundred and twenty five, there isn’t much history weighing down on us. Our American cousins have more by virtue of vaster settlement and war than we do. Still, what I would argue for Vancouver, more so than for other Canadian metropolises, is that it is very much a city, not without history, which it does have, but without memory. It lacks that sense of perceived history and myth that other cities possess, that sense of identity imprinted in the minds of its inhabitants. I can’t think of a story for Vancouver like the ones for London or New York. Our histories and deeds are filed away in museums and books, not spoken or dreamed of. Instead of telling those stories, we live in the present, in our city of glass surrounded by the wilderness.
It’s not that Vancouver doesn’t have stories, as I know Canadiana experts will be quick to point out. I went up into the lofty heights of the public library one day and found an old political cartoon mocking Captain Vancouver, after whom the city is named. It transpires that the good captain left an officer behind on Hawaii, on account of some disagreement and told him to make his own way home. And yes, this was Hawaii before resorts and when the natives were more likely to stab you to death, Captain Cook style than cover you with leis. Ultimately, this officer managed to somehow escape the Islands and return to England, where, half mad from the experience, he ran into Vancouver in the street and proceeded to beat the living daylights out of him. Everyone in England thought that this was very amusing, because Captain Vancouver was a bit of an asshole.
I mean, how often do you hear that story? It’s a good story, a story you could tell in a bar and get a laugh, a good legend that could enjoy embroidery and half truth, if only we’d tell it. I’m sure there are many like it, stories that hide on the pages of books about the west coast, hidden away because we don’t quite know how to tell them correctly. Whether it’s the foundation myth of ‘Gassy’ Jack Deighton rowing into the city with a barrel of whiskey, or the city burning down less than two months after its birth, there are stories there that waiting to be told.
There are probably a number of reasons we don’t have these legends. Vancouver is a young city, and we’ve just gone through a growth spurt. We’ve grown so fast, glass towers rising up as we try to tie things together with Skytrains, the great jumble of immigrants coming in and making new communities and new starts, that we haven’t had time to sit back, have a beer or a cup of coffee, and get to know each other that well.
But perhaps because we’re so young, because we’ve just come out to the world and announced ourselves, this is the time where we make those legends, those myths. Despite economic downturns, mad politics, and all the rest, this feels like our golden age. We had our coming out party at the Olympics and made it to the Stanley Cup finals, even if we did try to burn down the town. Perhaps we’ll go on to new and better things, make art, literature, heroes, villains, and most of all stories. Maybe we’ll soon have the time to sit down and distil all those disparate parts of our city into new stories, drawing together old tales and memories in new ways.
In this, I am eternally hopeful, because there are advantages to being a city without memory. We are not trapped by the past, by old grudges or resentments that prevent us from working together. Our injustices, our head taxes and residential schools, although terrible are small compared to the wars and great suffering endured by other places. Perhaps we will have the good fortune to avoid those things in the future. We can make truly wonderful stories, about a city made of glass between the mountains and the sea.