Graveyard of Ambition (revisited) – Paul Delany

Back in 2004 we had no idea how long the Vancouver Review (v2.0) would survive. As it happens, we published 28 issues and went on to great critical success in the liminal field of magazine publishing that thought smart essays for a generally interested public might actually be…a thing. I was of the opinion, then, that even if we only managed to squeak one issue past the local gatekeepers, this should be the cover story we were remembered for. I thought Vancouver might like to look back and see what was evident then (and long before) and try squaring it with our present nightmare. While I was nominated for a Western Magazine Award for the cover, I still maintain the article should have been the nominee, and the winner. I’m grateful to Paul for his permission to republish this and am excited by his interest in potentially writing a follow-up.

Mark Mushet

GRAVEYARD OF AMBITION: DOES VANCOUVER MURDER DREAMS by Paul Delany (published in VR #1, Spring, 2004)


“Ah, Vancouver,” my friend Christine used to say, “The graveyard of ambition.” What answer was there to that? I had arrived in Vancouver long before, from New York; should I admit that my ambitions had dwindled as the years went by? Christine came from a wealthy and powerful English family; a few years ago she went back to England. I don’t know if her ambition has revived there, but at least she now lives in a place that respects it. In Vancouver, many sparks of ambition surely have fizzled out, including some of my own. We can always blame the rain.

People must grow up in Vancouver with the usual eagerness for wealth or fame, and newcomers presumably bring their ambition with them. How is it that Vancouver murders ambition? For some, enjoying the milder pleasures of life by the Pacific may be ambition enough. Why strive for more than that, once you have joined the lotus-eaters? Why leave for Calgary, and more money; or Toronto, and corporate promotion; or Ottawa, and the meagre fame of being an MP? Many Vancouverites settle for a less brilliant career in exchange for an easier life away from the workplace.

Vancouver, let’s face it, does have fewer glittering prizes for the ambitious than most cities of its size. Prizes are measured in money or power. The big money in our society is created in cities that are financial centres; Vancouver has never been one, and it is the largest city in North America that doesn’t have a locally controlled bank. It doesn’t have a single federal politician who counts, and its three biggest employers (the University of British Columbia, Vancouver General Hospital, and the airport) have little influence outside the city. If those who live here gradually pull in their horizons, they may be adjusting to what they reasonably can expect. People who have become famous in the outside world, like Jeff Wall, William Gibson or Doug Coupland, can be considered a special case. They prefer to live here, and sometimes to find their material here; yet in a sense they have become too big to play for the home team. That may be the best way to beat the “Vancouver syndrome.” But most people have to cut their cloth according to what is on offer west of Hope.

Perhaps we should just accept that Vancouver is defined by pleasure rather than power. The whole of Canada is disempowered, to begin with; we live next door to the world’s most assertive country, which only a maniac would try to challenge head-on. One of our few contributions to world English is the phrase “You can’t win.” Within Canada, BC is in a similar position. Under the present system, it can never have fair representation in parliament. The population of BC should entitle it to 41 seats; currently it has 34 (out of 301), rising to 36 (out of 309) after the next redistribution. More important, there is no prospect of federal power shifting outside the Ontario/Quebec axis, regardless of soothing noises from Paul Martin. For many years the West has embraced the politics of protest rather than of ambition for power. Even there, it is Alberta that produces the leaders and the ideas, not BC, and certainly not Vancouver.

Things are very different in the us, where California has a smaller share of the national population than bc does, but a much bigger share of respect. It is by far the biggest state, and has 53 seats in congress (out of 435). Three US presidents—Hoover, Nixon and Reagan—have been Californians. BC’s only prime minister, Kim Campbell, was appointed rather than elected and lasted four months in office. Paul Martin may give BC a bit more attention than Chrétien did; but he’s from Québec, like every significant prime minister for the past 35 years, and he will always have to put the interests of Central Canada first.

If Vancouverites have to lower their ambitions in federal politics, how about the provincial arena? The capital isn’t here, which immediately drains away much of Vancouver’s political vitality. And until recently, BC elections have been won or lost in the Interior, not the Lower Mainland (which also is underrepresented in the provincial legislature). Political parties of both the right and the left have been populist rather than metropolitan. The Bennetts, hardware and real-estate millionaires in Kelowna, represented one style of political power; Glen Clark, the self-styled “East Vancouver kid,” represented the other. Both sides were anti-intellectual and suspicious of urban sophisticates. For the Socreds, Bill Bennett Jr. regularly chose cabinets in which no one had graduated from university. The NDP did have a sprinkling of intellectuals but its real decisions were made inside the trade-union movement, where thinking for yourself has never been welcome. Power and ambition were certainly taken seriously in the union world, but they did their work in the back room where no one could see. When the NDP regained power in the ’90s, the Glen Clark wing of the party soon pushed aside Mike Harcourt and his West Side allies like Tom Perry or Darlene Marzari.

There was a real shift in BC politics in 2001, when the Gordon Campbell Liberals swept into office. For the first time in provincial history, political power shifted to the urban middle class, putting the West Side of Vancouver into the driver’s seat. The provincial government is now socially liberal but economically conservative, a novel combination. Such a regime is possible because organized religion is weaker in BC than anywhere else in North America, and because the Lower Mainland has grown to dominate the province. The values of the provincial Liberals are those of Vancouver, rather than of more socially conservative or fundamentalist regions. As the old economic base in natural resources continues its decline, the province’s future seems to lie in encouraging what author Richard Florida has called the “creative class” to develop technology, tourism and service industries based in Vancouver. The recently elected civic government under Larry Campbell is nominally of the left, but is not fundamentally opposed to the provincial Liberals’ view of the city’s future: this is why they campaigned together to win the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The “creative class” vision assumes that you cannot separate the social from the economic. It’s precisely Vancouver’s cultural diversity and agreeable lifestyle that will attract new kinds of soft industries. They will be productive because the ferment of city life will provide the raw materials for invention and entertainment. Instead of forestry, fishing or mining, the new wealth of the province will be generated in the forest of highrises around False Creek and Coal Harbour. The Shaw Tower, under construction at the foot of Burrard, points the way: it is a live/work building with offices on the lower floors and living space above. Architect Bing Thom’s new tower next to the Georgia Hotel, and James Cheng’s proposed one for Georgia and Thurlow, are going to be live/work/shop. It is taken for granted that having more people living in downtown apartments will be good for the city, by reducing commuting and making the streets more lively. As the new condo towers fill up, Vancouver will become as vital as Manhattan or San Francisco. Ambition will arrive too, with creative people landing here from all over the globe.

One trouble with such sunny forecasts is that as densification becomes more obvious, criticism is getting louder—and not just from condo dwellers who want development to stop now in order to preserve their views. More people are not walking to work downtown. Resident population in the area has nearly doubled in the past decade, but employment in the central business core has increased very little. Many national corporations have merged or moved their head offices out of the city, and those that remain employ fewer people than ten years ago. New residents are often reverse commuters, to jobs in Burnaby or Richmond. Others don’t work at all, and Bing Thom worries about the downtown peninsula becoming “a rich enclave of retirees and foreigners.” In the extreme version of this idea, Vancouver becomes like 18thcentury Venice, a city that has lost its hinterland and is given over to the corrupt pursuit of pleasure.

Yet complaints like this have been heard from the city’s first founding. Vancouver was cursed as a parasite on the Interior, where the real work was done; it was the place where loggers, miners and fishermen came to get drunk, get laid, and be cheated. Now downtown office people are seen as the “real” workers whose jobs are disappearing. When they are gone, the argument goes, downtown will offer only recreation and shopping, provided by waiters or store clerks who can’t afford to live here. The town will then have lost all its substance: Las Vegas or Miami, with rain.

This idea of Vancouver as a corrupt, hollowed-out casino city is the pessimistic side of the argument that the most successful cities of the 21st century will be those most attractive to the “creative class.” In fact, the clustering of shops, restaurants and condo towers need not crowd out new economic enterprises in areas like software, entertainment and pharmaceuticals. Live/work/shop buildings are only one of many signs of the merger of production and consumption in the postmodern economy. The city’s dramatic new skyline just happens to make visible a consumerist lifestyle that, elsewhere in North America, is hidden in estates and gated suburbs.


How did this present building boom in downtown Vancouver come about? Shanghai used to be the New York of China; in 1949 its financial class fled the communists and set up shop in Hong Kong. The absorption of Hong Kong by the mainland in 1997 was an anticlimax, and the dream that Vancouver might become the principal link between China and North America has ended in disappointment. But patient Hong Kong money did move into Vancouver real estate, in the Concord Pacific lands and other projects. Now the north shore of False Creek has acquired its own momentum, independent of strategic shifts across the Pacific. Many of the original Hong Kong owners of downtown condos have sold out, but local residents have been happy to take their place. The opening of the Urban Fare supermarket at the foot of Davie in 1999 was the turning point in building a community in Yaletown, downtown South, and north False Creek (Granville Market played a similar role on the south side of the creek). In this decade the community will consolidate and expand around the east end of False Creek, to meet the Olympic village on the south shore.

But what kind of community will it be? The new downtown is not as sociable as it looks. Two kinds of space are emerging: the lively streets, but also apartment towers that are like medieval castles, rising above the peasants in the village square below. These are gated communities in the sky, with ever more ingenious barriers to keep out intruders. There is an arms race going on, between more people living downtown and more criminals preying on them to get money for drugs. The novelist J. G. Ballard is the prophet of this new world:

Town-scapes are changing. The open-plan city belongs to the past—no more ramblas, no more pedestrian precincts, no more left banks and Latin quarters. We’re moving into the age of security grilles and defensible space. As for living, our surveillance cameras can do that for us. . . . We’re building prisons all over the world and calling them luxury condos. The amazing thing is that the keys are all on the inside.

Without going so far, we can recognize that the upper floors of these towers are the literal commanding heights of Vancouver’s new urbanism. From them, the people in the street look like insects, not members of a common civic space. You don’t exactly live in a neighborhood, you live over it: welcome to my gondola!

The city now has a third, vertical dimension that influences housing values. People don’t just live in more or less desirable neighbourhoods; they also live higher or lower, and in more or less protected spaces. Even so, the idea of the skyscraper as a visible index of ambition doesn’t present itself as starkly in Vancouver as in Chicago or New York. For more than 30 years, Vancouver has enforced a maximum building height of 140 metres, and has also established corridors that preserve views of the mountains for people south of False Creek. The city has tried to square the circle with this policy of egalitarian highrises, which has produced a flat-topped skyline where no building sticks out too noticeably from its surroundings. And it’s not just height: as local critics have said, the architectural quality of the highrise boom is mediocre at best.

Yet the height compromise may be breaking down. The Wall Centre, the city’s highest building at 150 metres, already stands alone with its radical design. New buildings by Bing Thom and James Cheng, going higher, also aim to break the consensus about a decent height or shape for local buildings. There is still time for a landmark tower to be built before the 2010 Olympics, something well over 200 metres. It will be interesting to see who might step up to propose it, and whether the city will give permission. Regardless of whether the height limit is broken, downtown Vancouver is surely shifting into a higher gear from the cumulative effect of so many new buildings and so many new residents on the peninsula. We are building it, and they are coming. But, to return to the question of ambition, coming to do what?


More than any city I know, Vancouver encourages people to direct their fantasies and desires into a transformed future. The dream of the journey to the furthest West survives, even if its fulfillment always recedes, incomplete or unsatisfied. Yet no one seems troubled that futures they used to imagine never arrived, or arrived in disappointment. Who cares, so long as there are other things still to look forward to? What certainly has arrived, and kept the whole culture of hope going, is the ever-expanding system of consumption: new shops and restaurants, better fashions, gadgets and diversions of every kind. More people arrive to enjoy them, from the rest of Canada and all over the world; and this growing, cheerful crowd seems to confirm that, yes, we are in the right place and will soon be granted our revelation. It is like the buzz of conversation in a theatre before the curtain goes up.

Meanwhile, are the foundations of social life in Vancouver actually getting better? Is there steady improvement in transit, schools, universities, museums,health care? Are our politicians, our newspapers, our writers and artists, better than they used to be? Are crime, poverty and addiction receding? Is BC richer, more respected, more powerful within the Canadian federation? Where is all this optimism coming from?

The city needs a more mature sense both of its own history, and of what remains to be built. Starting from respect for the city’s great endowment of ocean, mountain and forest, we should cherish the continuities between current developments and earlier phases of growth. Fortunately, Vancouver is still a city where there has been relatively little demolition (except in the West End), and where few buildings are out of scale or isolated from their context. Sometimes that context is an instant creation, as in the latest Concord Pacific development east of the Granville Street Bridge. Along with the towers there is new park space, plazas, shoreline walks, and connection with other kinds of city life nearby. The challenge, here and elsewhere, will be to make such developments helpful to less favoured parts of the city, and especially the desperate problems of the Downtown Eastside.

For the rest, laments about the “graveyard of ambition” need to distinguish between substantial hopes and mere opportunism. Ambition is not just a hunger for the new, or seizing money while it’s hot. It also depends on the existence of older buildings or institutions, of things that people hope to own or inherit. True possession of the future requires a deeper appreciation of the past, even in this young city (which is not so young in the sense that it has escaped the 20th century devastations inflicted on cities in continental Europe). Vancouver needs more charitable endowments, more complex local skills, and respected traditions. Sometimes these complexities emerge from decline, as when Boeing’s troubles in the 1970s helped the rise of software and biotechnology in Seattle. Because diversification is by its nature unpredictable, it cannot be willed into existence by governments. Recently, neither the NDP nor the Liberals have had any real cultural policy for Vancouver; and it may be for the better that they haven’t even tried to create one.

To a great degree, success for any city now depends on creating attractive public spaces, helping people get access to them, and awaiting results. Vancouver could do much more to facilitate short-range transit in the city centre to complement those billion-dollar lines into the suburbs. Where are the proposed streetcars linking Granville Market to the CN station, the Roundhouse in Yaletown and the Seabus terminal downtown? Why is there no decent train service to Seattle and Portland, when these three cities have everything to gain by pooling their strengths? Why have there been no real flagship public buildings since Moshe Safdie’s public library? International architects have effectively been shut out of Vancouver for a long time, and no one seems to notice what Santiago Calatrava has done for Milwaukee or Frank Gehry for Bilbao.

A parochial architectural scene is unfortunate when the greatest advantage of Vancouver, apart from its natural attractions, may simply be its openness to the world, the ease with which it has absorbed aspiring newcomers and made itself into a champion of postmodern diversity. Couldn’t we follow British policy, which grants residence to any writers, composers or artists who can make a living from their talent? We may lack ambition, yet there are still many people whose ambition is to come and live here. The shortage of power that I have described might even turn to the city’s advantage, as the dangers of having power become more evident in this new century. In a recent article in The Washington Monthly, Richard Florida argues that us dynamism is threatened by fear of terrorism and the doctrine of preemptive wars:

Vancouver and Toronto are set to take off: Both city-regions have a higher concentration of immigrants than New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. So too are Sydney and Melbourne. As creative centers, they would rank alongside Washington, D.C. and New York City. Many of these places also offer such further inducements as spectacular waterfronts, beautiful countryside, and great outdoor life. They’re safe. They’re rarely at war. These cities are becoming the global equivalents of Boston or San Francisco, transforming themselves from small, obscure places to creative hotbeds that draw talent from all over—including your city and mine.

Cities like Zurich or Stockholm have benefited by their traditions of neutrality and peace, inglorious as their prosperity may have been. British Columbia, which is bigger than France and Germany combined, has no army base and is probably the least militarized place in North America. In coming years, there will be more freedom to travel and emigrate to Vancouver than to a us that is becoming much more fearful of strangers. Perhaps that will be the limit of Vancouver’s ambition, to be clean, prosperous and safe. Should that be enough, in a time when darker passions seem to be in the saddle everywhere else? Or should we get off that lotus-root diet and start to move faster, look further, and build higher?

Paul Delany

Republished with permission