A Tale of Two Cities: Vancouver vs. New York
Vancouver is often touted as a world class city by local boosters. While the costs of living and real estate prices are certainly indicative of that caliber, our culture (or lack thereof) and the locals inability to get to know themselves without making a big stink about how dissatisfied we are with one another, leaves us to question whether or not our very young city is really ready to step up onto the global stage. There’s only so many years a city can ride on having hosted the lesser of the Olympics, no matter how many gold medals were won by locals. Only so many venues can close before the so-called ‘creative’ class finally throws in the towel and leaves everything to the mercy of developers, corrupt political parties and their sycophant friends. So since I’ve just returned from a five month stint in New York, I’ve been asked by the good people at Vancity Buzz to write up a piece comparing some of the finer points of life in both cities.
Geography and Population
Simply put, New York City is massive. Even though it’s got roughly half the area of Metro Vancouver, the population density is double what we’re able to muster. Over eight million people packed together day in and day out make a busy stroller and shopper laden weekend on Robson Street look like a day in the park. Narrow streets and buildings dominate, but let’s just say that after seven years of driving in Vancouver neighborhoods and dealing with our ‘idiosyncratic’ commuter culture, it wasn’t particularly difficult to adapt to the ebb and flow of New York traffic. Much like in Vancouver, it’s a specific kind of insanity encouraging a person to actually use their car to get around and try to find parking downtown, which explains that while many people own a car, they use it sparingly. Also like Vancouver, New York is a port city, with dozens of waterways and canals crisscrossing Manhattan and the Five Boroughs. However, you won’t often see pleasure crafts idly sailing by as they do through False creek and English bay. Instead, you have ferries, shuttling commuters back and forth between the city core and outlying areas.
Transit and Getting Around
New Yorkers have a healthy contempt for those who choose to get around by automobile,unlike Vancouver – their contempt stems from the high-minded delusion of becoming the “World’s Greenest City” (what does that even mean?). In Gotham, it’s a case of practicality and the fact there’s not enough room for everyone and their brand new crossover. Hefty tolls are charged to use New York’s bridges and tunnels and dissuade those who just want to go for a leisurely midday joyride. Those who complain bitterly about the four dollar charge on the Port Mann would do right by checking themselves against the $13 it costs to cross the George Washington Bridge EACH WAY, every day.
The smart cookie uses the famous New York subway. With about 24 lines, give or take, the subway moves over 5 million people a day quickly, efficiently and cheaply. $2.50 will take you anywhere you need to go, from the southern most point of Brooklyn, all the way to deepest darkest Harlem, to Queens and beyond, as long as you stay within the confines of the stations. Yes, the trains get crowded, but even though space is at a premium on that early morning commute, I did not once have the dubious pleasure of witnessing the angry crush of a Vancouver-style, Skytrain shoving match.
New Yorkers are hip to crowds and how to move around in them without getting angry at one another for accidentally bumping someone with their courier bag. While the MTA is just as corrupt as our Translink, they do understand that if you keep the people on the move and can get them to work and home on time and on budget, they’re less likely to complain about the service. And so, there’s always some multi-billion-dollar project going on to expand and improve on the several hundreds of miles of track buried under the ground. Whereas in Vancouver, there are far more important stuff to take care of, like cutting bus route frequency and installing complicated and unproven fare gates to stem the ever-rising tide of free riders, instead of putting in more rapid transit along North America’s busiest corridor.
As a side note, the New York subway is a great equalizer. You never know if that scuzzy looking hobo type is actually a dotcom millionaire or famous actor. Everyone takes the train. And the one thing I must admit here though, is that with respect to just the Skytrain experience, nothing can beat seeing the gorgeous scenery of the lower mainland whiz by at 80 km/h from a vantage point two stories in the air. I guess we really are paying for the view here.
Housing and Real Estate Development
I’m no expert when it comes to discussing the finer points of housing and real estate, however as someone who at this point can never even hope to think of one day dreaming about the mere thought of buying a property in or around Vancouver, it’s important to mention that many New Yorkers are in the same boat. I was warned that everything is much more expensive in NYC, but this isn’t true at all. If anything, prices for lodging are almost exactly the same. My trendy, 1500 square foot loft cost close to, if not slightly less, than what you’d end up paying here, which is about three grand per month. And just like here, it pays to have roommates.
There are always new development projects happening all over the city, with walk-ups and high rises popping up all over New York, like zits on a teenager’s chin, boasting deals “starting at only 500K!” The difference between there and here is less of a marketing push. Of course, there are the requisite flyers falling out of every free weekly, but I didn’t notice such an in-your-face attempt as Vancouver’s to get me to sign over the next 30 years of my wages in exchange for a tiny, poorly built shoebox in the sky. Nor did I see any buildings wanting to have sex with the handsome new 12 story about to go up just off Bedford. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t looking, or there was a lack of real estate focused billboards, I don’t recall.
New Yorkers, while dealing with various gentrifying forces, are less likely to complain about being priced out of their neighborhoods thanks to fairly rigorous rent control initiatives, which, like the subway, place the rich and poor side by side, often in the same building. Still, just like Vancouverites, there are grumblings among Gotham locals about everything going condo and being sold to absentee foreign investors. But boy did they have a laugh when I showed off CrackshackorMansion.com.
Work and Leisure
There’s nothing like being able to work from a giant multinational coffee distribution conglomerate’s storefront. The freedom of not being shackled to some office cubicle is like sweet ambrosia to those of us choosing to make Vancouver our home. But the blurring of life and leisure is a concept foreign to many New Yorkers. With the average New York workweek inching close to 50 hours, the idea of being able to take a three hour walk along the seawall between meetings is something akin to seeing unicorns or dragons roaming the streets. That being said, the hardest working city in the world is nothing if not an epic party town. Bars are everywhere and stay open LATE, since a lot of people punch the clock at 6:30 p.m. rather than 4 p.m. Within two square blocks of my apartment in Brooklyn, I counted no less than six watering holes, all offering lengthy happy hours, a wide variety of locally brewed craft beers, and the tried and true five dollar beer and shot special. If nine dollar pints and $20 per ounce whiskeys are more your speed, there’s plenty of overpriced dives in Manhattan.
There isn’t an entertainment district like we have here in Vancouver, with N.Y. city bureaucrats taking a more liberal approach to the idea that people can and usually do police themselves pretty well. Speaking of police, much like our local cops, the original “Boys in Blue” are heavily militarized, brutal and murderous. Try to stay away from them no matter where you are, because the Stop and Frisk law will put down anyone for looking strange, or behaving in a way considered to be out of the ordinary.
One of the worst things about New York, I have to say, are the ridiculous prices being charged for recreational drugs. Coke reigns supreme, as does high quality MDMA, but when it comes to the natural stuff like weed and mushrooms, expect to put up at least double to what you’d pay here on the left coast. Vancouver takes the cake when it comes to things to do outside. I was oddly proud to see the looks of astonishment on people’s faces when I described being able to do a few morning snowboard runs down Grouse and to hit the beach by noon, or the wonders of an evening walk along the Seawall. New Yorkers beat us out with the volume of people who use their bikes to get around. With or without helmets, these folks brave the mean streets and weave expertly between honking cars, hoping not to get doored by some oblivious four-wheeled airhead.
Art and Culture
There’s really nothing to compare. Being the hub of North American art and culture puts New York light years ahead of anything Vancouver can even attempt to offer. They simply have more and better schools, museums, theatres, galleries, television / film productions and live venues. It’s where the ideas we think are ours come from.
Nothing in the world of Vancouver culture exists without paying its due to the city that never sleeps. In fact, the city of New York is so keenly aware of the billions of dollars that art and culture bring to their coffers, it does everything in its power to facilitate new works and projects. Sure beats that poodle on Main, or the next season of The Real Housewives of Vancouver. But seriously, there’s always a new venue opening somewhere, be it an indie movie theatre in Williamsburg, or a high-tech arts incubator hidden away somewhere in the Bowery. Whereas in Vancouver, it seems that every other day there’s another closure or some not-for-profit going belly up after running out of government cheese. If art and culture is what you seek, go east, or put your nose to the grindstone and create it yourself.
Both Vancity and NYC pride themselves on their ability to consistently produce amazing things to eat. And I can’t argue with either city’s claim on gastronomic superiority. From the greasiest of greasy spoons to the heights of molecular gastronomy, both here and there are a foodist’s paradise. That is all.
At this very moment in New York City, there are over 900 tech start-ups ready to hire 3000 people. From the latest hit app, to the renaissance of the American manufacturing sector, there are dump trucks full of money being offered up by VCs hoping to score big on the next great innovation. And while most people think a stint on Wall Street is the be all and end all of business success, the tens of thousands of small business owners setting up shop in NYC would beg to differ. Regulations have been streamlined to allow new business owners a fast track to getting set up and making money for the local economy. Meanwhile, here on the west coast, it’s harder than ever for a small operation to bootstrap itself and begin making a difference in our increasingly chaotic economic climate.
Even with the appearance of several start-up incubators here in the city, their almost exclusive focus on apps and software leaves ignored the talents of those who can actually make real products, as opposed to simply banging out a few thousand lines of code. Still, not all is lost as there will be tons of work available to those who are willing to put aside their ethics and devalued BA’s to take a lucrative position on the impossible to stop Northern Gateway pipeline project.
People and Dating
Last year’s Why Do Vancouver Men Suck article caused an uproar among the singles set. Both sexes lashed out at one another like spoiled children, pointing fingers in accusation of being aloof, boring, unapproachable or just downright mean. Now while I have never had any problems here in town with meeting people and scoring, this is not the case for many lonely, entitled singles who won’t settle for anything less than what they think they deserve.
The scene in Vancouver is like shopping for any number of consumer products. The humanity of the situation has been eradicated in favour of online dating (which worked fine for me) or even worse, the burgeoning matchmaking industry. While in New York, the place where OKCupid is the straight equivalent of Grindr, I was approached by friendly members of both sexes. Some of whom were just down for a drink and pleasant conversation with a new friend, or some just down to knock boots. Being a loyal guy who loves his lady, I had to decline several kind offers to participate in some form of nocturnal emission or another, but couldn’t help thinking of how much happier people in Vancouver would be if they just let go of their preconceived notions of what a perfect partner should be.
As New Yorkers know, love is just as much a numbers game as high finance. You win some and you lose some, but you’ll never know your worth unless you have the stones to play. Romance aside, the people of New York have learned, through tragedies like 9/11 that even though everyone is out for themselves, people sometimes need to stick together. I haven’t had an easier time making friends anywhere, and was welcomed by everyone I had the pleasure of meeting socially, to join their circle, without any feelings of pressure or awkwardness.
Poverty and Gentrification
Both cities have a long, storied history of class division. The rich and poor locked in a constant struggle over who should benefit from material and social wealth. Vancouver has the distinction of spawning several world famous social and environmental initiatives, most recent of which is the famous Occupy movement. But it took a massive protest in New York’s financial district to really bring the movement to the forefront. And where else can you find a government sponsored ever growing poverty industry, working hand in hand with real estate developers to keep the status quo in Canada’s poorest postal code, but in Vancouver’s downtown eastside?
New York’s poor are kept out of sight for the most part, with the marginalized being quickly incarcerated by the constabulary, or by being stuck in parts of town that no one in their right mind would dare set foot in. Whereas here, our municipal, provincial and federal governments see fit to let exist a literal circus freakshow of mentally ill and drug addicted citizens, running rampant throughout the rapidly shifting wastelands of the DTES.
Only in fabulous Vancity will you find activists picketing a new restaurant for the crime of opening in what could be described as a shithole, demanding the state build housing for those who are most difficult to keep indoors. Whereas only in New York will you find an armless Vietnam veteran, making 500 to a thousand dollars a day by guilting coked-up Wall Street Pat Bateman lookalikes into forking over a 20 dollar bill. Regardless of what we think we know about poverty in either city, it’s far too complex an issue to examine in a blog post such as this and I’ll leave it to the experts.
If New York is a grand dame of the urban world, gaudy, spackled with lights and experienced in the ways of love and war, then Vancouver is like a naturally beautiful teenage girl: not sure of what she yet wants or what she’s capable of, only that she’s good looking enough to, for now, have her pick of suitors at the expense of those who really have her best interests at heart.
Both cities have their advantages. The fresh air and great tasting water of Vancouver is something easily taken for granted, until you sample what can only be described by the ever popular “tastes and smells like shit” offerings of the Big Apple. Rent and costs of living between NYC and Vancouver are practically identical, with food and booze being somewhat cheaper in the Big City, depending on where you shop.
Fashion-wise, it’s no contest. We in Vancouver dress like slobs, whereas even the most disenfranchised New Yorkers try to spruce themselves up, a little bit, every day. Proximity to easily accessible nature is Vancouver’s domain, while New York leaves us looking like drooling yokels in the proverbial dust when it comes to anything cultural. Rapid transit was pretty much invented by cities like Gotham, while here in the vast lands of the Pacific Northwest, it’s still considered a relative novelty by the powers that be, who prefer we still get around in a gas guzzling SUV.
All in all, these are two different places, with their own unique styles, so is it even really fair to compare the two? Well, if Vancouver wants to keep waving the world class flag, she’d better get used to being compared to those with a few hundred years experience, because beauty and access to a lot of natural resources can only take her so far.