Opinion

Vancouver Needs a Brooklyn, and New West Could Be It

Why I'm glad I made a creative decision to move from East Van.

By Keith MacKenzie, 5 May 2012, TheTyee.ca

New Westminster, BC

New Westminster, BC: Gold at the end of the rainbow? Photo by Miss Barabanov in Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

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Earlier this spring, reporter Luke Brocki wrote a series in The Tyee on whether he was crazy to think he could earn a freelance writer's pay and still own a home in the Lower Mainland.

Brocki talked with real estate agents, developers and former classmates who lived out in the far expanses of the Fraser Valley. He even had a half-hour sit-down with Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson. None solved his predicament.

Like many who feel tied in some way to the urban creative economy, Brocki limited his future to two clear choices: First, break his bank account and somehow nail down some property in some funky yet increasingly pricey East Van enclave, or second, commute from a far more affordable abode in the middle of nowhere, er, Maple Ridge.

Five years ago, I was like Brocki. I couldn't imagine looking anywhere outside of my beloved Mount Pleasant 'hood, let alone anywhere east of the Drive. But when my girlfriend -- now my wife -- moved in with me in 2006, space quickly became a premium in our creaky 620-square-foot leasehold apartment on East 14th Avenue. There weren't any two-bedroom places available in the area for less than $300,000 -- and those that were anywhere near that price were unlivable and needed extensive renovations.

Stubborn as I was, she convinced me to look outside Vancouver for places to live.

Not live in Vancouver? I hated the idea -- I mean, I really hated it. I was adamant that I be able to walk to a cafe or a pub without having to follow a maze of residential streets or cross highways to get there. I wanted to be part of a community, not a matrix of parking lots and six-lane freeways.

FIVE REASONS NEW WEST IS COOL FOR CREATIVES

1. The Network Hub in the River Market offers an open-concept coworking space for creative professionals who don't want to do the commute to Vancouver every day. With dedicated desk space and private office rental for only $250 per month, inclusive of several workplace bells and whistles, it offers an affordable place to work productively and meet other creative New Westminster-ites.

2. Brand-new art studio space and galleries at the new civic centre will provide a venue for local artists to make, display and sell their art. Right across the street to New Westminster SkyTrain Station, the multi-use facility is conveniently located and is expected to draw big numbers in local and tourist traffic.

3. Downtown New West is a hub for film and TV productions, especially right along the river on Front Street or "Antique Row." Hit TV shows like Supernatural, Once Upon A Time, Alcatraz, Fringe, and The Secret Circle all film regularly in New West. If you're in the industry, or want to test its waters, New Westminster is a good place to make your homebase.

4. Lafflines Comedy Club, located in the historic Columbia Theatre right in the middle of downtown New West, is a great place for stand-up comics to make their mark, with frequent new comics showcases and regular shows Thursday through Sunday. The club also shows Canucks games and offers cheap pub food.

5. Culture crawl. East Van isn't the only neighbourhood in Metro Vancouver to have one. For the last nine years, the artists of the New Westminster Cultural Crawl have thrown open their studio doors to the public showing off their art and hosting live paint-ins in several of the city's arts and heritage venues. Last year's crawl had 19 artists and studios participating in the event, with the event expanding every year.

-- Jessica Roberts Farina

Realistically, though, we had to get a bigger place. In desperation, we checked out options in Coquitlam and Burnaby -- both of which, as I expected, made owning a car a necessity. Richmond and Surrey were, for me, out of the question. I wanted more character than the bland, cookie-cutter architecture I saw out there.

One night, I was looking on MLS.com. When I narrowed the search down to two-bedroom apartments under $300,000, to my surprise a huge cluster of affordable apartments showed up in New Westminster and not much west of there.

"What about New Westminster?" I asked my then-girlfriend. We'd been there once or twice on day excursions, and for a change, I didn't feel a knot in my stomach when I considered the possibility of living there.

We quickly learned we could easily get a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment within our budget and it wasn't long before we secured a great place at the top of Carnarvon Street with a beautiful south-facing view of the Fraser River and plenty of sun. Two years later, we don't feel the need to be closer to anything, because, well, everything's already nearby.

New Westminster could well be the answer to Brocki's challenge. It's not only more affordable than Vancouver, it's brimming with character, artist studios, indie cafes, old parks, and fixer-upper opportunity. Young people are moving out here in droves, and Mayor Wayne Wright is openly courting them. The city's downtown core also is one of the most densely populated areas in the Lower Mainland.

This is more than a story about the revival of New West. It also may be about the salvation of Vancouver. As B.C.'s biggest city verges on becoming a reserve for the wealthy, it chases away the younger, creative talent that gives a big city its lifeblood and secures its future as a productive centre. Do those priced out move 20 minutes away on SkyTrain? Or, as so many do, do they leave for Toronto, Montreal or cheap and cheerful Saskatoon? When New York got too expensive for the creative young people that make New York hum, other places separated by bridges and tunnels became home to that population -- most famously Brooklyn.

Vancouver's youthful and underpaid energy needs a Brooklyn. Is New Westminster poised to become it? That's what I asked myself last summer, as I visited the real Brooklyn.

The appeal of Brooklyn

"Brooklyn is now the first choice," freelance writer and editor Sean Elder, who moved there more than a decade ago, emphatically tells me over breakfast not far from his brownstone home. "People want to be here."

Twenty years ago, people would have wondered why.

To many, Brooklyn was the epitome of all that is rough-and-tumble about the United States of America. Gangs, ghettos, the menacing threat of crime.

Now, young professionals and artists have made it a new vibrant creative centre, having been driven out of Manhattan by astronomical prices. The cheapest apartment for sale on Manhattanapts.com is a 300-square-foot studio near Grand Central Station for $289,000. Need more space? How about a 510-square-foot studio with a rooftop patio near Hudson River Park and the financial district? That'll set you back $425,000, plus $620 per month in maintenance charges.

Sound familiar, Vancouverites?

Brooklyn Heights real estate agent Sandra Dowling, who's been in the biz since 1985, confirms that Brooklyn, NYC's largest borough with more than two and a half million people, has come a long way from two decades ago, when even taxi drivers refused to go there.

"Here, we have a beautiful community," Dowling says. "People are selecting Brooklyn as a place to live." She keeps meeting weekend visitors who tell her that despite living their entire lives in Manhattan, it's the first time they've ever been to Brooklyn.

They tend to like what they find. "Brooklyn is such a hip, wonderful place. It's young, cooler, greener, and quieter," Dowling's real estate partner, Julie Elizabeth Cohen, tells me.

Brooklyn scene

The Brooklyn waterfront, looking across to Manhattan, with the Brooklyn Bridge to the right. Photo by Keith MacKenzie, July 19, 2011.

Elder, a writer originally from San Francisco, says the corner of Brooklyn where he and his family live, Fort Greene -- like its neighbours of Dumbo, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and other areas of the massive borough -- has become an amazingly ethnically diverse cultural haven for artists looking to hone their craft.

"If there was a bomb dropped here," he tells me with a serious look on his face, "at least a third of the great American writers would be wiped off the map."

After digesting their comments, I walked around the west side of Brooklyn, losing what felt like 10 pounds of sweat in one of the most intense heat waves to sweep through the area in recent decades. I was impressed by how quickly one neighbourhood transformed into another within a single subway stop, or even within a few blocks.

There's the Russian-Ukrainian dominated area around Coney Island. The Polish communities around Williamsburg, near the Queensborough Bridge, nestled next to clusters of Hassidic Jews. The relaxed, charming tree-lined streets of Brooklyn Heights itself just south of the Brooklyn Bridge. Instead of McDonalds and Starbucks, there are local eateries and cafes on every corner, bookended by indie bookstores hawking local literary journals. It's a far cry from the stereotypical America of strip malls. It would be perfect for an artist who wanted to find inspiration in his surroundings.

When walking through the streets of Williamsburg -- also a popular 'hood for young and creative people -- I saw a t-shirt hanging from a flagpole outside of a boutique hairdresser salon. On it were emblazoned the words: "Can't afford to love New York." I smiled at this, and took a picture.

Ten days in New York also gave me opportunity to explore Manhattan, just a few stops away on the subway. Unlike Brooklyn, it feels disappointingly sterilized. The colourful streets of Irish and Italian descendents shouting at each other around hot dog stands in Seinfeld and old 1970 cop flicks seem like a distant memory. It feels like Mayor Rudy Giuliani threw the baby out with the bathwater when he -- admittedly to his credit -- vowed to clean up the city's streets in the late 1990s.

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