We found ourselves in Victoria-Fraserview thanks to my father-in-law, who found the Vancouver Special in the Chinese classifieds online. Our elderly landlords — one-time missionaries, they told us proudly — had lived in it for 40 years, and now, as empty nesters, were pleased to rent out the bottom floor to a young couple like us.
For 18 months we lived among a landscape of specials, bungalows and pastel pink monster houses, the ones built in the 1990s with a second wok kitchen to entice incoming Hongkongers.
It may look like a generic neighbourhood, but Victoria-Fraserview — overlooking the river on the south slope of the city between Knight and Earles Streets — is unlike anywhere else in Vancouver: it’s the neighbourhood with the highest percentage of minorities (84 per cent), most immigrants (62 per cent) and most people who don’t speak English at home (46 per cent).
We lived on 45th Avenue, just off Victoria Drive. Starting at 54th, a Chinatown of greengrocers and medical offices stretch north on Victoria. Pass 41st, and the Vietnamese restaurants appear, like the beloved Hoang Yen where there is often a line of locals craving crab noodle soup. Sprinkled throughout are little blink-and-you’ll-miss-them eateries where you can taste from Burma to Mexico, Pakistan to the Philippines.
Before these immigrants it was European newcomers who set up shop along Victoria. I remember my father buying St. Honoré cakes for my birthdays from the street’s last Italian bakery, before the owners packed up for the suburbs of Port Moody.
Soon after we moved in, the smells of the neighbourhood confirmed that this was a home to many blue-collar immigrant families. From a nearby kitchen window, spareribs in black bean sauce. From the house shared by four families, fresh laundry from a washing machine that never slept.
Mrs. Sun, who lived across our alley, was one of the first to greet us. We met her as she was tending her vegetable garden, one of many in the neighbourhood, setting traps for the rats and hanging egg tart trays from the trellises to ward off crows. The rats, which feasted on garbage at the nearby park, would always stop by for her beans. Once, Mrs. Sun, while wearing a shirt that said “ORIGINAL GANGSTER,” told me that her traps had successfully caught six rats, but they lived, and so she had to kill them with boiling water.
It didn’t take us long to realize our part of the city was different from how many people envision Vancouver. Bike lanes might be a pride and joy elsewhere, but the one we saw from our window was rarely used by bikes; instead, our neighbours in the building trades fought to park their trucks on it every evening. A stretch of Elliott, a major street, only just got its first sidewalk ever. For those craving the West Coast lifestyle of yoga studios, live venues, espresso bars or craft breweries, look elsewhere. Even condos were rare.
Victoria-Fraserview’s version of Vancouver looks like this. Among the international crowd at the local Starbucks, a group of Vietnamese men hold boisterous communion over drip coffee on Saturday mornings. Women run on the track at Killarney Secondary while blasting Cantonese opera from cassette players, passing Punjabi grannies strolling in salwar kameez and Nikes with their grandkids.
In warmer weather, entrepreneurs stake out street corners. A gentleman sells homegrown melons and chayote squash on the Victoria Drive sidewalk, brazenly beside a brick-and-mortar greengrocer. In front of a social housing apartment, a man with an incredible beard and often no shirt sells clothes from multiple racks. A garage sale might pop up at the Tabernaculo Biblico Bautista El Redentor, where immigrant congregants sell everything from toys to furniture on the church lawn and pupusas and carne asada in the parking lot.
The blocks here teem with life, but they are also part of the hierarchy of the city, from the elderly binner in our alley to the working parents who own houses but return home after the children are in bed. As renters, we played a key role in this ecology. Density is high in the area, as landlords carve up their houses to accommodate grandparents to help with childcare, and tenants to help pay the mortgage.
I remember visiting a high school friend in the neighbourhood to see that she shared a bedroom with her grandmother. The anime posters she taped to the walls ended at exactly the half of the room that did not belong to her.
What are all these families working for? You can see the answer in the houses of empty nesters like my landlords.
In the evenings, I often glanced into the windows of my block after the owners turned on their living room lamps. On the walls, beside crosses and figurines of the Buddha, were photos of the children and grandchildren who have grown up in this neighbourhood, smiling in their graduation gowns, on their way to make their mark on other parts of town.
Read more: Urban Planning + Architecture
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