by Nicole Breit
“We often forget, living here in Vancouver, that we live in the youngest city on earth, a city almost entirely of, and only of, the twentieth century….we live, not so much in a city but in a dream of a city.”
~Douglas Coupland, Polaroids from the Dead, 1996
“In thirty years, most North American cities ought to be pretty much the same as they are now…A few new buildings, a few more people, bigger trees—you get the idea. But Vancouver? We have no idea what this place is going to be like next year, let alone in a few decades.”
~Douglas Coupland, City of Glass, 2000.
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I was six when my catechism teacher told us that Jesus was everywhere. Present, especially, in those who were less fortunate—those living in poverty, poor health, or poor in spirit.
By my late teens art became my religion. But I never disavowed what I understood to be a simple message, too often obscured.
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“RUKND” reads the license plate of a VW van on the back cover of Douglas Coupland’s Polaroids from the Dead. Bumper stickers assert familiar leftie slogans:
Food not bombs. Poverty is Violence. Commit random acts of KINDNESS.
In Vancouver, hippie values haven’t died out entirely, but they really only thrive on the margins.
In schools they teach kindness to others, the planet, and yourself.
But those values no longer feel like the soul of the city.
Although many dedicated people advocate for the poor and the homeless, to protect Vancouver’s culture, heritage, and the environment, the message doesn’t penetrate the boardrooms, where unrestricted commodification of the city is always on the table.
Maybe it’s the same in your city, too.
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When I first viewed Chris Woods’ Stations of the Cross fifteen years ago, I was fascinated by his re-imagining of the old story in modern times, relocating Christ’s last days to mid-1990s Vancouver.
I loved seeing my city represented in such beautiful paintings. Follow the Stations at Vancouver’s St. Thomas Anglican Church or on Woods’ flickr site and you’ll wend your way past postcard landmarks to a major tourist destination, Stanley Park—the site of Christ’s crucifixion.
I also deeply admired the artist’s remarkable powers of observation—his ability to render his subjects with disarming realism. Like the work of the Old Masters, Woods’ Stations are made luminous by an adept handling of light, halftones, and shadows.
I find the models—mostly friends and family of the artist—mesmerizing by their gestures and facial expressions, by their modern plainness in jeans and t-shirts.
But what I find deeply affecting about Woods’ series now is that it records the Vancouver I remember, before spiking property values changed the entire face of the city. In the skyline behind Christ’s crucifixion I see a city about to vanish.
Currently the most expensive housing market in North America, character homes as well as cultural and heritage sites have disappeared over the past two decades at a staggering rate.
Innumerable neighbourhoods have been “upzoned,” levelled and rebuilt as million dollar condo developments for wealthy foreign buyers with no cultural stake in the city.
With no cap on commercial rent increases, small, independent businesses have been wiped out, eliminating choice, destroying the city’s folksy, pre-boom character and charm.
Since 2014 the homeless population in Metro Vancouver has increased by 30%.
I look at these paintings and my heart hurts. I used to love this place.
Hey, Vancouver,who’s your God? Where’s your soul?
Are you kind?
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One of the things I’ve always admired about Vancouver writer Douglas Coupland is his ability to identify something in the air, to name and define it, long before it becomes a mainstream idea.
Polaroids from the Dead is a striking complement to Woods’ Stations of the Cross—a genre-blending collection of micro-fiction and essays held together, thematically, by what is on the verge of change, the cusp of dying.
The setting of part one: a 1991 Grateful Dead concert in Oakland, California.
Each linked scene—not unlike a “station”—illuminates the experience of individual concert goers. The juxtaposition of one micro-story next to another emphasizes deeply contrasted points of view, highlighting generational differences and the tension of the left versus corporate ambitions.
Scott arrives at the concert via his stepmother’s Lexus. For him the 60s are “an era as distant and meaningful to his own life as that of the Civil War or the Flintstones.”
Aging Deadheads rant about “foolish modern TV kids, asleep in a galaxy of pornographic beer commercials and anti-drug hysteria.”
A software millionaire sporting $650 Bally Suisse brogues observes the polarity of rich and poor and realizes he misses the middle class.
At his first Grateful Dead concert Daniel doesn’t see a peace-loving Jesus or John Lennon in the crowd; all the guys look like Charles Manson, the women like Sharon Tate.
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The book’s second part is a series of short personal essays about people and places including Kurt Cobain, the former East Berlin, and west coast cities including Vancouver.
I love the way fiction and non-fiction co-exist in this collection, not unlike a re-imagining of an ancient story in contemporary times, evoking a truth less “truthy” than “real.”
Further blurring fiction and reality, in the intro to PolaroidsCoupland admits the book was “experienced” over a series of Grateful Dead concerts he, himself, attended in Oakland in 1991.
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In “The German Reporter,” Coupland sees a ghost of his younger self and spends a few days touring him around Vancouver.
At one point the reporter asks what it means to be real.
“When you think about it, an extraordinary question….What, exactly, does real mean? Are you real? Am I real? Was this German reporter real? How real is real?”
Maybe that’s the question I keep asking about Vancouver and keep circling around in this essay.
Is the city of my youth, my coming of age, real? A dream of a city, or just a dream? A mirage? A ghost?
That Christ takes up the cross in front of Vancouver’s trade and convention centre, is arrested by men in business suits, reminds me of what always disturbed me most about this story: Jesus’ fate wasn’t the decision of one person.
It didn’t have to play out to its tragic conclusion if, at any point, someone had chosen differently. Refused the bag of silver. Protested. Intervened.
Governments, corporations, and institutions operate via a hierarchy of power; a chain of decisions lead to what, in the end, feels inevitable.
Who’s to blame? Everyone and no one.
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One of my favourite downtown stores still exists.
A local shoe designer—who once lived in a California commune in the 60’s—can still afford the rent on Granville Street. A pair of his boots retails for over $500; a pair of clogs, $200.
Fresh from the bank where I’d cashed my student loan cheque, one warm September afternoon I bought a pair of knee-high boots I couldn’t afford—perfect to wear with my homemade dresses and $5 thrift store cardigans.
It was an exciting moment, a big investment for me. I still wear those boots today; I’ll probably be cremated in them.
It was twenty years ago, but I still remember what the saleswoman, roughly my age, looked like. Shoulder length wavy black hair, wide cheekbones, pale skin, pretty brown eyes.
When I look at the young woman looking up to Christ as he looks up to heaven in Station XII, I wonder if it’s possible to live in North America and not be part of the big machine.
No matter what our values, what we think about capitalism, are we not all consumers? Am I—are we all—not complicit?
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In his book of the same name Coupland calls Vancouver a “City of Glass”—an ever-changing skyline of “large glass totems that say ‘F-you’ to us.”
In Polaroids from the Dead’s closing essay he writes:
Our lives need to be stories, narratives, and when our stories vanish, that is when we feel lost, dangerous, out of control and susceptible to the forces of randomness. It is the process whereby one loses one’s life story: denarration.
How do people form memories, tell stories, when familiar touchstones cease to exist—are rapidly replaced by something else?
Like so many long-time residents who grew up in and around Vancouver, last year I moved to a more affordable, less disorienting city.
I came back a few months ago for a farewell to my junior high school—like the mall where I worked my first job and my senior high school, it’s in the process of being torn down.
My friends and I toured the old neighbourhood and couldn’t agree on which block our old friend lived. Every second or third house, originally built in the late 60s, was gone, replaced by monster homes designed to take up as much space on each lot as possible.
Further to denarration, Coupland writes: In a very odd sense, the vacuum of nothingness forces the individual either to daily reinvent himself or herself or perish.
Has the city become denarrated, lost its story, and therefore, must keep reinventing itself—or have we?
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Both Woods’ and Coupland’s stunning work came to be for different reasons.
Woods’ Stations of the Cross, completed in 1995, was commissioned by a patron of St. David of Wales Anglican church—now closed for lack of membership.
Coupland wanted to write a book that explored the world of the early 1990s, the cities and people he found fascinating. It was published in 1996, a year after Jerry Garcia died.
These artists—such observant, skilled, and reverent witnesses to a place I once loved.
Their work feels like a personal gift somehow. A not-at-all-random act of kindness.
Nicole Breit is an award-winning poet, essayist and creative writing instructor who lives on British Columbia’s gorgeous Sunshine Coast. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus, Room, carte blanche, Event, The Archer, and The Puritan. To learn more about her writing and online courses visit www.nicolebreit.com.