In Conversation

Learning from Vancouver: Matt Hern with Theodore Hamm

In his new book Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future (AK Press, 2010), radical urbanist Matt Hern critiques his home city of Vancouver, paying particular attention to the contradictions in how the city presents itself to the world.

Theodore Hamm (Rail): What do you mean by “liquid city”? How do Vancouver and some of the other cities you compare it to—New York, Istanbul, Montreal, et al—fit that designation?

Matt Hern: Part of it is me being metaphorically cute, referring sort of obliquely to the omnipresence in Vancouver of water via the rain, drizzle, fog, ocean, rivers and streams.

Mostly I am talking about the pervasively liquid quality of the world in a neo-liberal time of globalization with people, goods, capital, and investment sloshing around the globe virtually unfettered.

Globalization has been around forever, and I am most certainly in favor of migration of people and ideas, but this rendition is driven by incredible corporatization. It’s creating a world of faceless, placeless “sites” that are totally replaceable and look more and more alike. I am arguing for everyday people to learn to really inhabit cities, to reverse enclosure, and to create public and even better common places that can be commonly understood, controlled, and governed.

Rail: You pay particular attention to how cities incorporate their past into the present, and argue that Vancouver needs to “root its future in historical honesty.” Can you explain?

Hern: Every city is built on slaughter. But it is especially critical for young, naïve cities like Vancouver to honestly come to grips with who was living here before the city arrived and what that relationship has entailed. In our case, the attempt to erase the Coast Salish people, to relegate them to history has left us in a state of dishonesty, of willful mis-remembering. Stanley Park, right in the heart of the city and the “crown jewel” of the city’s touristic outreach, was once home to four native settlements. Coming to grips with that, and understanding who we stand beside, will help us significantly in building a decent city.

Rail: Vancouver will be in the international spotlight for the month of February. How will it showcase itself? What will the world not see?

Hern: The world will see a clean, green, manicured, managed, and choreographed city in a spectacular setting. What it won’t be offering up is much evidence of a genuine housing crisis, that the Downtown Eastside is a shocking slum in the midst of an exuberantly rich city. We won’t learn that the city has the lowest minimum wage in Canada as well as the highest rates of child poverty in the country. And the global media most definitely won’t be highlighting the really significant resistance during the Games—the 16,000 cops on the street, the $1 billion security budget, and the scores of security and military agencies from all over the world will see to that.

Rail: After the Olympics, Vancouver will likely become an even more popular tourist destination and a site for the elite to have second homes, etc. Are you fearful that areas like East Vancouver, which you write so favorably about, will be swallowed up?

Hern: I am afraid that the gentrification that is hollowing out the city will continue to gobble what is left of the living, funky, and vibrant parts of East Van. But the likelihood is that the city will experience a (possibly severe) economic downturn. Already we’re seeing the negative effects of the ridiculous spending spree the Olympics prompted—amateur and high school sports funding is getting slashed, the BC Arts Council budget has been slashed by a stunning 96 percent, and libraries, community centers, and the parks board have all taken huge hits.

And that all happened before the Olympics started. After the circus leaves we are all anticipating much worse. But in many ways I think it will open up a real space to reimagine the city. Amid the rubble the Olympics will leave behind, we have every opportunity to see that a better city is possible. Despite it all, I have a ton of hope, not just for Vancouver, but cities in general.

Contributor

Theodore Hamm

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