I grew up in Vancouver. It was a great city to grow up in – as safe as any city could be, beautiful scenery, lots of interesting nooks and crannies to explore – Chinatown, Steveston (where the Japanese kept their fishing boats), Broadway (the Greek neighbourhood), Kitsilano (where the ‘hippies’ hung out), but my favourite was Commercial Drive – the Italian neighbourhood.
When I was an elementary school student, my parents would drive the 30 minutes that would take us from the North Shore to 1st and Renfrew where the Economart store stood and where my parents bought all our non-perishables. This was on the edge of the Italian neighbourhood, only blocks from Commercial Drive. If I didn’t whine or moan about how long the shopping was taking, my parents would wind up the shopping trip by going to Commercial Drive for ice cream. Today, I know that what we were getting was actually gelato, but to my very Anglo-Irish parents who at that time didn’t even know what spaghetti was, gelato was ice cream. Pretty damn amazing ice cream, but ice cream nonetheless. While we were walking up and down the Drive, I would listen to the old Italian men arguing outside the coffee bars and to the Italian women chatting while choosing vegetables at the markets out on the street. I had no idea what they were saying, I just knew that it was loud and exciting, far more exciting than my WASPy family.
Three weeks ago, when Nick and I were visiting Vancouver, we went down to Commercial Drive one morning to have espresso and a brioche for breakfast. We went into the coffee bar Roma and surrounded ourselves with FIFA posters, the aroma of good Italian coffee, and the sounds of the elderly Italian men as they shouted at the soccer players they were watching on the large screen tv. It was like being back on Commercial Drive in the 1960s or being in Italy. But when we left the coffee bar and walked along the Drive, what I saw around me were examples of the gentrification of the neighbourhood. This is a hot button topic in Vancouver these days, particularly in the Downtown Eastside – one of the roughest neighbourhoods in North America but still one with a community.
I know that there are many supporters of gentrification, that neighbourhoods, like everything, change over time, that gentrification can infuse a poor neighbourhood with much needed funds. But, there are so many reasons that I find gentrification distasteful. The displacement of the original residents who can no longer afford to live in their own neighbourhood is the key issue in the Downtown Eastside. Differing needs of the older residents and the newer residents creates conflict, and the smaller condos also increase density. But on Commercial Drive, the change brought about by gentrification that disturbs me most is the loss of the character and culture of the neighbourhood. So many of the little shops that catered to the Italian immigrants have been taken over by shops selling designer clothing or trendy antiques.
Yes, there are still some Italian restaurants, but there are many others that have been replaced by Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese, Cuban, Japanese, Salvadorean, and Ethiopean restaurants. Please don’t misunderstand me. I have nothing against Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese, Cuban, Japanese, Salvadorean or Ethiopean restaurants, people or culture. I simply miss the wonderful feel of the Italian neighbourhood that Commercial Drive used to be. <Sigh>. I guess I am just stuck in the past.