I loved going to New York City to stay with an aunt. She was a Canadian diplomat with access to all kinds of interesting people and places. But perhaps the best time with her, was when I went to stay with her whilst working (for a very short time) on a photography exhibition at Time Life Inc.
Aunt Mary had a one bedroom rent controlled apartment at 84th and Park Avenue West. (Her upstairs neighbour was Greta Garbo, with whom I had a lovely visit.) Mary’s mother and brother lived in palatial splendor in a grand home on a double lot here in Vancouver. Their home was exquisitely landscaped and lit.
The first time I went to Mary’s she showed me a hydro bill for a month’s electricity for her mother’s estate here and then she showed me her one-month hydro bill for her one bedroom and her bill was vastly larger.
“That’s why we only have toast on Sunday, we don't take showers and why baths only two inches deep,” she told me on my first visit.
In my early twenties, I went to live in Nice where I developed close friendships with two Niçois. Through them I learned how expensive living spaces were on the Riviera and I often heard stories about why and how fast land and home prices had escalated over time.
In my thirties, I took artists to Florence for art tours and to spend time in an atelier there. My local contact was a couple: He had the bus and drove my clients and I to all the sites and she was our guide—she had a PhD in renaissance art history. Both Catarina and Massimo were from multi-generational Florentine families and their real estate stories were chilling.
All the conversations with my friends in Manhattan, Nice and Florence about the cost of life and housing came up naturally. The cost of real estate is not an interest of mine but the insights of my friends have been in the forefront of my mind as I hear incredibly naïve people here talk about real estate prices. People are going mad and saying things that reveal a shocking lack of understanding of both capitalism and the inevitabilities of life in a highly desirable city.
They talk about foreign buyers and the need for government action so I ask them: “What kind of action?” You should hear the things they say. I also ask them; “Why are you talking about real estate prices at a party anyway?” Everyone has an opinion that seems to come from frustrated ambition and hearsay.
I sympathize with those who find themselves unable to break into the real estate market here. But they talk like victims who want their daddy (government) to help them out. They love hearing how high Vancouver scores on global “best cities of the world” lists, but they don’t like the consequences.
I also owe a great debt to my ninth grade geography teacher. Geography was, perhaps, my favourite subject and one day Mr. Grimmet said something like this: “Vancouver will have an incredible future for three reasons—water, air and youth. In the future, the most valuable commodities will be fresh water and clean air and Vancouver has both and our youth allows our urban planners to benefit from the planning mistakes and triumphs of the older cities of the world.”
The he added, “But it’s going to get awfully expensive to live here because we are compressed between the ocean, the mountains and the agricultural land reserve between us and the border.”
His insight and my foreign travel experience have given me a rich context for understanding life in my city.