Being stuck in the outer suburbs can create a disconcerting state of limbo. There is a sense of displacement between the city you are technically a part of and the actual location in which you find yourself. In this case, I know I’m meant to be in Vancouver but the reality is entirely different. Dorothy is not in Kansas any more, and this is NOT Vancouver.
The real Vancouver is one of the world’s most liveable cities, if you believe
the internet an annual survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit (an organisation much more legitimate than its name implies). Vancouver is a busy metropolis home to skyscrapers and the Seawall, galleries, museums, beaches, markets and restaurants. It has Stanley Park, Granville Island, the West End and the Canada Place waterfront; Robson St for the shoppers, Granville St for the backpackers, and a variety of neighbourhoods from Gastown to Yaletown, Kitsilano to Mount Pleasant.
In Vancouver the air is clean, the trees are green, the bins are recycling, the bike lanes are wide. The inevitable coffee chains are balanced out by local business. Happy couples clean up after their organic children and well-behaved dogs.Everyone walks, runs, cycles, skates, and does yoga. People are friendly, and there is an overriding positive and inclusive vibe. Banks and post offices are open AND helpful. Even the ‘derelict’ side of town is helpfully contained to one area, easy to avoid if you wish. The nightlife isn’t all it could be – happy hour was illegal until 2014, and it can be easier to buy weed than a bottle of wine – but Vancouver is still a city with plenty going on.
I, on the other hand, am in Langley.
Langley is part of the massive sprawl known as Greater Vancouver: a distant suburb of that shiny city in the way that the strange, distant cousins you’ve never met would never be considered part of your real family. Langley lies about an hour’s drive or a miserable day’s public transport from Actual Vancouver, and is home to highways, car parks, superstores, mega-stores, chain stores, super-mega-chain stores, townhouse estates, fast food “family” restaurants, and more car parks. Some stores cluster together in shopping centres and malls, while the rest spread out wherever they find room. Langley is essentially a car park with highways running through it, flanked by rows and rows of huge, identical houses.
Of course, not ALL of Langley is the same; a small area exists in the middle that is neither highway nor superstore. “Downtown” includes the city hall and library, a plaza where shops are arranged in a line rather than around a car park, and a large square of grass which is apparently Douglas Park, but doesn’t fit any of the aforementioned categories so is probably a mistake. There is also a mall and plenty of parking space, because – come on, guys – Langley. The downtown area is actually quite nice; in the plaza you can find a whole street of locally-owned restaurants, shops and businesses that somehow remain afloat while being of non-gigantic size. There are also little flags hanging from the lamp posts to remind you where you are. The flags simply say “Langley City Centre” above a picture of two people running, giving no clues as to what the poor suckers are running towards or away from. My guess would be that they’re running through a car park, to a superstore, in the rain.
The city centre also has a nice personal touch of giving the streets names. Not so the rest of the area, which I was going to call “the suburbs” except that Langley is already a type of Vancouver suburb, so that confuses me a little. Nonetheless, this is suburbia – large houses that all look the same, kids on their way to school; trees, dogs, families, Christmas lights. And NO street names. Everything is numbered, and not in a charming “I’ll meet you at Lexington and 6th” way, but the rather more horrifying “We live at 6975 193B Street near the corner of 65th Avenue, just off 200th”. I feel like I’m playing a really bleak game of Battleships: Suburban Edition.
Then again, it did strike me as I was having this rant that perhaps I was being a little hard on this not-so-great pocket of Greater Vancouver. For one thing the people here are unfailingly kind, and as always I am grateful to have a comfortable place to stay. What Langley lacks in skyscrapers and sea planes it makes up for in other ways, even if I am yet to discover them. The rent is affordable, with a lot of young families starting out here. There are communities that exist despite the highways; within the massive malls and superstores are real people just doing their jobs, and every now and then you find the ones who are trying to make their mark. It takes a little longer to find the local businesses, but then I feel so proud to patronise them when I do. The first time I discovered the local cafe – ONE place for a latte that wasn’t That Seattle Chain or That Canadian Chain! – I was genuinely and ridiculously excited. I’ve also counted at least three op-shops in the immediate area, so that makes me pretty happy.
And so I climb down off my soapbox of derision, conceding that as with any place, Langley is what you make it. As long as I am staying here I will do my best to look on the bright side, and be willing to explore and discover all the good things this place has to offer.
And if that fails, there’s always Netflix.