Saturday, May 12, 2012

New Westminster, the Brooklyn of the West?

I guess that, for once, I was ahead of the curve. when I moved to New Westminster in October 2010, I knew very little about it; I'd visited once, for about five minutes, walking from Columbia Station to Royal Avenue and back again. When I was looking for apartments, the city's attraction was three-fold: it was built on bedrock and so not vulnerable to earthquake liquefaction (I did not look in Richmond for precisely this reason), the rental rates were reasonable, and it was well-served by the SkyTrain while at only a modest remove from downtown Vancouver. Had I gone with a Vancouver address, I'd more than likely have been taking a bus to get to the train - not that I have anything against buses; just that in my experience they can be significantly less reliable, schedule-wise, than modes which run on rails. In New West, I can walk straight there.

It took some adjusting once I set up here - for the first couple of months the only supermarket in downtown New West was the IGA in Columbia Square, which despite being next door to New Westminster Station feels remote as Burnaby - but in the last year and a half, I've watched downtown's candle burn brighter and brighter. There's an energy here that gets more palpable with each passing day.

I'm not the only one. A couple of weeks ago the Georgia Straight had New West's rise as its cover story, so I guess New West is now "officially" cool, and last week The Tyee posted an article on how New West may be set to become the Brooklyn to Vancouver's Manhattan, and not just a Brooklyn set for television and movie productions - that is, a place where young creative professionals can actually afford to live. I can understand the cachet Vancouver has - Keith MacKenzie put it as wanting "to be part of a community, not a matrix of parking lots and six-lane freeways" - a problem which, honestly, is in vast oversupply in the Lower Mainland. I guess that's down to the relative recency of European settlement here; outside of Vancouver, only a handful of communities were able to put down roots before the postwar suburbanization boom swept the rest under a relentless tide of subdivisions. New West is, bluntly, too small to be that rambling and disconnected.

Nevertheless, I have to admit a bit of concern when I see the media finally taking notice of New West. With each passing year, rising condominium projects are defining more and more of the city's skyline, and there's very little unoccupied land to sink their foundations into. Building in New West necessarily involves replacement; the Plaza 88 and Multi-Use Civic Facility replace low-slung commercial strips, and the Trapp+Holbrook project they're now advertising on the SkyTrain roofs will rise behind the facades of neglected heritage buildings downtown. Up on Royal Avenue, only a short walk from my front door, a multi-storey all-wood condo project is rising on what was a block of rental apartments eighteen months ago.

That's what concerns me; that as more and more people recognize New Westminster as a hip and cool and affordable place to live, that rush to densify will see the foundations being rearranged under renters like me.

For every hole that's dug, there was something up top that had to be demolished first.

You don't need to look particularly hard to find that an emphasis on property ownership is present all throughout human history. In medieval Europe, the nobles were noble in part from all the property they owned. In the early days of the United States, you had to own property (and be a white man) in order to vote. The desire to have a piece of the world that has your name on it and will be all yours once you finish paying the bank its blood money is a deeply-seated one.

But that doesn't mean it should be catered to at the expense of everything else. Not all of these young professionals have the financial resources or the desire to be hooked into a decades-long mortgage - I certainly don't, and the ongoing trainwreck of the American housing crash has not improved my outlook. It's incumbent on the city government to make sure that downtown New West can continue to be a place where people can afford to live, whether they buy or rent.

Because if it doesn't, what happens to renters who get priced out? New West differs from Brooklyn in one important factor: size. Even with a population of 2.5 million, Brooklyn's 183 square kilometers can absorb a lot of people; New West's 15.6 square kilometers, not so much. Here, New Westminster's size works against it; the downtown core is small, and there just aren't that many potential neighborhoods for the priced-out to relocate to. Nor do I much like the implications of less affluent renters being forced to decamp for more distant ground - sure, New Westminster has four SkyTrain stations, but there are huge chunks of the city that don't exactly have convenient, walkable access to them; the idea of easy SkyTrain access becoming the province of the affluent irks me greatly. I don't want to have to buy a car; how many options would that leave me, and people like me?

New Westminster is a fine city. I'd just like some assurances that as more people recognize that fact and come to call it their own, they don't end up turning it into a Yaletown on the Fraser.


  1. “You don't need to look particularly hard to find that an emphasis on property ownership is present all throughout human history.”

    From what I’ve heard, most First Nations before invasion didn’t have a concept of property ownership. Do you consider that not part of history?

  2. No, I actually didn't know that - First Nations thoughts on ownership do not tend to show up on the history curricula in Ontario.

    I was not claiming that it was utterly universal - it doesn't have to be present everywhere to be present. During the same "slice" of history when FNs had no such concept, as you say, many other people did - and the unfortunate fact of the invasion is that the attitudes of those other people ended up shaping the attitudes of modern British Columbia to a far larger degree than did those of the local First Nations.

  3. Weeelll, I’m a settler, too, and I didn’t learn about it in school either. I think it’s our responsibility as settlers to make up for Canada’s colonial-erasing education systems.

    Not a crisis, I just thought it was worth pointing out a counterexample to land-as-property from our vicinity.

  4. The other way to look at it, Buck, is the author was simply trying to make a point and shouldn't be made to feel silly for not referencing First Nations. I'm aboriginal and certainly understood the original message and didn't take offence to it.