East Meets West: Stina O's Neighbourhood
Come and Play Everything’s A-Ok, Can You tell me how to get to…Commercial Drive
Admission: In the past, I’ve rarely done any research before I made a move. I don’t know if it makes me an idiot or if it just means that I believe in my ability to submerse myself in a place. Case in point; I moved to Newfoundland after visiting it for a week and then I moved to Vancouver after visiting for a week. Neither time, however, was I taking notes on grocery stores or libraries; give me a break, I was on vacation. I had other priorities. As I’ve started to get older, and perhaps wiser, I’m still in the process of ensuring that I won’t have the same epitaph as Bette Davis, “She did it the hard way”. Maybe I’m finally learning, maybe that’s why I write; to take stock and be curious and not necessarily get answers but delve in to understand the questions I ask.
I’ve said it countless times, if I would have landed in any other area in Vancouver I really don’t think that I would have made it out West. Some notable neighbourhoods will inevitably be mentioned when talking about Vancouver: Gas Town, Yale Town, Kitsilano, Downtown, and for me, le piece de resistance: Commercial Drive. Commercial Drive is that vibrant, colorful spot in the city that entices tourists to participate in a slice of life while being swept up in the subculture of a city. Often, when I talk to people from Ontario, they chime in “Oh like Kensington Market!” the hippy epicenter, a pocket of downtown Toronto. Yah! Like that, cept it’s the older, bigger, more obviously pot-loving cousin.
I’ve been a Drive Doll (a phrase I’ve coined, we’ll see if it catches on) for coming up on five years now. I’m certainly not the definitive authority on the hood, but I think that I’ve got a pretty good read on the place. Commercial Drive is officially billed as Little Italy, but has evolved over the years. I would describe Commercial Drive as the early days of Sesame Street- grassroots community with many a neighbourhood green gardens bursting with kale, and carrots and wild raspberries. A place full of hippies instead of hipsters (for those, go a bit further west to Main Street), young families and artists, stoners and hood rats, old Italian men and Rastafarians.
You can travel the world via food with Thai, Japanese, Ethiopian, Mexican and Moroccan, to name a few. You can still get your Italian on at many a gourmet pizza restaurants and the epic bakery and deli and cheese shop (cheesery?) that are right next door to one another. And lest we forget, a bumber crop of breweries have infiltrated the hood. There really is something for every palette, time of day, level of inebriation or intensity of munchies.
The vibe and community feels like the island of misfit toys. By no means am I saying that as derogatory term, I mean hey, I’m a water gun that shoots jam too. It’s the heavy saturation of artists, the new and spry 20 something’s eager to set the world on fire amalgamating with the middle aged-somethings still impassioned to set the world on fire. This passion manifests its way via murals and street fairs, vendors and buskers, at least five venues for live events as well as a movie theatre, home to many a festivals, burlesque show and guest speakers.
In 2018, a notable institute of Commercial Drive found itself in the spotlight; The Rio Theatre. The operators of the theatre were determined to not let the building fall into private developers hands, community and city rallied to raise a cool million as a down payment. Local homeboys, Ryan Reynolds and Seth Rogan, donated money and brought attention to the issue, ensuring that this beloved local theatre wouldn’t go the way of the Dodo.
Commercial Drive loves local. One of a kind boutiques filled with local jewelers products, vintage shopping, sprinkled along the street a variety of shops boasting furniture, trinkets and fashion. Ma and Pa shops, fruit and vegetable stands carrying all the lovely diverse produce and products to make a meal just like mom, regardless if momma comes from Manitoba or Malaysia.
I’m told that during the first few months of a Starbucks opening on the Drive, got egged on the daily and was sprawled in graffiti. Resistance to gentrification is real. The Drive is infamous for its causes, protests happening several times a year with the street being closed off and police escorts ensuring the safety of participates of causes such as trans-rights or saving wild salmon. The Drive has a voice and is not afraid to use it whether singing or shouting.
I don’t want to paint a false portrait of this neighbourhood being a wholly idyllic neighbourhood where we hold hands and skip through flowers and rainbows. Poverty is a really thing. So is crime and drug use and mental health issues. It’s present and raw and in your face. But it’s part of it “warts and all” as the saying goes. That makes this a real place, not a glossed over caricature of west coast living or, when you boil it down, a lie via omission.
I’m so grateful for Commercial Drive, the bright and colorful, the shadows and unease. I’m grateful for a community that has taken me in and that I’m a part of. That I say hello to people I see all the time on the street, but have no greater connection than that. It doesn’t have to be.
For celebrating events that haven’t happened in twenty years, like Trout Lake freezing for the first time in decades and getting to skate outside in Vancouver, while only a few blocks away baby palm trees shiver under their snowy cloaks. I’m grateful that people are themselves here, whether walking down the street with a snake coiled around their bicep or drag queens who are death dropping in a crowd on a Friday night. All these things support me in being more “me”, which supports others in doing the same. Pretty beautiful if you ask me.