Eric Karjaluoto

Vancouver’s Great Creative Exodus

A brief word before you get into this post. I recognize that I’m writing about a subject that impacts many. Some will read it and share my opinions. Others will claim that I’m whining, and should, “shit or get off the pot.”

What I want to stress, before getting started, is that I think my personal situation reflects that of others in the city. And, that although I enjoy this place, it also has its shortcomings. What’s interesting to me, though, is this discussion about how important place is to creativity.

So, I’ll meander, and give a lot of detail. (This is more of a long letter than a concise essay.) I write it this way in hopes of presenting a relatable story, coupled with some thoughts on what might be a real threat to cities like the one I live in.

Did I already say how long this is? (Sorry.)

On a good day…

Vancouver is a gem. The city is gorgeous, as is the nature it’s nestled in. The climate is temperate (I wear shorts 6 – 7 months of the year), and there are wide variety of activities to be had. That whole, “ski in the morning, go to the beach in the afternoon” story is sort of true. Last weekend, I went trail running, skating, mountain biking, and swimming—all within about 36 hours.

It’s also diverse and multicultural, meaning that most feel welcome here. My kids are exposed to a wide variety of outlooks and traditions, because of the many different people around them. They also have access to good schools, with specialized programming for those who want it. For example, there are mini-schools focused on arts, drama, outdoors, or what-have-you.

And the food? Outstanding! One night it’s perfect pizza, the next it’s world-class sushi. On others it’s Buddhist, Lebanese, Italian, or Korean. Whichever food you want, you can find it here—and it’s mostly inexpensive and remarkable.

Of course, there’s much more that’s good about Vancouver—but you’ve likely already heard plenty of praise for the city.

It ain’t all that

It isn’t all roses, though. Vancouver’s getting crowded. It’s not dense enough to only walk, nevertheless, transit isn’t keeping up. City residents voted against increasing transit services, in a recent plebiscite. So, many are still driving, in a city with few arteries—which are clogged. This isn’t limited to city streets. Make your way out of the city, to a local hiking trail, and you’ll feel like you’re at a shopping mall: full parking lots and crowded trails. (This is a big change from even 5 years ago.)

Vancouver can feel dreary. We get a lot of grey, rainy days. Vancouver receives 168 days of precipitation every year, amounting to 57.3 inches of rainfall. (North Vancouver gets a voluminous 99.3 inches.) By comparison, if you go inland to Vernon, precipitation drops to 116 days, amounting to just 16.8 inches (including snow). There’s also our proximity to the Cascadia fault, which puts us at high-risk for earthquake fallout—and we’re overdue for a big one.

Unlike New York City or San Francisco, Vancouver is not a hotbed of business activity. Aside from selling condominiums, there isn’t much industry here. Surely, realtors can make a tidy sum, with Vancouver being the most expensive city to live, in North America. Meanwhile, residential vacancy is at almost zero (0.8% to be precise). Some argue that this is also impacting small retail shops and restaurants that just can’t make the math work, here.

Truth is, I can get past rain, traffic, congestion, and all that other stuff. (Curiously, even the earthquake risk.) The cost of housing isn’t so easy, though. On the east side (which was once considered “working class Vancouver,” the median price for a detached home is $1.28 million. On the west side (which has been out-of-reach for a good while) median price is $2.9 million. These numbers go back a few months, so they’re probably low.

The draw of a creative center

I first moved to Vancouver in 1991, to study at The Emily Carr Institute (now University). In 1995, I moved back home to Prince George, in part because of the high cost of living in Vancouver. (In retrospect, Vancouver real estate was pretty reasonable, back then). I stayed in Prince George for eight years before deciding I needed to return.

We felt that our design shop was standing still in that small town. We wanted better business opportunities. Specifically, we wanted a greater number of, and more interesting, projects. Hiring was also tough, as few young creative people wanted to move to a smaller city. Plus, I had grown tired of many attitudes then common in small remote towns (mostly homophobic or xenophobic prejudices). I wanted to be around more inclusive ideas/thinking.

At that time, if you wanted to do creative things, the allure of the city was great. Cafes, galleries, restaurants, book stores, were just the beginning. I wanted to be close to a variety of creative people who I could easily meet with and exchange ideas. (Truthfully, I also wanted to live in a place where being 30 and single wasn’t uncommon.)

So, in the summer of 2003, I moved into a small apartment in the city. This was a good decision. Vancouver felt active and exciting. It was also diverse and inclusive. A few months later, my business partner and his family followed suit. For a long time, we couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

A little space

Within a year of moving to Vancouver, I met Amea. We married a year later, and our son was born shortly thereafter. His brother arrived a few years following. We crept out of downtown Vancouver, and moved further east, as the years passed. We appreciated almost every neighbourhood in which we found ourselves. Nevertheless, each rental situation came with its own complications (small, hot, noisy, et cetera).

Ultimately, we decided that we should just buy something. This was terrifying. Every open house was packed, and places seemed to sell within days of going on the market. Nevertheless, we scraped together our savings and—although I thought we were nuts—wrote an offer for a $450,000 townhouse. (In the five years that have passed, it’s gone up to around $600,000.)

There’s nothing special about our place, but we like it. The space is quiet, our neighbours are friendly, and we enjoy the neighbourhood. At times it was a pinch, though. We need two incomes to make this work. At one point, just paying our mortgage and child care took $4,500+ a month out of our take-home pay.

We’re pretty lucky, in that we managed to get into the market. Without a little help from family, that might not have happened. This is the strange reality of Vancouver real estate. Even a modest home purchase, for two working professionals, feels like a risky proposition.

I dream of… space

As our kids get older, we could use more room. I work from one part of our townhouse, which eats up some square footage. Meanwhile, our kids would like a little private space for themselves. Plus, family visit us from time-to-time, and our place gets tight.

Last spring, I started looking at houses in the neighbourhood—and beyond. After a couple of months of browsing, we decided to hold off. That said, I have an interesting anecdote to share.

One small place, two blocks from ours, showed up on the market last March. It was a fixer-upper, but at “only” $900k, we could make the numbers work. It sold within days. Recently, it came back on the market. The photos were identical, with the house showing no renovations. The only change was in the price: a tidy bump to $1.2 million. Think about that: in roughly 6 months that house went up $300,000. Bonkers.

Do we really need a house? Probably not. In fact, we might just stay in our little townhouse. That said, our dog could use some room to spread out. It’d be nice for our kitchen to not double as bike storage. And I’d love for our kids to have enough room to leave their drawings out overnight, should they choose.

Again, it’s not that this situation is unmanageable. We live in a beautiful city, and have a place of our own (or at least the bank lets us pretend this is the case). However, I have to admit that it no longer makes as much sense to me, as it once seemed to. More than that, the alternative looks quite attractive. Almost daily, I contemplate cashing out and going somewhere less expensive.

Creativity isn’t city-dependent

A lot has changed in the 13 years since I moved away from Prince George. At that time, you needed to be in close proximity to your clients, to be available for in-person meetings. I hardly ever meet with clients any longer. In fact, most of our work is remote, and none of our clients care where we are. Our opportunities come from what we’ve done, and what we can do, not due to the city we work in.

It’s somewhat the same with the creative community. I don’t hang-out with these people in person. Instead, I connect with them through the web—even when it comes to those who live close to me. The internet gives me better access to creative thinking, work, and dialogue, than my city does.

If I need to hire/work with someone, he/she needn’t live in Vancouver. In fact, one of our clients runs a geographically distributed team. When I next hire, I’ll follow their lead. Besides, many of my creative/tech friends here feel like they can’t make Vancouver work. The complain that local companies don’t pay market rate—in spite of the high cost of living.

I know this next comment will get me in trouble, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate: Vancouver isn’t really a creative city, anyway. It’s a picturesque city made up of glass shoeboxes—but a creative hotbed? I’m not so sure.

What do creative people need?

There are a lot of factors that affect one’s ability to do creative work. Two important ones are time and space.

Let’s start with time.

To discover something new, you need time to practice your craft. This opportunity to focus allows you to put aside other matters and dive into your work. It’s during this time that you explore weird tangents, build side-projects, and experiment with ideas that might fail. With this comes the possibility for something amazing.

If you work long hours at a job, there’s little time left over for creative pursuits. Many need to maintain a job they don’t love, just to pay the mortgage on a 500 square foot apartment. People in this situation effectively trade away their creative time for cookie-cutter apartments.

The second is space.

To make things—particularly visual things, you need room to muck around. I’m talking about a basement in which your awful teenage band can jam; A spare room in which you make crafts to sell on Etsy; A garage where you can work on big paintings. It doesn’t end there. If warehouses are accessible, wouldn’t it be great to rent one and put on your own show? If retail space is affordable, why not open a small shop and give it a go?

I finally made my way down to Portland, last fall, and saw this connection between space and creativity, for myself. If you haven’t already, you should go. You’ll find small peculiar shops everywhere; Young people have started their own novel restaurants; and there’s Spencer Staley’s furniture and design house, The Good Mod. (It’s so expansive it feels like it could house ~20 standard Vancouver apartments.) The one that stands out most for me, though, is Yvonne Emerson’s Tillamook Station, a memorable space for workshops, lectures, pop-ups, and other occasions. I don’t think you could have a Tillamook Station in Vancouver—who could afford the rent?

Of course, this can’t last, as Portland too is undergoing rapid expansion, gentrification, and increasing housing/space costs. That said, there are many other places in North America that are ripe for creative activity. One of my favourite stories of this sort is found in Tieton, Washington. Here, Ed Marquand created Mighty Tieton, an incubator for artisan businesses—just a little off the beaten path.

I’m biased

Admittedly, all I say is coming from just one perspective. You’re reading the words of a married, 40-something man, with kids—who could live almost anywhere. If I were 20, I’d feel differently—and would likely find the appeal of the city as great as I did, once, years ago.

But I’m not. Instead, I’m part of weird generation that’s entering middle-age and technically adept/aware. We can work wherever we want, and industry is following suit. From what I hear, Adobe’s policies around remote work are quite flexible. Meanwhile, even new startups like Coinbase are hiring remote engineers.

Many of us grew up hearing how, in the future, we’d be able to work from anywhere. Given how long it took to happen, some of us grew cynical of the notion. Recently, though, I’m surprised by the number of people who tell me they do just that. Many of them work for large companies, you’d otherwise expect would keep everyone under a single roof.

I bet I’m not the only one

In my conversations over the past year, there’s a common theme. Many creative folks are just done with Vancouver. They’re sick of being slaves to their mortgages—or hoping they are eligible for one that’s big enough to buy something sort-of/almost decent.

They’re tired of finding out that the house they wanted had 10 offers, and sold for $150k over asking. They want time to take on projects they’re interested in. They also want enough space to act on their ideas. Seems like everywhere I turn, there’s another story about how ready folks are to leave Vancouver, or about those who have, and started something of their own.

For my family, the opportunity somewhere else seems hard to pass up. In moving to a smaller place, we’d cut our costs—a lot. In fact, from the equity in our townhouse, we could buy a house outright (with cash) elsewhere. Being mortgage free would reduce our income requirements, and open up time.

Maybe I’d take on fewer client projects, and do more with our startup. Or, one of us might stay at home with our kids, as we’d only need one income. This says little of the time we’d also save in transit. Plus, with the added space, I could set up an art studio for me and the kids.

Where do we go from here?

Over the past year, I’ve turned, “shopping for a community” into a bit of a hobby. In fact, through my research I now have a pretty good feel for the real estate markets throughout the province. If you’re not familiar with BC, little of the following will mean much to you. Given how much I’ve rambled, though, I see no need to restrain myself now.

I love the feel of Smithers. That cute alpine town surrounded by a beautiful valley, turquoise rivers, and alpine peaks is breathtaking. Similarly, there’s McBride (I know—you’ve never heard of it), which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I fear that both towns would be difficult for us from a practical perspective, though.

The Sunshine Coast is gorgeous, close to Vancouver, and affords a laid-back lifestyle. And there’s Courtenay/Comox, which seems like a great fit. It’s inexpensive and is home to many Vancouver ex-pats who serve as community boosters. They’re quick to tell you all about their easy access to nature, ocean views, skiing and mountain biking, and on and on…

You might laugh at this next one, but it’s a serious consideration for us: maybe we go (to my) home. I grew up in Prince George, and at many times loathed being there. It’s changed since then, though. In recent years, community pride has increased, and the area seems more diverse. In part, I think this is thanks to the university there.

Homes in Prince George are inexpensive—so much so that I sometimes giggle when I look at listings. Nature is easily accessible in the area, and vast. You can make your way into the mountains and be alone in that wilderness. Add in the skiing, mountain biking, and hiking, and it’s a pretty sweet proposition. Meanwhile, my mom and dad live there, and it’s awfully nice to be with family.

This is where I stop typing

I’m just one person, and I only speak for myself. That said, the more expensive Vancouver gets, the less I feel like I belong here—and the more I believe it impedes creative work. Although some likely hold the exact opposite perspective, I feel there’s merit in this viewpoint.

If you love Vancouver, great! I’m not trying to talk anyone out of it. Vancouver will always be a gorgeous place, with many positive attributes. But there are many other places, too. Some, with lots to offer, and attributes that might better foster creativity than this city. Again, if you have sufficient time and space, you can do some pretty interesting things.

My fear for Vancouver, is that my opinion on this matter isn’t an isolated one. Instead, I bet it’s representative of a great many creative people, who feel boxed out of this city. These same people don’t necessarily want to leave, but the case for doing so is strong.

This could be bad for Vancouver. This city, which is so often touted as a creative one, might not actually be conducive to creative work, any longer. If this is the case, and enough creative people go somewhere else, what happens to this place?

I think this notion deserves our attention. Without sufficient creative things happening here, Vancouver could face a future like that of Whister: a setting that’s beautiful, but a community that’s fake—and sort of boring.

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