I'm in my second month of living and working outside of the big city. It's been a struggle so far just to get back to the mental space I was in while in Vancouver. Some of it is logistic, such as finding a space and getting a decent Internet connection. Some of the struggle is more environmental though, like being around the bustle of a city, working in a hive of activity, sensing there are other likeminded individuals working away, all of which create an atmosphere of inspiration and fuel creativity.
Since moving here, to Yarrow (a small rural outpost outside Chilliwack), I've tried working out of our home and in my own private studio — where I am now. It's great having my own space again, and I am especially grateful for four walls of my very own (no random clutter from my fellow studio mates). It's quiet here and I have lots of space to make my own messes (and then clean up). And the surroundings are beautiful. Just outside my door, I hear birds and see mountains and fields. No shipyard sirens, no screaming heroin addicts in the alley, no sounds of, er, intimacy in the next studio over. It's the quiet I've always dreamed of.
But a funny thing happened over the weekend. I went into Vancouver over the weekend, where I still maintain my Railtown studio. I haven't used it much since it's about 100 km away. But while there, it was like sinking into an old familiar pair of jeans. It felt like home. After all, it had been my little mancave for over a year, and it was home to my many, many hours of blood sweat and tears. And I was able to sense anew the feeling of working in the city, hearing the din of shipping cranes and the ambient noises of adjacent studios in the artist-occupied building. I realized how much the city oozes creative energy, and how important it is for me, as a creative, to be situated among my kin. Even though I don't like to chit chat a whole lot when I'm working (I'm known to put on my headphones when people come into the studio), it's nice to know I'm part of a bigger network. I'm a fish in water. This is why I'd always been drawn to cities in the first place. At a certain point (may have had something to do with having kids and the cost of Vancouver real estate), Amanda and I started yearning for more space and a simple, quieter life in the country. Which is why I am where I am today.
But my little reacquaintance with the city over the weekend sparked some doubts about the country, or specifically, my place in it. Before moving here I had visions of bonfires, lush gardens, and chickens of our own. But even though we have access to all these at our home, I haven't done a lot with them — I'm too busy working! So maybe this is the reality pill that shows me I'm not cut out for true country life. Might as well move back to the city, right?
Maybe. Maybe I need to haul my family (willingly or unwillingly) back to an 800 sq ft living space in Vancouver. Or maybe we need to move to another big city such as Toronto or Montreal, where creative opportunities abound and the housing situation is a bit more forgiving.
Or maybe I need to give this time. Or consider a compromise. If the country isn't quite feeding my creativity in the way I need, maybe I need to abandon my principled disdain for suburbia and move to our nearest city, Chilliwack, and try to seed a creative community there. I know Amanda would love it there, and we already have a growing number of friends there — some who've even moved here from Vancouver. The downtown of Chilliwack has good bones, and if enough creative and creative-appreciating people start to move in, maybe it could be a great place to be creative and have a family. The thought of being a part of such a revitalization is exciting. But I wonder if it's delusional. Why would creative folk move so far out of the city? What kind of industry is here to sustain such a cohort? What other kinds of draws does this city have?
I think about Deep Cove. It is a small outpost of North Vancouver, nestled up the saline Indian Arm. It's a very family oriented community and not a ton of business to speak of. But there are great businesses there, including Room 6, a lovely little design-oriented shop. But the draw in Deep Cove is that it is a trailhead on the Baden Powell trail, so there are a lot of day trippers and hiking types who come for that. And there is kayaking in the cove, and many outdoor events at the park. In short, Deep Cove has a touristy feeling to it, and it can sustain nice coffee shops and retail shops, and an artistic community.
Chilliwack is close to recreational opportunities like hiking, rafting, and such. But downtown Chilliwack is not exactly a trailhead or adjacent to such opportunities. So why would people flock down there, even if there were a couple great coffee shops and upscale design retailers (which are indicators of the kind of people that visit and/or live nearby)? The key, I think, is that if the downtown is to be home to public and commercial spaces that foster world-class creative energy, its clientele must be local. It would be great to draw in tourists and people from out of town also, to create a destination of itself, but the reality is that the people who frequent these kinds of places would be residents.
But I am flipping my thinking points around a bit. My first concern is not what kind of businesses exist in downtown Chilliwack, but rather what kind of people are there. Particularly, it would be a dream to have a critical mass of creative people who are willing to help found a creative colony in the area. It doesn't need to be singular and completely organized. It could be more organic, a bunch of people who are being pushed out of Vancouver due to prices or other factors, who happen to find some glimmer of opportunity in this small city. As the last truly urban centre eastward in the Fraser Valley, it does have some hope. And it is in many ways an attractively quaint alternative to the thoughtlessly bland sprawl of the suburbs closer to the Vancouver nucleus. Coquitlam, anybody?
Maybe there are other creative people, perhaps young families who want are looking for more space and more affordability outside of Vancouver, who would not be content to live in its second-rate sprawling suburbs, rife with congestion, highway traffic, homicides and big box stores. Yes, Chilliwack has its own share of these, but it is also a little city unto itself with a readymade downtown business area that is begging for revitalization.
There are many angles at revitalization, and many players to be involved. But from a creative professional perspective, I see this firstly as a community problem — if I were to live there, who would be my neighbour? To whom could I relate? With whom could I collaborate or converse creatively? What would be the underpinnings of my civic pride (a very important factor for businesses of any kind taking root in a city)?
So, this is my first cry for attention from the creative community at large — or who would be if they felt they could be — looking at their options outside of Vancouver. Or people from outside BC who would move here (for the weather and mountains, of course) if it weren't for the high cost of living in Vancouver. Maybe it's time for creatives to really create their own kind of place. And maybe that place is in Chilliwack. Maybe. Anybody?