Literature Review: Chapter 4

CHAPTER FOUR: State of the media


2012 was a landmark year for the media depictions of Vancouver as a state of “unfriendliness.”


First Katherine Ashenburg’s piece Do Vancouver Men Suck was published in Vancouver Magazine on New Year’s Day, stirring the pot of disconnection in the dating scene. Jorge Amigo followed Ashenburg’s article a week later, with Do Vancouver Women Suck: A Reader’s Response. The Vancouver Magazine follow-up piece touched on topics of unfriendliness in the city and ultimately led to “Be My Amigo,” his bi-weekly networking event for strangers.


In the summer, the Vancouver Foundation produced results from its survey, while the Vancouver Sun amplified the survey’s findings with a five-part series Growing Apart. Tara Carman wrote about unfriendly joggers, the distrust of neighbours, communities that retreated from civic life, the disenchanted 25-to-34 demographic, and the belief that Vancouver is becoming resort town for the wealthy. The Vancouver Sun ran a 12-part series later that summer titled Who We Are, focusing on 12 Vancouverites of different ethnicities and demographics. They also re-ran on-line from the previous fall, Ethnic Mapping where Douglas Todd and Chad Skelton used 2011 Census Canada data to reveal the precise ethnic make-up of the city’s neighbourhoods. Together, they created interactive ethnic maps that provided comprehensive, street-by-street detail on where the Chinese, South Asians, Filipinos, Europeans and many other ethnic groups tended to cluster in Metro Vancouver.


In the fall, Simon Fraser University’s Public Square held a community summit that lasted five days and included 11 distinct events with the theme of connecting in the city. The local government also became involved, selecting 22 citizens to form the mayor’s Engaged City’s Task Force, which aimed to tackle the barriers to citizen engagement and connectivity.  Along with other new initiatives from community leaders, teachers and ordinary citizens doing their part to make Vancouver a friendlier place to be, suddenly becoming connected in Vancouver was a topic of attention.


In all, four major magazine articles or news series appeared in 2012 depicting Vancouver as a disconnected community. This included the Vancouver Magazine dating-scene debate and three separate series that appeared in the Vancouver Sun. Throughout all of the documentation, persistent references to un-neighbourliness, ethnicity and comparisons to other cities surfaced. Some themes that curiously were not covered included the city’s physical environment, competition in the city, and the downsides of neighbourliness.

The impact the Vancouver Foundation’s report was rather significant because it was the first large-scale survey that produced tangible data on how Vancouverites truly felt about their community. The amount of media and community response to the survey’s results proved significant, especially considering the reporting had scant mentions of anything positive from the Foundation survey.


4.1 Vancouver and the Importance of Neighbourliness


The Katherine Ashenburg article, Do Vancouver Men Suck? was a colourful magazine feature story that pointed a finger at the largely unmotivated, un-masculine and passive men who populate Vancouver’s single scene. Originally written as more of a critique on Vancouver’s gender divide than the city in general, it provided some interesting insights on the rude behaviour or perceived un-neigbourliness of people in the city.  As Ashenburg wrote:


When Kate moved to Vancouver she assumed she’d lost her appeal or become ‘too old’ to interest men. Also, that she had mysteriously landed in a place where strong men saw no reason to help a smallish woman with a heavy suitcase or balky door.[78]


Jorge Amigo’s rebuttal piece in Vancouver magazine, while balancing out the gender, provided further commentary on this trend of rude, un-neighbourly behaviour.

The most common way to approach a woman in Yaletown is to direct your ice-breaker towards her pet Chihuahua, and then hope that she gets off her phone and actually says something other than “yahh, OMG, totally, wait… there’s a creeper trying to touch my dog, LOL” and disappears into a yoga studio.[79]


Tara Carman’s “Growing Apart” was the first Vancouver Sun series to appear after the Vancouver Foundation report was released. Her first article “A Community of Strangers,” highlighted feelings of isolation and the theme of residents’ complaints of rude behaviour. She profiled a jogger who commented on how other joggers would routinely avoid displaying the same greeting protocol (a nod, smile, thumbs-up) that one typically finds in other cities. Newcomers to the city related how it would be weeks before anyone would offer to show them around or invite them for dinner, while apartment dwellers relate a distrust of their neighbours to the extent that they were afraid to allow their children to play unsupervised outside. Also featured was Bob Cowin, a Coquitlam resident, who felt there while there was a great sense of community in the 1980’s, he had lost a the connection with his neighbours over the years. “Houses started being sold, and a different, and increasingly multicultural, demographic moved in.”  The increasing ethnic diversity, he felt, was a mixed blessing for his neighbourhood.[80]


The theme of non-trust is evident in Carman’s second story in the series, “Friendships: A Tough Place to Make Connections.” She focused on the difficult social atmosphere that Vancouver creates for newcomers and the seemingly icy response from the locals. The reader is introduced to a 30-something single Torontonian who felt Vancouver was cold and its inhabitants superficial upon first arriving, followed by a newcomer from Calgary who said, “Being almost 30, I find most people my age already have their group of close friends. I’ve been homesick for more than one year, in large part because I haven’t made any good friends that make me feel like Vancouver could be home… People I know who have lived here and since moved back tell a similar story.”[81] In Carman’s third article we were introduced to West End resident Iris Dias.  She described herself as a private person and commented “It already feels like I’ve lost a piece of privacy living in an apartment, so to give up more of that and get to know my neighbours …really feels a little bit too invasive for me.” [82] Dias said she has no problem chatting casually with neighbours in an elevator, but feels no desire to learn their names or which unit they live in.


4.2 Vancouver and Ethnicity


Each of the Vancouver Sun series had its own distinctive concept and commentary but there was much blending of the themes through many of the Vancouver Sun articles. Social isolation was commonly linked to ethnic diversity throughout.


Tara Carman’s Part Four, Communities: A Retreat from Civic Life, was in direct response to the diversity questions of the foundation survey where residents felt Metro was being divided along ethnic lines. Cora Maming was a new arrival in Vancouver who came from the Philippines to join her children, yet she was living a lonely, isolating existence. Several months after her arrival, Maming registered for ESL classes at Collingwood Neighbourhood House. She was the only Filipina in her class, but when she started reading, it was clear she needed to be in a much higher-level English class. She eventually became an assistant teacher and assisted her Chinese, Iranian and Mexican classmates with their lessons. “That was the first time I had many, many friends in a different language,” she said.  It was the beginning of her transformation from a frightened new immigrant living in an ethnic bubble to a woman at the center of her community.[83]


In Douglas Todd’s “Ethnic Mapping” series Part One, “The Pulsing South Asian Heart of Surrey,” 33 year-old Archana Sharma from India explained the draw to the dense ethnic enclave, “I like the familiarity, being with someone of my own background. It’s a very cohesive community where people really stand together.” Todd pointed out that “Surrey’s crime rate may be dropping, but Sharma overlooked reports that Surrey was ranked ninth highest in Canada for murders in 2009.” [84] Todd chose to feature positive characters such as Sharma, acknowledged there have been conflicts among the different groups, but played down such troubles. “Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians,” Sharma said, “tend to get along well.” [85]

Another example from Todd’s “Ethnic Mapping” series is Part Four, “Europeans in Peaceful Tsawwassen,” where readers were introduced to Laurence Tom, a Canadian born businessman whose father was from China. Tom refers to himself as a “banana,” one who looks Asian on the outside, but is culturally white on the inside. He has revelled in the community feel of Tsawwassen for over 20 years and has no interest in moving to an ethnic enclave in Richmond or east Vancouver, nor does he speak the Mandarin dialect of most new Chinese immigrants. In addition, most of his relatives are in interracial relationships.


In Douglas Todd’s “Ethnic Mapping Part Two: Some Richmond Enclaves 80 per cent Chinese” and “Part Three: Filipinos Live Beside Skytrain Stations,” the study of ethnicities are the common theme but two strikingly different immigration pictures are painted of ethnic enclaves in Vancouver.

In the Filipino article, one learns that the reason for its odd title: Many Filipinos Choosing to Live Near SkyTrain Stations, is that many of the growing Filipino army of low-to-middle-wage temporary foreign workers require inexpensive travel in jobs as nannies, cleaners, seniors’ care aides, security officials, service clerks, short-order cooks and practical nurses.[86]  Todd also wrote about workers sending remittances to the Philippines, as many low-wage-earning Filipinos in Canada can achieve a higher standard of living than they would in their poverty-stricken homeland. This article also included descriptions of “the pocket of ragtag, somewhat dowdy commercial outlets on Fraser,” containing posters promoting local Filipino events as well as the story of a murdered Filipino student Mao Lanot at a neighbourhood secondary school in 2003. [87]

Contrast that story to the Chinese in Richmond where Todd reports on mostly “well-off” immigrant residents among the highest rate of any major city in Canada, a buzzing neighbourhood, and an affluent suburb that is home to Vancouver International Airport and its scores of daily flights to and from Asia. Todd reported on Chinese immigrants expressed sense of comfort and security in this ethnic enclave.


4.3 Vancouver and Comparisons to Other Cities


In any critique of an issue that is particular to a certain city, it would be remiss not to inquire into how such an issue manifests in other regions. The phenomenon of social isolation in Vancouver was a persistent source of comparison throughout the array of media coverage. The authors and their subjects within the various reports consistently made reference to other Canadian and international cities that were friendlier, warmer and more welcoming than Vancouver.


In Katherine Ashenburg’s article on Vancouver’s dating scene, Vancouver itself was one of a handful of cities discussed, and in each case, mentioned in a much duller light. Ashenburg interviewed locals who commented how Vancouver “is lacking the genial bars and clubs of cities such as New York and Toronto,” while ex-residents returning from Vancouver to Halifax, said they could not be happier. “People are chattier in public places; (in Halifax) you can strike up a conversation in Canadian Tire while buying windshield wipers.”[88] Amigo, in “Do Vancouver Women Suck, A Readers Response,” essentially mimicked Ashenburg’s kind words for other cities with his praise for a certain Montrealer, the only friendly person he referenced in this article that was otherwise rife with reported rudeness and snobbery from Vancouverites.


The comparisons made by the Vancouver magazine articles set the tone for future contrasts with other North American cities. In the Vancouver Sun’s “Growing Apart” series, Tara Carman writes about people moving from Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Saskatoon, Kelowna, St. John’s and even San Diego who remained feeling lonely after an extended amount of time spent living in Vancouver.[89]


This measuring-up to other cities, in the context of social isolation, continued in the local media. In November 2012, when the Vancouver Sun published “Vancouver least welcoming of Canadian cities: survey,” it was based on the results of an HSBC survey that polled 600 immigrants on their relocation experience, and made comparisons to other cites, to illuminate the results. Seventy-three per cent of survey respondents said they found Vancouver a “welcoming city” which would initially appear to be a positive statistic, but when compared to the other large Canadian cities, Vancouver paled in comparison. It placed last behind Montreal (89 per cent), Calgary and Edmonton (each at 84 per cent) and Toronto (79 per cent).


A 2010 Angus Reid poll showed Vancouverites the most addicted to social media of any Canadian city. Gillian Shaw wrote in the Vancouver Sun, “In Vancouver, social media rules, with 40 per cent of Vancouverites saying they can’t imagine life without it compared to 23 per cent who would say the same in Edmonton.”[90]



4.4  Favorability of Putnam’s Theories


Throughout all this kind of media coverage — the neighborliness, the ethnicity, the comparisons with other cities – The Vancouver Sun’s reporting on “unfriendliness” in the city tended to reflect and rely on a world view of social isolation as expressed by Robert Putnam. This worldview perceives more connections, friendships and neighborliness only as a positive. The comparisons to other cities are stem from Putnam-like assumptions that people and cities should behave in particular ways.


In section 4.1 the importance of neighbourliness was a common theme revealed in the reporting of social isolation in Vancouver. The story of Carman’s featured characters are reflected in the accusations of “cliquey” or “snobby” remarks made about Vancouver by newcomers. Carman’s portrayals reflected the Putnam view that in-group and out-group attitudes of bonding social capital need not be reciprocally related, but in many cases still are. [91] Un-neighbourliness and perceptions of rude behaviour was a reported hallmark of the Vancouver isolation phenomenon and has all the echoes of Putnam’s massive US study, thus rendering this issue not so local and confining after all.


In section 4.2, the study of ethnicities in Vancouver is revealed as a complex one and the reporting reflects such. Much of what has been written appears to be layered with confusing statistics, conflicting reports, and a tendency to echo the social capital research undertaken by Putnam.


Tara Carman’s article “Growing Apart Part Four” featuring Cora Maming as an immigrant success story echoes the proud picture of a diverse Vancouver as painted by Douglass Todd’s “Ethnic Mapping” series. This is especially evident on reports of Surrey as a cohesive community and Tsawwassen as an inclusive community. Todd’s articles put a positive spin on diversity, as do all six articles in his “Ethnic Mapping” series. However, the “other-ing” of non-whites re-enforces an in-group, out-group divide that Putnam discussed. Even many of the studies that Putnam and his team conducted went by the basis of “whites” and “non-whites.”[92]


The Putnam research on diversity can be somewhat confusing. In Bowling Alone, he was calling for more trust in one’s neighbours and being more civically engaged to increase one’s social capital. But his more recent diversity-lowers-neighbourhood-trust research is making theories on neighbourliness all the more opaque. This very opacity is reflected in the media coverage such as The Vancouver Sun’s various series.

In the long run immigration and diversity are likely to have important cultural, economic, fiscal, and developmental benefits. In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital.” [93]

Unsurprisingly The Vancouver Sun is choosing to take a pro-diversity stance and report positively on diversity “success-stories” in Vancouver, even though the results from the foundation survey point to signs that there is a retreating community here. The inconsistencies in reporting are indicative of the mixed research on social capital. As Portes comments,


Putnam ambivalently lauds the positive long-term effects of immigration for these societies, while contending that it has a corrosive effect on social capital and hence societal cohesion. [94]



That mixed and often contradictory view of ethnicity was evident throughout The Vancouver Sun’s reporting. Todd referred to University of Victoria scholar Zheng Wu’s thesis on how new immigrants to Canada feel “protected” in enclaves but added that “people in ethnic enclaves feel less sense of belonging to their new country. Wu’s position unites with that of Putnam, whose extensive U.S. studies found enclaves often contribute to distrust among residents.” [95]

The content of the two articles paints a very different immigrant experience in Vancouver and make certain class distinctions towards either ethnic community. This was an important distinction to make as much of the previous academic research on diversity examined the whole issue as a question of “non-whites” vs. “whites”.  The Vancouver Foundation, in its report asked the “hard questions” about which groups would be most and least welcomed. Europeans were the most welcomed at 18 per cent, followed by Asians at 15 per cent, followed by South Asians at five per cent, with Middle Easterners and Africans at one and two percent respectively.[96] Not surprisingly, the absence of Douglas Todd’s reporting on Middle Easterners and Africans in the “Ethnic Mapping” series, reflect the low percentages of trust those groups received in the foundation survey. The result of their lack of presence in reporting was indicative of the Putnam theory that “as we have more contact with people who are unlike us, we overcome our initial hesitation and ignorance and come to trust them more.”[97]

The contradictions in social capital research on diversity are consistent with the way The Vancouver Sun reported on ethnicity in both series. The reporting of the Vancouver Foundation research, in turn, is based on much of Putnam’s theories of the eroding of community over the past generation that was discussed in Bowling Alone. Most of the reporting mentions his theories. His name and thought on diversity research are raised in more than half of the stories in both the “Growing apart” and “Ethnic Mapping” series. The Vancouver Sun became comfortable using Putnam’s theories as the driver of the diversity issue but as mentioned in the last section, there are differing viewpoints on the social capital and diversity. Namely from Alejandro Portes, who posits that in the context of ethnicity social capital can be used as a source of family support and benefits through extra-familial networks but also as a source of social control. It is not merely about an unmitigated celebration of community.

Preoccupation with declining expressions of trust and with alleged effects of diversity serves to detract attention from real and far more urgent problems. While some academics and policy makers wring their hands about how to increase participation in local associations and make people express more trust in each other, solutions to basic problems such as how to fashion an immigration policy that effectively incorporates newcomers fall by the wayside. In the United States, the millions of dollars spent in investigating whether public trust is declining or whether immigration reduces it could have been more fruitfully invested in devising a labour management program that flexibly incorporates immigrants.[98]



4.5 What Was Absent From Media Coverage


With ample commentary on rude behaviour, un-neighbourliness, ethnicity and lack of the social values of other cities, as contributing factors to Vancouver’s apparent ‘unfriendliness’, there was a consistency of a slightly concerned tone throughout most of the reporting; one that continually referred to the Vancouver Foundation survey’s results. Some of the themes that were not covered consisted of both public spaces and the physical environment and their impact on social interaction, competition in the city for jobs and housing, and the downsides of neighbourliness. As well, the reporting failed to mention positive aspects concerning the Vancouver Foundation survey results.




4.5.1 Public Spaces and the Physical Environment

As mentioned earlier, in Carmen’s first article, “A Community of Strangers,” she profiled a jogger on the seawall who said that other joggers do not have the same greeting protocol (a nod, smile, thumbs-up) that they have in other cities. This was the first character or voice of the dozens of “lonely” Vancouver citizens introduced after the foundation report was released.  Along with a mention of a dog park in “Growing Apart Part Two, Friendships: A Tough Place to Make Connections,” there was very little mention of public space and its connection to isolation in the city.


As both Berelowitz and Czypyha noted in the second section, the missing center and outward nature focus has been a deterrent for socializing in the city. For Vancouverites, “the private pursuit of nature and leisure” trumps socializing with friends in the city, or making new friends for that matter. Urban socializing typically becomes a lower priority compared to trips to Whistler, hiking in the north shore mountains, or the heading to Vancouver Island for the weekend. With dozens of individual articles written throughout the various Vancouver Sun series, it’s surprising how minimal the media coverage was on Vancouver’s public space and physical environment. There was no mention of the periphery-based focus of leisure time for the average Vancouverite and more shocking, for such a Vancouver-focussed story, was the absence of Vancouver’s “star attractions” such as the seawall and spectacular natural environment.



4.5.2 Competition Conundrum


Newman and Jennings in Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems point out the potential for a breakdown in community and social relations in their chapter on economy and society.  “Social disparities grow as the rural poor join the ranks of the urban poor. In cities where urbanization has created sprawl and car dependence, a sense of community has been eroded and social alienation has increased.”[99]


Vancouver has a plethora of new condos in the city, indicative of a move toward greater density, but that has been met with resistance from some residents and the expensive realities of investor-owned units. A March 2013 report [100] revealed that Vancouver is leading the way in Canada’s large cities for non-resident and investor-owned units to the extent that one finds as many as 22,000 units sitting unoccupied in Metro Vancouver.[101] The neighbourhood of Coal Harbour with its towering condos and relatively little street life or thriving businesses was Vancouver’s “emptiest” with 23 per cent of the units sitting vacant.

The inverse of Vancouver’s empty condo dilemma is the residential boom in the city, where high rates of population growth are outstripping employment growth and changing the social economics of the city. For every 100 new residents arriving in the city since 1971, only 70 new jobs have been created.[102] This cannot be a sustainable trend over a long period of time.


Wyly’s study, Vancouver’s Suburban Involution, theorizes about cheaper land causing the employment base of the suburbs to expand, while downtown Vancouver’s condo culture has an urbanized replica of suburbia. This is emphasized with an “entrenched pattern of mediocre and repetitive architecture” and serial reproduction of “vertical gated communities.”[103] The high price of these units and lack of high paying jobs is causing a divide and making the average homeowner poor while intensifying competition for employment.  Wyly articulates his point. “The city has an emperor’s new clothes character, with its shortages of high-paying jobs, value-added functions, leading industries, and prominent corporate players- and a severe dependency on real estate, speculative capital, and personal-services jobs.”[104]


In applying Newman’s and Jennings’ urban sprawl observations through the lens of Wyly’s suburban involution theory, it becomes easy to perceive why social alienation has remained a constant struggle in Vancouver. In addition, the layering of inconsistencies of high desirability, a scarce job market, high real estate prices, and the lack of permeability of established networks suddenly only serve to augment this struggle.


Throughout the various Vancouver Sun series, there is repeated mention of busy lives, commuting and affordability in Vancouver. But rarely, if at all in the series, were empty condos, the homogeneity of downtown housing and the competition for scarce opportunities taken into account as a reason for the apparent unfriendliness.


4.5.3 The Downsides of Neighbourliness


The overall tone of the Vancouver Foundation connections and engagement survey was one of concern. The Vancouver Sun’s reporting reflected the mood of the Vancouver Foundation report. There were snippets of positive elements, in “Growing Apart: Part One,” Carman mentioned, “Much of the news was good” in reference to overall neighbourhood and community relations. In Part Two, “more than half of residents reported having at least four close friends they see at least two to times a month” But the bulk of the reporting focussed on Vancouver residents experiencing negative responses and anxiety concerning lack of friendships, non-trustworthy neighbours and an eroding sense of community.

In Carman’s “Growing Apart: Part One,” the single paragraph about overall good news was overshadowed by five paragraphs where “some troubling trends emerged.”[105]  They were in reference to many of the Vancouver Foundation’s survey’s statistics (covered in section one) where Vancouverites feelings of loneliness and lack of neighbourliness was revealed.  In Part Three, the on-line article had a video accompanying it with the title West End Hermit and the description: “West End resident Iris Dias talks about why she has no desire to know her neighbours.”[106] Part Five introduces a 28-year-old native Vancouverite “who doesn’t know her neighbours and says that doesn’t particularly bother her.”[107] Added into the mix was the reaction within the stories that tended towards hearing the opinions of more neighbourly types such as Dean Inglis. “It feels to me like people almost seem like they’re kind of scared to have a sense of community for some reason,” said Inglis. “It would be kind of nice if it had that… homey-type feeling.”[108] Characters such as Dias were presented as oddities, while ones such as Inglis were presented as the norm. The Vancouver Sun’s coverage took on the position of neighbourliness as a good thing. It also heightened the alarm about non-neighbourliness as a bad thing to the point where it seems as if the readers should beware of the “hermits” in their building who, “God forbid,” don’t care to know them.

The emotions expressed about neighbourliness reported in the Vancouver Sun reflect a particular view. Robert Putnam’s view of social capital – entrenched in his pro-civic stance in Bowling Alone – and referenced many times throughout the Vancouver Sun’s reporting, was the formula that was predominantly followed. The coverage did not explain in any way the Alejandro Portes theories of negative social capital and social control.

To approach these processes as social facts to be studied in all of their complexity, rather than as examples of a value… Communitarian advocacy is a legitimate political stance; it is not good social science. As a label for the positive effects of sociability, social capital has, in my view, a place in theory and research provided that its different sources and effects are recognized and that their downsides are examined with equal attention.[109]

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