Reflections on the city, leaving home and looking for community

This week I am visiting Vancouver, BC, my hometown, and riding the waves of emotion that always come with visiting home for me: excitement, anxiety, nostalgia, and familiarity. All tied with vivid memories, some of actual events and some of dreams for the future that I no longer hold.

This trip comes with a new emotional experience: a disconnectedness that I haven’t before felt here, and comes with a bit of a shock, because this is the place that I have always thought of as “home”, and I had always expected to return to. I am happy to be here and to visit my people here. But the place no longer feels like  home.

Over the last few days I have visited five of  my closest friends, all five of whom are close to my age. With each of them, separately, I have had long, in-depth discussions about our lives and our plans (because this is my preferred way of relating to people, and that’s the kind of person I tend to make friends with). What’s notable about these conversations is the theme that none of my friends seems to be happy with living in Vancouver. All of them are unhappy with the city they call home and were very candid and explicit about it with me. Every single one of them is considering the possibility of getting out, whether now or down the road, and have stayed so far only because of ties to family or school, or a lack of a good alternative place to live. More than one of them also talked about all their friends who have left, and how that has made the city even less appealing.

The reasons people want to leave are pretty consistent: the city is unaffordable and gets more so every year. It’s hard to get a job here unless you work in health care or the oil and gas industry. Nobody wants to spend their whole lives living in basement apartments. The wealth gap is worse than our parents’ generation will ever truly understand. There’s also an undertone of disgust for Vancouver’s pretentious culture. And when all your friends start to leave, it gets a lot harder to stay. You lose a sense of community and get stuck in the daily grind of survival. As one of my friends said, “the city is chewing people up and spitting them out”.

This shouldn’t be surprising to me, and it’s really notable only because it is such a recurring theme in the conversations I’ve had the last few days. And perhaps my friends were particularly candid about it because it’s a contrast to how happy I am with my decision to move to the prairies. The dislike, however, and the active search for alternatives to the city is increasingly intense in the conversations I’ve been having.

As I reflected on this, I thought about how my friends, though separately, have evolved on a similar trajectory over the last few years. Most (maybe all) of my friends are radical lefties around my own age. Many of them queer, some of them academics, mostly white. When we were in our early twenties, we all had lofty goals of saving the world through political agitation. We dreamed big. Or at least I did, and I think my friends did too. We wanted to make important change, beyond ourselves.

As we’ve gotten older, we’ve changed. We started to realize how hard it is to change the world. I had a burnout and had to stop doing any activism for awhile in order to take care of myself. I became scared that I was going to become totally individualistic and that it would be the end of my activism. Many of my friends scaled back their activism too, not changing their beliefs, but trying to take care of themselves and their relationships and balance that with the work they do for the world. And this is a huge challenge, because we live in challenging times.

Have we sold out? Has the time we’ve spent taking care of ourselves meant that we’ve abandoned what we care about?  It’s a question I have come back to a few times. I am finally convinced that no, we have not.

I am currently reading Sharon Astyk’s Making HomeThe book is based on the premise that sooner or later, economic collapse, peak oil and climate disaster are going to happen. We know they are. Astyk argues that if we want to adapt, it is easier to adapt now than to wait for disaster to come. Then she sets about giving practical advice for adapting to living with fewer resources in the here and now – methods that will not only keep us alive when disaster strikes but will also save energy and money now. It is a hopeful book: she believes we can not only survive but be happy living in one place with fewer resources. It is the only way to save ourselves and the planet.

I think my friends have come to the realization that the world is too big, its problems too complex for us to solve the way that we wanted: through organizing, demos, buttons and slogans. Those things are valuable (don’t misunderstand me), but climate change is happening now. Droughts and economic collapse are already starting wars, creating refugees and killing people. We can work incrementally on the social issues that we face, but we cannot solve them, not in our lifetimes.

So with this knowledge, my friends are just trying to live their lives as best they can. Trying to scrape community together in a culture that values only individualism and individual capitalist success.  Many of my friends have started to talk about leaving not only Vancouver, but urban environments altogether: an idea that would have shocked me just a few years ago. The idea of living anywhere other than a major city would have seemed completely ridiculous to me until the last year or two, and now, I am seriously considering it, and it’s the new trend among my friends.

Why leave the city? For community, affordability, and to live out the ideas in Astyk’s book. (So far, Winnipeg feels to me like a compromise: it’s a city, but a smaller one than I am accustomed to, with a much more reasonable housing market, a slower pace of life and much more connection to the agriculture and rural culture that surrounds it. It’s a great place to remain connected to the city while considering long term plans to get out of it. I sort of can’t believe I’m saying this, but I might stay there for a long time.)

Maybe you’ve gotten to this point in reading this and think that I sound incredibly jaded. I know others who have left the city and been accused of “giving up” on their activism and their convictions. But these ideas do not come from a place of desperation. For me, at least,they actually come from hope.

In trying to explain what I mean, I am reminded of Expect Resistance: A Field Manual, a sort of manifesto by the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective. The book explores the idea of disaster and failure as opportunity: there is freedom that comes with the realization that we have failed. We have failed to prevent climate change. Capitalism has failed to provide for me and my friends the way it did for our parents. This will probably end in disaster.

But where I used to see only fear, I now see nothing but faith that we have the solution for this, and it lies in building community and learning to live lovingly, with other people, and with fewer resources. When I talk about leaving the city, this is what I’m talking about. And I think my friends are too.