Uncategorized, Writing

Written from the edgelands of my gentrifying neighbourhood, Queensborough

Everyone knows – after a sentence or two of explanation – their local version of the territories defined by this word ‘edgelands’. But few people know them well, let alone appreciate them.

– Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands

[Spring 2016]

Queensborough—with its ditches, storage containers, outlet mall, not-quite suburban and not-quite industrial aura, ongoing construction, aging homes that aren’t old enough to be heritage or new enough to be modern, an unremarkable bridge for traffic passing through, its immigrant communities that don’t quite know each other, not quite a town and not quite a neighbourhood but perhaps something in between—is a place that has become quite comfortable in how peripheral it is. Wikipedia calls it a neighbourhood of New Westminster City, so lets go with the term “neighbourhood”. Being cut off from the city by the Fraser River and situated on the eastern tip of Lulu Island, Queensborough is closer to Richmond than it is to New Westminster. It lies on the fringes—distant enough from the city to distinctly refer to itself as Queensborough and not New Westminster. Its being part of New Westminster feels like an after thought, almost arbitrary.

It’s a transitioning place. Few people stay here for very long. There are the drivers daily crossing the Queensborough Connecter overpass via High 91, who may not even know that there’s a neighbourhood underneath with a community center, a fire hall, a pub, an elementary school, a middle school, a park, a church and a gurduwara. Oh and there’s the outlet mall and the casino on the other side of where the highways cuts though. But the visitors to the Starlight Casino or the Queenborough Landing Outlet Mall aren’t likely to know much about Queensborough and I don’t blame them. This isn’t really a place where people stay for very long.

Queensborough is a place of margins and sidelines—from its tepid ditches to its mostly working class and immigrant inhabitants. People who can’t quite afford the city move here. This is the kind of neighbourhood where a new immigrant family may buy their first home before they can afford a place in the city; or working class folks may rent and commute into the city for work until they can afford to leave Queensborough. Either people are visiting or passing through. I see new faces until I stop seeing them and I, too, am waiting for the day I can leave it behind, even if with a little sadness.

But it doesn’t appear it will stay like this. The developers and construction workers are the newest occupants of Queensborough, and its most distinguishing characteristic—its ditches—are disappearing. The edgelands of Queensborough are being smoothed over with cement. Sometimes I would spot ducklings swimming in the ditches and other times rats. The insects, the birds, the rodents and weeds of Queensborough congregated along the ditches that stretched along its streets. In the winter the ditches would freeze and in the spring become green, teeming with life. Children would lose their tennis balls and soccer balls in the ditches—and there would be the odd driver who (likely a visitor) would forget to avoid the ditch on either side when backing out of a driveway and get stuck, because ditches have a way of being overlooked. Queensborough has a way of being overlooked.

There’s something about Queensborough that professes its unwantedness—or at least has in the recent past. Perhaps it’s the aging property, the narrow roads, the empty lots of weed and overgrown grass between houses, and the ditches. Since the ditches started disappearing and construction has crowded its streets and signs have sprung up declaring rezoning of areas, the property prices have risen. At the edge of Queensborough, along South Dyke Road, overlooking the water, are the new single-family homes. Unlike the older part of Queensborough where the houses are a motely crew of design, age, size and colour: the new houses all look the same, with the same patch of greenery in the front, the same white garage door: and yes, there’s even the white picket fencing. My eyes begin to gloss over the sameness and I try to spot the differences: a bike, the different models of cars in the driveways, a soccer ball in the grass—anything to betray difference. The edgeland is being taken out of its edges—it’s being welcomed to the centre—the assemblage is being smoothed over. This might have been an out-of-place place, but now, the property development seems to be giving another message: stay here a while.

Queensborough is one of those neighbourhoods that are old enough to be historically significant, but it didn’t manage to develop anything particularly important to be special in the imagination of Greater Vancouver. It is intimate with the concept of undesirability. It’s a neighbourhood of leftovers. Queensborough was originally supposed to be the name for the colonial capital of British Columbia, until Queen Victoria decided to go with New Westminster. The discarded name went to this tip of Lulu Island. New Westminster too lost the designation of colonial capital.

The neighbourhood has been home to working class immigrant communities for almost a century now. The colonizers first made it into a military reserve, and then the bridge to the city was created, connecting it to the New Westminster mainland. After the post office was made, the neigbourhood was “established”. The Italians had a significant presence here, but they too have mostly moved out and now South Asian, Middle Eastern and African families have made it their home, with the Punjabi Sikh community now having a significant presence here. At the community centre, the black and white heritage photographs of the neighbourhood are strangely unfamiliar. The neighbourhood doesn’t look like this anymore. There are few white families in Queensborough and they are mostly either single parents or working class. Most of them don’t have long ties to the place. You are not likely to find a wealthy white family in Queensborough, not yet. Queensborough falls under the territory of the Tsleil-Waututh nation, but that is a history pushed beyond the edges of the neighbourhood’s memory: the community centre makes no mention of the Tsleil-Waututh nation.

When my family moved here a decade ago, there was no Walmart. The Outlet Mall and the town homes were yet to be built. Even the Queensborough Connector overpass hadn’t been built. Drivers on the highway had to enter and cross through the neighbourhood to the other side. When Walmart came to the neighbourhood, the small grocery stores were forced to shut down. Opposite my house is the empty lot where the store Spagnols once stood. It is now being developed for condominiums.

One of the first people we befriended in the neighbourhood was a man a few blocks down from us who had built his house entirely by himself. It was a makeshift looking house—grey, small, slightly crooked, but seemingly functioning. There was a garden in the front yard where the man grew his vegetables and herbs. The city had come in for an inspection and weren’t able to find anything objectionable. This man liked to do things himself. He proudly told my father that he once butchered a goat in his backyard for meat and the RCMP dropped by announcing that it was a violation of the city bylaws. The man produced a map of Queensborough and pointed out that his street wasn’t on the map, or within the city’s limits. It was farm land. How could he be breaking city laws if he wasn’t even in the city? The police apparently let him go. His street is now on the map.

When we moved here, the one redeeming quality of the neighbourhood was its central location—in other words, how easy it was to leave it. It’s almost perfectly in the middle of Richmond, Delta, Surrey, New Westminster and Burnaby—an approximately 10-15 minute drive to either city. It’s an inbetween place. You’ll pass it when approaching the Queensborough Bridge from Highway 91.

The bridge isn’t remarkable like some of the other bridges of the Lower Mainland: Port Man, Lions Gate, Patullo or Alex Fraser Bridge—but it is perhaps the most well-known aspect of Queensborough and it, too, is on the periphery of the neighbourhood—either leaving or arriving. If you’re on the bridge, you’re likely going elsewhere. But if you pause a moment to look you might notice and admire it. It isn’t picturesque—or sublime or beautiful. The Fraser River meekly runs beneath. If you’re approaching New Westminster, to the left of the view will be the roofs of the outlet mall, and a massive parking lot full of badly damaged cars and minivans. This is the ICBC damaged vehicle lot. This is where cars come when there is no place else left for them to go—to this particular edge of the industrial Fraser River. You never really realize it’s a part of Queensborough until you spot it from the bridge.

To the right of the view is the shoreline between the Fraser River and New Westminster city. You will spot several red and blue cranes docked along the shore, warehouses just on the edge of the land, and large collections of logs floating down the river. The logs—emblematic of the Fraser River—are always there, travelling, but never really leaving. I’ve stopped noticing them—they’ve becoming natural to this rather unseemly, industrialized side of the river. I realize they are useful, but there is something aesthetically unpleasing about them. I wonder if the cranes and the logs were to disappear, would the river suddenly emerge from the edges, become more conventionally remarkable—picturesque—if people would start jogging along this edge of the shoreline, walk their dogs, and bike? I never see any people along this side of the river—just logs and freighters floating by—and the people in their vehicles passing by on top.

What exactly about the bridge makes it so easy to miss—fleeting—makes my eyes want to look forward and not down at the view? Perhaps it’s the clutter of industry. I recognize within myself a certain desire for neatness, an impulse for clear, clean curvature and softly bending lines. Why not the cranes, the warehouses, the beaten-up vehicles, the factory smoke from Annacis Island, and the long stretches of drifting logs? My eyes are pulled to the high-rise buildings of Burnaby or the reflections of the sun sparkling in the water, or the trees of Poplar Island—a small tree-filled mass of land in the middle of the channel—but they overlook, gloss over the cranes and the industrial detritus—the stuff that happens in the process of converting towering trees into high rise apartment buildings. The stuff I’ve trained myself to disregard. The stuff Wordsworth overlooked in his sonnet “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”.

His eyes too must have glossed over the grime, the grunge, the debris, the leftovers, the castaways, the crusts and unromantic edges of the city—the stuff I notice by accident or when I command myself to notice but never quite instinctively—everything that is not splendour, majestic or beautiful—the smoke, the grit, the pollution, the excess of development, the dirt, the messiness, the stuff that doesn’t come forward to the eye right away. There is something obvious about writing a poem about “ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples”—but what about the edges in-between the city? The stuff that tends to go by unnoticed—the stuff that at first glance that isn’t entirely an object in my eye. It is the blur, the unfocussed bit, and the non-object as my eyes focus in based on the ingrained conventional relationship I have with objects. I readily offer my eyes to the island of trees, the river, the tall buildings—but must pause, focus, home in on the blur, objectify and personify the once-missed, let it emerge, come into in an existence of its own. It is then that I can appreciate it.

I will not be in Queensborough for very long. It is the place at the end and beginning of my bus rides into the city. Despite living here for almost a decade, I have always been leaving it, overlooking it, casting my vision across the bridge. I both know and don’t know it intimately. There are edges, crooks, and bends of Queensborough that will probably go on unremarked, or disappear as the neighbourhood is gentrified, but it might be worthwhile to seek them out. But they don’t really need to be sought out. They’re always there—I just have to home in and notice them.