The Sun Sets Slowly On The Westender

And in the end, what is there to say, except “beware the new broom”?

Slightly overdue comments, here, but basically the thing went down like this: a few years ago, one of Vancouver’s local (and by “local” I mean neighbourhood) newspapers, the venerable Westender, began to undergo something of a renaissance. In my opinion, it became a must-read, oddly at the same time that I was becoming fatally disenchanted with the other small papers of its kind – the old counterculture music/arts/independent news rag The Georgia Straight was just beginning its depressingly charged flirtation with hot yoga and other alt-yuppie conspicuous consumption practices, Terminal City hadn’t attracted my eye in years due to somehow misplacing its anarchic sense of humour, and of course what was once the Kerrisdale Courier had long since gone down that road to putting thinly-disguised real estate advertising supplements in place of real cover stories, and the somewhat pathetic attempt to sell Vancouver to Vancouverites as “cool” or “important”…ah, the perils of “world-class-city”-ism. Not that the Straight has “sold out”, or that the Courier has completely fled the world of legitimate news-reporting, but it’s my belief that when you pick up any newspaper, you’re looking for the (perhaps; if you’re lucky) ten or so regular features that make it attractive to you. And, you might think that if you drop two or three of those things, that the people will naturally still come to your door, same as they ever did…but it doesn’t work like that. In a world of too much to read, too much to see, too much to know about, and too much to be interested in – and too much crap to wade through to get to it all – there is naturally a threshold of attention to be reckoned with, and God help you if you drop below it.

Although the Westender, I should mention, is still doing fine. It’s got a bigger circulation than ever, no doubt.

But sadly, it isn’t worth reading anymore.

In local, neighbourhood, or alternative papers, tone is very important. Because it’s all about the “community”, of course, even when the paper has a citywide distribution. But, it’s easy to mistake tone for cachet, too, and that can turn into a pretty slippery slope. Look, the West End of Vancouver is an exceedingly hip, progressive, cosmopolitan neighbourhood, and it wears its politics on its sleeve: you can put Noam Chomsky or Jane Jacobs on the cover, and people will see themselves reflected there. No problem.

You can put Neko Case on there, too.

Or, David Suzuki’s daughter.

George Bowering, if you want.

Old pictures of Joe Fortes.

Patrick Watson.

J.P. Patches.

That’s all fine.

But, see how the slippery slope works? In neighbourhood newspapers, “community” begins with the cover, and there’s a fine line between “us” and “our celebrities”. Both are mirrors, but one’s a funhouse mirror. Sorry, I should say: both are windows, to the paper’s soul, which is the stuff printed on the inside…but one’s a clear window, while the other’s just transparent. I used to delight in picking up the Westender and reading comics and articles by people who were not particularly well mixed-into and mixed up with Vancouver’s somewhat shallow media pool – funny writers, writers with an occasionally admirable turn of phrase or sense of style, versatile writers, writers with voices, but never famous writers. Just, local writers. Because a city needs that too, you know: just as it needs some recurring human-interest features, curious little bits and slices of Vancouver life, that escape being buzz, in favour of just being odd spots. Well, that’s what a neighbourhood paper really is: a collection of odd spots, just like the neighbourhood’s community itself is.

I’ll digress for just one moment, now.

Once upon a time when I was young, most of the downtown strip of Granville Mall was a kind of a seedy-looking place: strip bars, XXX stores, pawnshops, disreputable slice-pizza joints. But then (just in the way that things go, you understand), this part of downtown started to revitalize itself a little bit. A funky, inexpensive restaurant with an honest, unpretentiously retro feel moves in next to the XXX store, and then suddenly the XXX store starts to look a bit less like an eyesore and a bit more like local colour; down the street, the ancient cafe on the bottom of the transient hotel decides to open during the daylight hours and put out a sandwich board offering hamburger steak; some young folks open up a new tattoo parlour that looks rather hip and artistic, and the twenty-four hour dive on the corner, down from the jazz joint, replaces its signage, offers a slightly more upscale variety of food, and lays on cheap pitchers ’til two a.m. A couple chairs and tables show up on the sidewalk, with ashtrays and cheap flowers. Up a flight of stairs, there’s a place for bands just starting out to play. Around the corner you can get a homemade chicken pot pie, and drink half-decent plonk out of a jelly jar, and pick up a paper. And all in all, things don’t exactly get tarted-up, but they do get a couple swipes with a dirty rag, and the windows get cleaned, and the doors unlocked, and suddenly the whole place seems a little bit more like, well, a place, and you can’t help thinking to yourself “Ah! At last! Now, I wonder what this neighbourhood’s on its way to turning itself into?”

But unfortunately, it then doesn’t turn itself into anything.

Because what happens next is that savvy business-owner/developers realize the place is on the upswing, but that the prices are all still at the level of a fire sale, so they unbelt their chequebooks and buy up everything in sight. The full funkiness of what could have been the city’s next boho/student district never even arrives, because its promise barely makes it onto the wind before it all turns into so much futures-trading: large enterprises open up, and things get homogenous in a hurry. Ten minutes later there’s a Starbucks on the corner, and the local BIA heads to City Hall to get permission to hire yellow-jacketed security guards so they can run all the riffraff off. The neighbourhood gets “reimagined” as a “vibrant new entertainment district”, which pretty much is code for “same-old, same-old”.

More world-class-city-ism, I’m afraid.

That was a few years ago. More recently, over in the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, a massive plebiscite was narrowly lost by opponents of the large businesses that were eager to move into the old downtown district, its winding streets finally picking themselves back up into first-stage revitalization, and do a total rebuild of it. Much gnashing of teeth by the locals, but in the end the carpetbaggers won, as it seems they always do these days…and BAM! The emerging (or re-emerging) culture of the place gets clear-cut, strip-mined, fished-out…and, just like on Granville Street, no one ever gets to see what it might have been, what new ideas it might’ve brought into the urban environment, how the twenty-year-olds might have managed their slack years of too much freedom and not enough money. The rents, naturally, go up; the kids are priced out, and the longtime residents are pensioned off.

Just like on Granville.

Well, it’s not really anybody’s fault.

But, it isn’t any good…!

End of digression: back to the Westender, now. What’s wrong with it? Well, the new managing editor came in and decreed a renovation of the paper’s layout, the result of which decree may look very hip and edgy, but is hard as hell to read…even the Table Of Contents is unnavigable, but then again why would you want to navigate it anyway? Either you love the new direction, or you don’t: either you’re relieved that all those people you never heard of, whose names you don’t know, have been replaced by the fifth-magnitude stars of the Vancouver media elite…or, you know, you’re not, but then if you’re not, why are you reading? Eh? The once-diverting odd spots turn sour as two or three of the ten elements you liked about the paper fall away to the sides of them, and as a result their glamour goes distinctly off as they stand more and more alone: suddenly the amusingly voyeuristic feature on what other people have in their apartments is revealed as so much cheap shilling for hipper and more fashionable lifestyles, aspirational para-advertising…and, was it always that way, but you just didn’t notice? There’s a sense of deflation that goes along with that thought, absolutely: suddenly the covers are a little too obviously enlisted in the project of making you think that if you don’t pick the paper up then you won’t know what to talk about around the water-cooler, you won’t know how to spend your money properly, and celebrity-consciousness replaces community awareness and engagement, and where did all that stuff go, that I liked? Seventy percent of it is still there; but, it’s dropped below the threshold of my attention, I guess. I don’t want to wade through the crap, to get to it. The revitalization is stillborn; the tone has been swapped out for cachet. The rumour of futurity has been squelched. Big hotels are going up, all around it.

Do I exaggerate?

A neighbourhood is made of odd spots, not brand, as a neighourhood paper is made of voices, not direction: but, this is 2007, not 1957, or 1987, or even 1997, and publishing ideals are a little different these days. Maybe I do exaggerate, a little; but at the same time, is anyone really claiming that the diversity evidenced in our newspapers is actually on the rise, and not on the decline? Or even holding steady. No, of course not. And, you meet people, the same as I meet people, don’t you? You know as well as I do that there may be competence out there in the working world, there may even be expertise, but there’s precious little imagination. We’d rather outsource imagination, as often as not. We’d rather get it piped in as an executive summary, as a collation, as external, imported buzz rather than laboriously hand-made homegrown tone, because frankly who has the time? And the world of journalism isn’t any different, in this. Not really. Preconceptions about what will work and what won’t, what’s worth doing and what isn’t worth doing, are educated into people in a thousand un-tracked ways, which work and take hold because they are cheap, convenient, and modular. Society is a collection of odd spots, too, but people don’t see it that way: they don’t even really want to see it that way. They want what’s Hot, not what’s Not, and consequently the idea that nothing’s Hot, and that everything’s Not, is uncomfortable for them. So voices are unreliable tools, compared to directions, as neighbourhoods work better as brands and worse as people. Just as a paper that represents its community is a far more unwieldy and sputtering thing than a paper that simply strives to characterize its readership in a smooth, consistent way. Block by block.

And again, it isn’t anybody’s fault.

But, it isn’t good.

And that’s rather a shame.

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7 responses to “The Sun Sets Slowly On The Westender

  1. All I can say is “fuck yeah”! Being there in that moment where slow gentrification turns into a full on real estate boom is a hugely sickening moment, especially when you really, really loved what that neighborhood was turning into. The worst is when one of the core institutions succumbs — it either dies or falls to the Brave New World emerging around it. It sounds like the latter happened to your newspaper, and that’s just awful.

    I can feel the jackals creeping up around my neighborhood now. The late night diner, an institution for at least 40 years, suddenly starts closing a little earlier every week because its wood paneling and vinyl seats no longer provide enough of an ego-trip to the new condo owners who demand their locally grown eggs and fair trade coffee be served in the comforting bubble of corporate (but not too obviously corporate) homogeneity. The local bar being labeled a “nuisance” by the new cookie cutter “authentic pub” with watered down beer and gigantic LCD screens that drown out any hope of conversation under the thunder of ESPN and regurgitated Top 40 dance hits. The old brownstones being plowed under for Lego-style “refurbished condos” or parking lots to accomodate the new cars for people too refined to take the train anywhere. They’ve sniffed us out! A Chicago neighborhood safe enough that one can walk the streets yet cheap enough to attract young folks and immigrants? Impossible! Immoral! It had to fall eventually. And now we get to watch the pillars of the neighborhood fall piece by piece until we join the blob of upper middle class sameness engulfing the rest of the city in its “rebirth”.

    I have seen something similar happen to our alternative paper. It’s slowly gone from an incisive muckraking rag to a running advertisement for various “destinations” around town. It’s gone from reporting on us to selling a lifestyle back to us. So I feel for you.

  2. Interesting post. I haven’t been able to “read” the westender for a good three years now because some of the reasons you list but also because it has this grating need to be hip, in the voice of a Converse-wearing 45-year-old bald guy. Then again, I can’t read the Straight any longer due to it’s whiney need to be liked by everybody. That includes its latest trend of being The Paper for the minorities. In it’s quest to be incredibly politically correct, it’s become incredibly boring. The only sign of life is in its music section.

  3. And even there, Jason…!

    Yeah, like I said, I don’t think the Straight has “sold out”, and there’s still some things worth reading in it…but look at all the fashion stuff in there, holy crap! When did that get in there? A couple of years ago I read the “Best Of” issue, and I was amazed to see more real-estate ads than I’ve ever seen in one place before in my life!

    And I live in Vancouver, damn it…!

    Another thing that took the tone down — way down! — for me was the elevation of Mike Usinger’s unfailingly snotty music commentary. Really, I’ve long since had it with that guy. And “Payback Time”? The only thing there is to like about that feature is when people write in but don’t want the prize. “Screw your prize, asshole” is what they seem to be saying, there…and it’s a sentiment with which I agree wholeheartedly.

  4. I used to write for the Westender, in the days of Tom Zillich, Carlyn Yandle and co. They weren’t so interested in ‘direction’ as something called ‘content.’ Not the Hollywood way of the word, more the idea that your story should have something to say, rather than something to show off.

    The reason I got out of the whole J-school thing is just what you describe here: a complete lack of interest in representing, so much as representin’ — The WE is so desperately trying to BE the Straight, that it has no identity of its own. And so much content in ALL of our ‘local’ papers comes from Houston, or New York, or Chicago. Hell, I even appreciate stuff from Toronto and Calgary when I see it, because at least someone north of the border got a dime for the work.

    I miss the old WE. For all its bluster and ‘tude, I miss Terminal City. I miss CARING when a new issue of a paper comes out. Thanks for writing this.

  5. Thank you for commenting, Jason, and above all thank you for being a part of the WE that I loved! There was really something happening there. It’s a goddamn shame. The other day I accidentally picked up a Post-Intelligencer at a restaurant; no idea what it was doing there, but I picked it up. And, this is not the States’ finest newspaper by any means, but Good Lord…

    It’s frickin’ embarrassing. The PI is about one zillion times a better paper than anything we’ve got in this country.

    And why?

    Plain and simple, they hire talent. Writing talent, and more importantly editorial talent. It’s quite clear that’s what they’re all about. They care about being any good. And we don’t. And shame on us. The new WE is a piece of crap, compared to the old, and no one seems to give a damn. Cheers to you, Jason, you got to be a part of a thing that didn’t suck; I hear that experience is in plenty short supply these days.

    And where is our Fearless Leader Ms. Yandle these days, anyway?

  6. Fearless? Too funny. It was fear that drove me out of there.

    I now fear the blank canvas instead of the blank page, in third-year full-time studies at Emily Carr (since you asked). I write the ‘Urban Dweller’ column in Metro every Thursday that ties in with an interior re-design business I launched after I quit the WestEnder, but I miss collaborating with some of the city’s many talented and unique writers, artists and readers.

    Surprisingly, I’m connecting with more of those original thinkers at art school. A lot are corporate rejects like me.

    I have no idea where this is all going – but do we ever really know what’s around the bend?

    cy

  7. Oh man, it’s strange to see that “cy” again. Glad it sounds like you’re having a good time, Carlyn! But even for you, I don’t know if I can bring myself to pick up a copy of Metro.

    And no we do not.

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