Monday, March 8, 2010

Reality Check: post-party depression

Some of what follows is related to the company I work for, TransLink, but they're my personal thoughts, not offered in my official capacity as Public Information Officer.

In many respects, it already seems like a lot more than a week has gone by since the end of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The last of the house guests left a week ago yesterday, Sydney, Jarome and Dany are again sworn enemies and Roberto is yelling at his teammates to protect Henrik and Daniel, not take a two-hander to clear them out of the slot.

And the post-Olympic navel gazing is already underway. Professional pundits and the "man in the street" alike (if you've seen the movie, "Remains Of The Day", which I did yesterday, you'll have a completely different view of the "man in the street" concept) are talking about what a grand party it's been and the "lessons learned". How, people ask rhetorically, can we keep this momentum going and push towards the next generation of "Vancouverism"?

Folks, your reality check just bounced.

There are two common threads that I see in the discussion of the post-Olympic legacy. One is in the way of maintaining the wonderful atmosphere that took over the city -- using pedestrian malls, public "celebration" spaces and dismantling a key road network linking downtown with the east end.

We have to remember that there were disruptions to businesses and day-to-day life during that 17-day period. Many schools and public institutions shut down. Ordinary life had to work around the Games and the parties, and now that it's over, there's a bit of a sigh of relief that we could get back to a semblance of normalcy. The focus of the grand visions for our city is too much, I feel, on how to provide party space and play areas for people and not enough on how to marry this new way of thinking with day-to-day life.

It's interesting that much of the assessment of the "success" of the Games has to do with the "feel-good" sensation and the notion that the "legacy" is somehow tied to that. That's like using a drug high as a substitute for genuine happiness. Having more and better public spaces is a good way to temper the other aspects of urban life, but any development has to go slow and consider all the realities. Vancouver is still a very young city and its development tends to be driven by the hubris and a desire to prove it's just as big as the old-established places, rather than evolve over time of the celebration spirit.

OBSERVATION: the smartest thing anyone could have done was close the liquor stores early. Someone wrote a letter to a paper saying that would just promote the "Nofuncouver" image; but we've earned it because in the past, from showing absolutely no wisdom when it comes to partying and drinking. Remember that concerts by Elvis Presley (1957) and The Beatles (1964) had to be shut down early because the crowd was on the verge of rioting; then there were the Grey Cup Riots (pick a year) and the Gastown Riot (which, inexplicably, has been raised to worship status by a giant mural inside the atrium of the Woodward's project); not to mention the Stanley Cup Playoff riot of 1994 and the smash-up when Guns 'n' Roses cancelled its show. Remove alcohol from the equation, and it's amazing what you come up with.

The other unfortunate thread is in the assessment of how public transportation performed during the games. The years of preparation paid off with brilliant execution, and literally from Langley to Lions Bay, ordinary folk and experts are asking how that "momentum" will be maintained. Some demand more buses, more often; others look at the Olympic Line streetcar and say we need to use that mode throughout the transit system.

No one is talking about how to pay for it. I mean, really: the Olympic Line was operated free of charge - who wouldn't love to ride it? Transit operators had a vacation-time blackout during the Olympics, so they'd be available to drive the additional buses that were provided to handle the extra passenger loads. I've actually read a couple of letters to the editor, saying that they don't want to hear "TransLink doesn't have the money" as the reason. This, even though last fall, when the Mayors' Council approved a budget that only allowed for service to be maintained, it was made clear that the funding wasn't there to do anything more. It was in the media: surely, those who write letters to papers actually read those papers?

(In a posting on my other blog, "Rev. Downtown", I chide the anti-Olympics protesters for expecting someone else to pay for the things they demand in society. It's really the same thing with this situation.)

But that points to the biggest reality check of all: the fact that any quality-of-life improvements related to the Olympics -- the temporarily improved transit service, the party atmosphere, the "people places" created around the city -- came at a cost. There were, as many have noted, serious disruptions in day-to-day life, which forced people to change their thinking and their behaviour. They were able to do that for that 17-day period: has that been enough time to make them re-think how they live, work and play?

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