Urban renaissance

22 12 2011

New West is finally chic.

After languishing for years as an also-ran suburb notable only for its multitude of SkyTrain stops and street crime, the city is undergoing a renaissance. New condo towers are going up aimed at younger, more urban buyers who can no longer afford to live in Vancouver. Tired old businesses are being usurped by funky shops, restaurants are renovating to go a little more upscale, new restaurants are opening.

One of them, Wild Rice, is just up the boardwalk.

When our vagabond trucker friends from New York City hit town, that’s where we took them. Did you make a reservation? they asked panicked. It’s a new restaurant and it’s Friday night, it’ll be packed.

But this is New West; everyone is still at The Boathouse.

Sure enough, we had no trouble getting a table.

Monday, Katie and I went again, this time to learn how to make dim sum.

The menu and fillings for dumplings

To bring customers in on an otherwise slow night, and to spread good word of mouth, the restaurant is offering demo classes in making some of its signature Asian fusion dishes. The chef shows us how it’s done in his gleaming open kitchen, we get to try our hands at making a few things, and then we all retire to a big communal table to enjoy a four course dinner.

The chef shows us his trade secrets

It was a lot of fun, the food was delicious, and it all felt very big city, sophisticated.

Suddenly it's chic to be in New West

Which is great to have within walking distance, rather than having to ride transit into Vancouver.

It’s been a long time coming though.

Since I moved here 20 years ago, i’ve heard stories and done stories about the city’s potential.

New West is BC’s oldest city. In fact, it was the province’s first capital. It was the gateway for explorers and prospectors heading up the Fraser River into the Interior to seek their fortune.

But as Vancouver grew, New West diminished. When the mega-malls went up in neighbouring suburbs, people no longer had a reason to come here. The downtown shopping street once known as The Golden Mile lost its lustre.

When I first did an assignment in New West, I was immediately smitten. The city has a great history, plenty of old buildings and homes with lots of character. And a gritty edge.

For most of the past 20 years that grit got in the way of its potential. Seedy bars took over the downtown, populated with shifty characters. Owners let their buildings fall into disrepair.

When one was converted to an upscale billiard hall, that was supposed to be a catalyst for new development. It never happened.

Then an old Russian submarine was brought to the pier to attract tourists. A few came, but most people just wondered what a Russian submarine had to do with the Fraser River.

Then a casino was built on an old MIssissippi paddlewheel to attract a different kind of tourist. But gamblers weren’t interested in gambolling around town; they just wanted to play the slots or card tables and head home to count their losses or winnings.

Even the world’s tallest tin soldier tarnished.

But now that magic elixir of development, a population of new residents, and businesses to service those residents finally seems to be brewing. There’s people on the streets and energy in the air. New West is finally developing its city vibe, and we’re right in the middle of it.