The city fathers of Vancouver, British Columbia, where I visited last week, made a fateful decision in the 1950s. They decided to build up, not out. Not only Vancouver's office space, but also its residential areas would consist of high-rises, not sprawling suburbs.
The planners didn't have much choice. Vancouver is tucked tightly between a deep ocean harbor and mountains of the coastal range. There are suburbs around Vancouver, but they cling to the mountainsides which rise up from the harbor. Most people live downtown. My hotel room was on the 31st floor. It had floor-to-ceiling windows, as did all the skyscrapers around. And me without my binoculars.
I once stayed on the 33rd floor of a building in Manhattan. My host, like most people who live or work in a forest of skyscrapers, had a pair of binoculars at the ready.
This might sound creepy to flatlanders, but from my window in Vancouver, I had a bird's eye view into about 1,500 other rooms.
Before you think bad things, realize that these were office buildings. Most rooms were empty conference rooms, dimly lit at night, hauntingly beautiful. Thousands of swivel conference chairs. Empty.
The temptation to try to figure out what is going on across the way is irresistible. If you were there, you'd do it, too. Admit it.
During the day, I witnessed a moment which interested me about 10 floors below. A young gentleman, power dressed in a powder blue shirt and a bright red tie, sat at his desk in a plum corner office, full of windows, shuffling papers, looking busy. As I watched, a balding older man, shirt untucked by his paunch, sleeves sloppily rolled up, barged in and plopped lazily in a chair. His appearance caused the younger man to sit bolt upright and adopt a defensive posture.
Was the older man president of the company? Or was he the guy who fixes the copier? Either way, why did he invade the younger man's office without knocking?
I'll never know. If I had my binoculars, or maybe a telescope, I could have read the documents on his desk and had some sort of answer. I felt as if I was interpreting an Edward Hopper painting. Stark anonymity allows the imagination to roam free.
A well-planned vertical city creates a great walking city. When you stack people fifty to sixty stories high, the street life below is vibrant, busy, bustling at all hours. Grocers, delis, bars, shops, pack together on the ground floor to serve the multitudes above.
Page 2 of 2 - To get the same feel in the Midwest, imagine the mall on Black Friday. However, unlike the mall on Black Friday, people who live in high rises are used to a bustling street life. They keep their cool. They maintain their manners. In Vancouver, the people seemed upbeat and happy. What a mix of cultures and languages on the Vancouver streets! French, of course, but also Chinese, Thai, Russian, Japanese, Hindi, and most everything else. Food? Spectacular! Just get on the street and walk a few yards and you'll find something new and wonderful.
Through my hotel window, I watched cranes load a container ship on the harbor through the night. Seaplanes took off and landed all day. When you're used to watching finches at the feeder back home, a bustling city out your window can overstimulate. I couldn't sleep. So, I went down to the street, found a pub and met people.
Americans are strange. We spend our social hours discussing our occupation. In other countries, even those as similar to us as Canada, the last thing you want to do in your free time is talk about work. Sure enough I happened upon a visitor from Boston who sells screws, surrounded by several bemused Canadians who impishly prodded him to reveal more about the screw business.
His company sold 1.4 billion screws last year. If you put up a building, you likely used his company's screws. If he gets the Vancouver market, that number will go up!
Was the screw salesman curious about what the Canadians he just met did for a living? Nope! He's American. We talk about ourselves. It would have been funny, except twenty minutes later I found myself doing the same thing: carrying on about myself to a panel of seemingly curious Canadians.
Embarrassing. You can't escape your own culture. Oh, well. I'll never see them again.
With that, I disappeared up to my 31st floor room and scanned hundreds of eerie conference rooms until I found one being cleaned. I watched with envy as the lonely night janitor pushed his vacuum, essentially farming the carpet. If I lived in the big city, I would want his job more than any other.