Public spaces the heart of the city

Photo by Po Yang, Flickr

Photo by Po Yang, Flickr

The abundance of public space throughout Vancouver is a central ingredient in what makes the city one of the most liveable in the world. This is especially true during the summer, when hordes of sun worshippers mix freely in parks, beaches, waterfronts and cycleways. While the outdoors provides an area of enjoyment for people of all cultures, the indoor work of public spaces like community centres facilitates cultural understanding and integration throughout the city.

Community centres bring cultures together

Largely away from the great outdoors, community recreational centres in diverse neighbourhoods play a crucial role in providing familiarity, stability and adaptability to the more culturally vulnerable members of our society.

Opened in December 2009, the Mount Pleasant Community Centre is located in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the city, as well as one of the more economically desolate. According to recreational programmer Darwyn Hermann, the community centre began offering classes designed for local immigrant communities soon after opening.

“It all started with the line-dancing, which is an extremely popular program with the Asian community. We had all classes sold out, so we asked the community what else they wanted,” he says.

The centre now boasts a range of classes – taught in both Mandarin and English – including baking, ballroom dancing, badminton and modelling, as well as language classes to help bridge the gaps between cultures.

“We have some specifically Asian cultural stuff like Chinese brushpainting and Chinese calligraphy classes, so that helps expose Caucasian people to these cultures,” says Hermann.

Leaving for freedom

During a blistering Canada Day long weekend, swarms of people descended on Spanish Banks, Kitsilano and Jericho beaches to partake in one of Vancouver’s universal summer rituals. On the beaches and in the parks, families of all backgrounds got together over the omni-cultural communion of barbecued meat, fair weather and celebration.

For IT specialist Ruban Sivarasa, who gathered with his relatives and family friends at Jericho Beach, June 30 always constitutes a special day of remembrance.

“This is our annual barbecue tradition we have every year before Canada Day to celebrate leaving for freedom. We are celebrating the freedom in Canada of the people that made it,” he says.

Around 300,000 Ceylon Tamils, most of whom fled the horror of the Sri Lankan Civil War between 1983 and 2009, live in Canada. Ruban may think that Vancouver’s beaches pale in comparison to Sri Lanka’s palm trees, blue water and natural white sand, but this is a minor concern for him.

“We were limited in what we could do [in Sri Lanka]. We couldn’t go out at night and doing this kind of event was prohibited. Having this kind of freedom is what we were fighting for,” he says.

The freedoms enjoyed in Vancouver’s public spaces aren’t just noticed by refugees fleeing from political oppression.

Twenty-year-old Chazel Solamo, enjoying a barbecue on Kits Beach in celebration of her mother and aunt’s birthday, believes the difference between Vancouver beaches and their counterparts in her last place of residence, Dubai, couldn’t be starker.

“In Dubai, there’s only certain points of the beach where women can dress like this,” she says, gesturing at the mass of exposed flesh covering the sand in all directions. “They’re more conscious and restrictive about how much women show of their bodies.”

Balls, bats, stumps and mountains

Whether it is the freedom to celebrate the survival of one’s ethnic identity or the freedom to wear a bikini, Vancouver’s public spaces often represent sites of cultural liberty. They also represent a means through which immigrant communities can maintain a connection to the practices and rituals of their former lives.

On the same sweltering Sunday that Solamo and Sivasara were enjoying barbecues at the beach, Cosmos Cricket Club was battling with West Vancouver for victory in a 45-over Lower Mainland Division 3 game. The match, taking place at the Brockton Oval in Stanley Park, was attentively watched by a dedicated cohort of wives, children and friends.

But for Cosmos all-rounder Gurbirinder Singh Sidhu, a resident of Surrey originally hailing from the Punjab province of India, the result of the match wasn’t the most important part of the day.

“We play cricket more as a family thing. As well as a fixture, it’s an important gathering and picnic for us. On days like today the kids can freely come and go, biking around the park and the seawall or watching the game,” says Sidhu.

For Sidhu, the chance to play for the Cosmos, a club made up almost entirely of ethnic Indians residing in Burnaby, Surrey and Abbotsford, is an opportunity to reconnect with the homeland he left eighteen years ago.

“In India, kids play cricket on almost every street. You’re born, and immediately start playing cricket there,” he says.

While affording Indian émigrés a link to their past, cricket matches have also solidified the cultural identity of second- and third-generation Indian-Canadians. Attending Cosmos games has given Sandy Bhammie, wife of team captain Dharmjit Bhammie, a chance to immerse herself in an aspect of her Indian heritage that she completely missed growing up in Vancouver.

“I didn’t know much about it until I met my husband two years ago and now I go to every match. I love cricket!” she exclaims.

Public spaces, from parks to beaches to community centres, are a key part of the framework that holds together multicultural Vancouver. They provide a stage and a sanctuary, a link to the past and a chance to project that past onto a new audience.