COLUMN: To the editor of the New York Times
Re: “With Flood of Urbanites, a Canadian Hippie Haven Tries to Keep Its Mellow” (Dec. 11)
Most of your reporter Dan Levin’s story about Nelson is quite good. A few other parts are promising but could use some work, and one small but important part I found really exasperating.
His discussion of Nelson’s housing crisis is accurate. He said he was interested in housing and in the phenomenon of people getting priced out of big cities and then in turn driving up housing prices in the smaller towns they move to, and he delivered.
He did a good job of telling that story succinctly, along with some Nelson history.
But there is more to the story and I would like to give one example.
The article implies that the main reason people move here is that housing prices are cheaper than in bigger cities like Kelowna or Vancouver, and because the lifestyle is simpler. If those were the only reasons, they could move instead to the nearby similar-sized cities of Castlegar or Trail, where housing is much cheaper and more available than in Nelson. And some of them do that. But many seem to insist on Nelson. Why?
The article does not answer this. It paints Nelson as a dreary throwback to some earlier decade, with a few cool shops on the main street.
But actually people are falling all over each other to move here for reasons beyond economics — just ask any real estate agent. And many established residents, young and old, make sacrifices to stay here. As one man I interviewed about this said (10 years ago now, none of this is as new as Levin portrayed), “There are PhDs waiting tables in Nelson.”
There are many young families here. They move here, or stay here, because we have the things young families want: a vibrant cultural life, a variety of education options for themselves and their children, a diversity of health care options, a diversity of different kinds of people (interests, backgrounds, occupations, orientations), relatively open local government with no old boys clubs, a clean environment, a feeling of safety, and an entrepreneurial mindset where new ideas are valued.
Nelson is known as a great place to raise kids because of the extraordinary quantity and quality of options in both sports and the arts.
You’d have to go to a big city to match the calibre of people in Nelson teaching our kids music, theatre, dance, gymnastics and soccer, both in and outside the schools. One of the things the town is known for is the number of young people who head off to colleges and universities across the country to study performing arts after high school.
That’s all fine, but what about the people who can’t afford these things? Some of them move to nearby cheaper towns or further. Others scrape by.
A few end up in the homeless shelter, as Levin’s article said. His conclusions about the effects of gentrification are sadly correct.
The kinds of things I have talked about here, certain aspects of the depth of this community, are missed in Levin’s article probably because he was not here long enough to figure them out. Or maybe he didn’t see them because he got distracted by a stereotype we in Nelson are all too familiar with.
Typically, as soon as visiting journalists glimpse one person on the street who looks a little non-mainstream, they go berserk.
Hypnotized by hippies, pot, and the incorrect assumption that Nelson did not exist before the draft dodgers came in the 70s, they forget much of what they learned in journalism school. Whether their reporting assignment was to write about skiing, housing, or education, they just can’t help putting hippies in the headline, throwing in clever little jokes about weed, and saying “laid back” and “mellow” a lot.
Yes, we have hippies (whatever that word means, I mean really….) in Nelson but they are just one small part of a mosaic. They are one healthy indication of the kind of diversity you don’t find in other towns. (I am not including homeless people. There is nothing healthy about that.)
When he was here, I alerted Levin to this trap. He seemed to get it. So imagine my disappointment when I saw the main photo, the headline and the first sentence of the article. (The first word in the article is “marijuana.”)
To give him some credit, I’m thinking that perhaps, because of the way newsrooms work, he had no control over those things.
I would rather have seen a photo of a mountain biker, a choir, a DJ on a festival stage, a yoga teacher, a timber frame carpenter, or a scientist (we have a nuclear medicine physicist here in this town of 10,000 who employs half a dozen people and whose main client is a hospital in Tokyo).
We are well known outside the area for these things. But you have to look (not far) beneath the surface.