Transforming Kelowna

“Fruitful in Unity.” – City of Kelowna motto

Kelowna1So now it’s Kelowna, British Columbia, a city of 117,312, just as familiar as Montreal but with a whole different hue. It’s not a city I’ve conquered myself, nor even sought to. My Dad moved here over 10 years ago, as part of a slowly unfolding retirement plan that now has him and his wife, my stepmother, snowbirding to Arizona every winter. In both zones, he purchased a home in what I affectionately call a “golf ghetto”—gated neighbourhoods that exist primarily to keep the rest of the world out, but secondarily to allow its residents to basically roll out of bed and tee up.

But R doesn’t golf much any more—it always caused as much frustration as fulfillment, and shortly after he shot his first and only hole-in-one a few years back, he’s eased off the game in favour of something called “pickleball” (more about that soon, no doubt). I can relate. If I ever win the Governor General’s Award, I’ll probably quit writing plays; and if there were such a thing as a gated arts community, I’d probably move in, and then spend my late years begrudging all the young talent surrounding me—their energy, their inspiration, their fearlessness, the way they make it all look so easy.

Kelowna is a city with the same generational tension set right into its foundations. On the east bank of the Okanagan River in the heart of orchard country, Kelowna serves millions of tourists each summer, and hires nearly as many fruit pickers. This influx of youth—spending money on parasailing or whatever, and also earning minimum wage picking cherries—sustains Kelowna’s economy, but it seems to irritate the locals, most of whom share my father’s demographics, ie. white, married retirees in higher tax brackets.

And who can blame them? The B.C. Interior has one of the most pleasant climates in Canada. It’s gorgeous here, and if you drink wine, you’ve got most of the country’s best vineyards at your doorstep. The arts scene looks typical for a city its size, but even if there were no theatres within 1,000 km, I’d still be tempted by the prospect of spending my sunset years out here. I don’t like beaches or golf, but I’d hike until my knees gave out, and every bend in the path would provide a breathtaking new vista. I might even take up “pickleball.”

And yet. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in a fair amount of Canadian cities. My rule of thumb is, give any new city a week, and it will start to reveal its hidden treasures. (Toronto took two, but trust me, haters, there are things to love under its scabby surface.) I’ve fallen in love with the most incongruous spots—even Winnipeg at the height of mosquito season. And yet. Kelowna. Sigh.

Kelowna2A study in 2007 awarded Kelowna the highest in Canada for car dependency, with the second-highest carbon footprint for road transportation. Highway 97, one of the busiest highways in B.C., plows straight through the city centre, cheerfully renaming itself Harvey Avenue before making a hairpin turn a few feet from the lake, and then spanning the water with the five-land Bennett Bridge before committing the same infrastructural blasphemies upon several communities and a native reserve on the west bank. Harvey Avenue is identical to the landing strip of every other Canadian city: gas stations, box stores, strip malls, and bumper-to-bumper traffic. But it also has stop lights every two blocks, because you have to cross it if you want to get from anywhere to anywhere.

On either side of Exhaust-Fume Gorge, the city is a perplexing mish-mash of residential and commercial, office block and promenade, shady playground space and sun-baked parking lot. There are even some areas within the city limits still dedicated to farming, though I wouldn’t want to eat anything that came from that soil. There are very few high-rises, and while this might help to maintain clear vistas for the retirees, it’s actually a huge problem in one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada. The city limits are tightly constrained by nature itself, what with the huge lake on one side, and the wildfire-prone Rocky Mountain foothills everywhere else. Kelowna is physically tiny, yet somehow manages to pack more urban sprawl into its real estate than most of Vancouver.

So, fine. You do what R did, buy a house in the hills for half a million dollars, and then you only drive into town as needed, to forage for supplies. You defend your neck of the woods tooth and nail, to ensure that the city doesn’t expand in your direction. You minimize your contact with the migrant population, because they are boisterous and weird and leave behind messes that your tax dollars clean up. And when your urbane son comes for a visit and asks you to recommend a good coffee shop, you hand him the “key” to the Nissan (it’s actually just a fob, and the car starts when you push a button) and wish him godspeed.

I’m being unfair, of course. Not all cities are designed with a meandering observer in mind. But, as an observer, my advice to anyone who wants to come to Kelowna is: make sure you come here with a purpose and a plan, even if that plan is “to retire.” If you’re going somewhere just to be there, keep looking.

Today I got my head shaved by a woman who’s lived in Kelowna her entire life. I asked her what has kept her here. I was expecting an answer involving nature—beaches, trails, whatever—but after thinking for awhile, she shrugged and said, “My family’s here.” And I smiled ruefully, because—guess what? So’s mine.

What city or place have you had to learn to love, in spite of itself?

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