Strictly Business: Vancouver has tools needed for a revival

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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photoGordon Oliver

In a time long ago, I spent 10 weeks on a cross-country train and bus journey with my wife and our young daughter. Amtrak was in its infancy as a national railroad passenger service created to replace failing private railroads, and the relative comfort of its shiny new cars was offset by the cold, rundown train stations and sometimes unpredictable service.

We traveled north and east to Bar Harbor, Maine, and south to Louisville and Cincinnati. Our itinerary was built around cities on Amtrak’s route, or within a short bus ride, where we had friends who would welcome us into their homes for a few days.

Many of those friends, young and with little money, lived in big-city neighborhoods that were rough, at least around the edges, if not at the core. Those were the places that families had left behind for thriving suburbs that were the destination of choice in the late 1970s.

Today, some of those undesirable city neighborhoods are hot destinations, especially for the young. Chicago’s litter-strewn Uptown district of the 1970s is now a live music hot spot. And Boston’s Back Bay, a community of 19th-century Victorian brownstones, ranks as one of the nation’s top urban neighborhoods.

I thought about those places and the cycle of urban decline and rebirth during a recent visit to the daughter who traveled with us as a toddler on those long train rides. That daughter now lives in the city of Orange, Calif., in a neighborhood designated as a National Historic District. Her century-old Craftsman-style home, a rarity in Southern California, would fit comfortably in many old Portland and Vancouver neighborhoods.

We visited another daughter in Dallas who, like her sister, chose to live in an old neighborhood. Oak Cliff is on the edge of Dallas’ modern, prosperous downtown, and its middle-income neighborhoods give way to some rough territory. But signs of spreading revival are visible in the Bishop Arts District, a small shopping and entertainment district with city-wide recognition; new businesses in long-neglected storefronts; and a new supermarket now under construction to fill an obvious neighborhood need.

Such revivals require a convergence of powerful forces: desirable location, low crime, quality housing, a healthy local economy and good public or private schools. And it often takes a spark to light the fire — threatened demolitions, a determined local historic preservation effort, a new road or transit project that improves access. Then all that’s needed is a change in a community’s psychology. An “arts district” or “historic district” tagline helps. So do street fairs and community events, and enthusiastic residents who share a vision of an exciting future.

Many of those elements are in place in Vancouver. It’s up to this city’s residents, property owners and developers, political leaders, and newcomers to recognize the opportunities for downtown and the surrounding older neighborhoods and to begin putting the pieces together. The changes I’ve seen in urban neighborhoods across the nation have been astounding. They can happen here, and I’d love to watch it unfold.