Welcome to Vancooler Washington

Energized downtown leads way in suppressing 'Vantucky' tag

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter



Cool in the Couv

Vancouver's shoulder may be semipermanently chipped, but we've been singled out by clever number crunchers for numerous noteworthy accomplishments nonetheless. We always take these rankings with a hypertensively huge pile of salt — but here's a sample of how our cool has been celebrated on the national stage:

So cool

• Great park: Esther Short Park was named one of 2013's Ten Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association, which called it "the gold standard in terms of having a true sense of place, cultural and historical interest, community involvement, and a vision for tomorrow."

• Fun run: The Vancouver USA Marathon is one of the top nine new marathons, according to Runner's World magazine.

• Livable: Vancouver was ranked No. 96 on Livability.com's list of best places to live — out of 1,700 small and midsized cities — and No. 10 on the list of best "staycation" cities for local historical and sightseeing opportunities.

• Young readers: No. 2 library for children, according to Livability.com, which calls our new downtown library "a sensory treat" and "magical."

• Adult readers: "Fifty Shades of Grey" is set partially on the campus of Washington State University Vancouver.n Readers: Fourteenth-best-read city, according to Amazon in 2013.

• Oh baby: 11th-most-romantic city, according to a 2011 rating by Amazon.com, which measured per capita sales of romance novels and relationship books, romantic comedy movies, Barry White albums and sexual wellness products.

• Pink triangle: The Advocate magazine ranked Vancouver the sixth-gayest city in the nation in 2011. (Gay state Rep. Jim Moeller's immediate doubletake: "Are you sure, Vancouver, Washington?")

Not so cool

• Bad bridge: Each span of the Interstate 5 Bridge independently made Travel+Leisure Magazine's 2013 top-20 list of "America's Most Dangerous Bridges." That's for traffic crashes, not the bridge's durability.

— Scott Hewitt

Hungry for some cosmic consciousness on a September weekend, Portlander Keith Picone ventured north to what he usually called "Vantucky" to check out our 10th annual Peace and Justice Fair.

He found a gleaming green park full of progressive-activist types and a rock band on the stand. When he grew hungry for lunch, the thriving Vancouver Farmers Market was steps away, offering hot meals, fresh produce, strong coffee, nearby wine tasting and still more local tunes.

"I have really changed my mind about Vancouver," Picone said. "It has impressed me more than I would have expected. Downtown is kind of cool, in a limited sort of way."

Hungry for literary adventure on a rainy winter afternoon, a bookish Portlander paused in the lobby of the Vancouver Community Library to take in the spectacle. "You have an amazing library here," she gasped. "Who knew?"

Hey, we knew. We've been watching the city rebuild and revitalize its downtown since the mid-1990s. It hasn't been easy and it hasn't been quick — after a strong start the Great Recession certainly stalled things for awhile — downtown Vancouver is continuing its transformation from a tired and trashy mishmash of leftovers into an inviting node of residences, recreation, food and culture.

Vancouver has long labored under a reputation as laughably uncool — unattractive, unimaginative, unlovable — alongside its smart-yet-mellow, vital-yet-chillin' neighbor to the south. Heck, Portland's brand of quirky cool even generated the affectionate TV parody "Portlandia," masterminded by a "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Fred Armisen and Olympia alt-rocker Carrie Brownstein, superstar hipsters who branded the city the place where young people go to retire.

Meanwhile, alas! We can't even wholeheartedly enjoy our rather cool name because it gets confused with some larger, shinier Canadian city. Thus the periodic suggestion that we become "Fort Vancouver," which would be arguably more historically accurate and would underline our biggest tourist draw.

That argument has come and gone many times. Maybe now it's gone for good, as "Vantucky" has evolved into "The Couve" — the home of a different kind of cool. Smaller and more sincere. More personal and more participatory. Perhaps leveraging our collectively chipped shoulder into some extra team spirit?

"Companies want to locate here, families want to move here, artists want to create here, entrepreneurs want to invest here, and bicyclers can bike here," Mayor Tim Leavitt said. "Ambition, arts and culture, community spirit and inclusiveness make Vancouver cooler now than ever before."

Common cause

"When we first announced our move to neighbors, they immediately assumed we had fallen on hard times and offered words of sympathy," said Michele Wollert, who left Lake Oswego for the Shumway neighborhood 11 years ago.

The reality: "My neighbors are warm and welcoming, well-informed and active in local issues and community organizations. There is a real sense of caring, of helping each other and of preserving the quality of life we enjoy here. I find that inspiring and very, very cool. It is like nothing I have experienced living anywhere else."

"People are concerned about other people. People want to be involved," agreed George Vartanian, who has lived all around the country with wife Nancy; the couple retired first to a condo in rural Ridgefield before bolting for another in Uptown Village. Many evenings these days, George and Nancy can be spotted relaxing at Niche, a downtown wine bar attached to a miniature art gallery and meeting space.

George said downtown belongs to "the coffee clatch type, the barista type. They're still young and finding their ways." At 72, George has already found his way — and just like that hipster crowd, it's all about involvement. He volunteers at the nonprofit Vancouver Food Co-op, a member-owned downtown grocery store, and he recently helped the Kiggins Theatre remove and replace aged auditorium seating.

He only wishes more people would come out to sample the Kiggins' diverse programming — from offbeat films to Nerd Night lectures, from classical concerts to trivia contests. "Downtown is not going to be really cool until we get more activity after hours," he said. "What it is, is inviting, homey, comfortable, friendly. It's coming along."

The "very cool community" rallied around the independent Kiggins Theatre through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, helping score the place a state-of-the-art digital projector — but still, "they turn into pumpkins at 8:30," owner Dan Wyatt said. "Not conducive to the movie business." That's one reason why he's expanding the Kiggins' brand beyond movies, making it a big umbrella for all sorts of cool happenings.

Like the new "Hello Vancouver" talk show. Nothing has filled more Kiggins seats, Wyatt said, and that underscores the community's keen interest in local politics, culture and, ultimately, its sense of self.

"We'll never outcool our neighbor," he said. "But we are friendly and accessible. That is cooler than `being cool.'"


Niche owner Leah Jackson frequently dines at cool spots in Portland and always urges her hosts to be brave and venture north. "I've been cheerleading in Portland for downtown Vancouver for about five years now," she said.

Some wrinkle their noses, she said, but the ones who accept her offer reliably report amazement: "I had no idea" about Vancouver's funky, flavorful downtown restaurants, wine bars and breweries — with easy parking to boot. That's sure cooler than hunting for a space in the clogged-up Pearl.

"We're drawing people from North Portland who find it easier to get up here than go downtown," Wyatt said. "That Kenton crowd has discovered us."

Jackson frankly longs to hear complaints about clogged-up after-hours parking in downtown Vancouver. Meanwhile, she's tickled by customers — and fledgling restaurateurs — who ask if she'd mind "competition."

It's not competition yet, she tells them. It's still a growing scene, and all are welcome to enrich the cool mix.

Politics and economics

Some of our new cool may have been imposed from above — from state population center Seattle, that is, which drove the legalization of same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana in the November 2012 general election.

Opinions diverge vehemently, of course, on whether gay marriage and legal pot are cool at all. The Clark County vote on pot was close, but failed; the vote on gay marriage failed by a wider margin. But lefter-leaning west Vancouver easily carried both initiatives. And there's no denying the nationwide cultural winds blowing in those directions. In both cases Washington state is out in front of Oregon. Last year this newspaper noted the rising tide of gay couples who came north to marry in supercool Vancouver because they couldn't in Oregon.

Other local political and economic developments have definitely attracted the ire of the concerned-about-cool crowd.

"Vancouver is still an underachiever, and in some ways we're losing valuable cool potential with our likely future of authorizing an oil terminal. That's not only uncool, it's scary," said Lynnae Ruttledge, a disability advocate and former state official who lives in Uptown Village.

Several commentators on local cool unhappily mentioned the last year-plus of marked controversy surrounding the Board of Clark County Commissioners. The "collective leadership loss is not cool," Ruttledge said.

"There is a culture … in Uptown Village that is really great," Toby Ford weighed in. "City planning needs to carefully consider bringing in businesses that are redundant, erode the incomes of these family-owned businesses and offer nothing new to the culture downtown."

Car-repair cool

Mel Sanders operated Cover to Cover Books in Uptown Village until a fire closed the building and chased the store out to an industrial West Minnehaha storefront. "We missed the Uptown Village neighborhood arts vibe and foot traffic immediately," she said. "And yet we met a whole different clientele on St. James in Minnehaha."

Her door is always open to customers of the many car-repair shops that surround her. They didn't mean to buy books, she said, but sometimes they wander in and do.

More to the point, she said, the "literary community has followed us. We've met, hosted, launched and supported many local authors in the last four years." With seating for 35, she said, Cover to Cover's monthly poetry readings are standing room only.

Those poetry readings are hosted by Christopher Luna, who was recently named Clark County's first poet laureate. Luna moved to Vancouver from New York City in 2003 and nicknamed his new home "Ghost Town" for its spookily empty streets, he said. But partially due to the organizing efforts of people like Jackson and himself, he said, "the arts community has really come together. There is much more collaboration, and the creative people in different media know one another."

Earlier this month, the Vancouver City Council declared downtown Vancouver a pedestrian-oriented arts district.

"Living in such close proximity to a thriving, influential city can't help but give one an inferiority complex. I am very proud that the poets and artists in Vancouver can now say that we don't need Portland. What we have going on over here is equally as exciting as anything on the other side of the river," Sanders said.

"Our poets don't call it Vantucky, by the way," Sanders added. "They call it The Couve. Because The Couve is cool."