Views from the Top

I’ve stood on three rooftops in Vancouver, and two of them in this past week. That’s quite a lot considering I just moved to Vancouver about a month ago.

When I studied in London one summer, I took a course called Literature and Place. Our introductory readings included excerpts from French theorist Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, and in particular, his chapter called “Walking in the City.”

Like most French theorists, de Certeau has obscure theoretical concepts for what are actually pretty simple, everyday things. His main distinction was between strategies and tactics and the two groups of people who use them. Governments, institutions, and other dominant power structures are what he calls the producers of strategies. Strategies are ways we are taught to read and interpret the city.

Where there are producers there are consumers, and that includes the rest of us individuals who fight back (consciously or not) against producers’ strategies with tactics.

This all sounds really abstract, but de Certeau breaks it down into some practical examples. Strategies include maps that City planners make to present the city as an organized, unified whole. Buildings also function in this way – particularly skyscrapers or other high-rise towers that offer the visitor or tourist a synoptic view of the city that is easy to digest.

Consumers fight back against these strategies through tactics that can never be fully predicted by the producers. Jaywalking is a tactic because it goes against the official grid that City planners have mapped out—especially in a quintessential grid city like New York. Locals know the shortcuts and the detours. They can cheat the producers. It’s like one big urban battlefield. I think de Certeau’s point (at least an oversimplified version) is that the practice of everyday life in the city involves this tension between producers and consumers.

Strategies are especially effective on tourists. I can speak from example. Whenever I’m in a new city, I seek out high places early on in my trip to give myself a bird’s eye view of the place.

Take New York. I visited the Empire State building on one of my first nights there. In London, there’s the London Eye, whose name even alludes to this panoptic vision of the city. Manchester has one too. In Ottawa, there’s the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. In Toronto, the CN Tower. In France, the Eiffel Tower. All these places are especially marketed for tourists, and I think they work because when you’re new to a place, you’re vulnerable. You often don’t know the language, the customs, or the way around. Seeing the city from above gives you a sense of control, even if it’s illusory. You get a feel for where neighbourhoods are in relation to other neighbourhoods, where landmarks are located, and a sense of the size of things.

But this perspective isn’t the “real” city. The real city is experienced at street level where the consumers have a local knowledge of how to get from A to B, which stores are open and when, what streets to take and which ones to avoid due to traffic, construction, panhandlers, or who knows what reason, and a whole list of other insider information.

I feel like I’m in the transition stage between being a visitor and a local in Vancouver. Standing on two rooftops this week, I was struck by how very different Vancouver is than any other city I’ve lived in or visited. Vancouver is the only one that doesn’t have an open-to-the-public tower or high-rise offering a panoramic view of the city (at least not to my knowledge). Vancouver is so private. We love our million dollar views but we keep them to ourselves.

I would never have stood on the rooftop of the Sheraton Wall Centre in downtown Vancouver this week had I not been part of a launch party for a condo website I write for. The concierge had to swipe a card in the elevator so I could even access the 35th floor. The other rooftops I experienced in Gastown and False Creek South resulted from knowing someone who lives in the buildings.

Needless to say, I don’t take these views for granted, especially since they’re so hard to come by when you’re new to Vancouver. And I’m not going to deny it—I love the view from the top. I may be participating in producers’ strategies by relishing these confidence-boosting vistas but I cannot help but equate rooftops with happiness. There’s something about physical height that simultaneously heightens my spirits. I feel on top of the world.

What’s your strategy/tactic when you visit a new city? Do you seek out high places or do you stick to the streets?

6 thoughts on “Views from the Top

  1. de Certeau has come up in the French philosophy class i’m taking (the Critique of Everyday Life), as has strategies vs tactics. haha SO ABSTRACT. i love these pictures. my favourite place when I lived in hong kong was the top of my residence building. it was 20 some stories up and standing there looking down on the city it felt completely peaceful and calming above all the chaos.

    • ah yes those French theorists crop up everywhere! I didn’t know you lived in Hong Kong! Very cool. Yeah I can imagine the necessity of stepping away from the chaos of a city like that to get some breathing room.

  2. Since I’m a biker and hiker my element is more the streets. If I can’t bring my bike with me, I check if I can rent, and then if not, I walk. Since I grew up in the cities, the shops don’t entice me as much. End love seeking out parks and cafés and sitting there with a book or something and people watch in between. Biking the streets and people watching is how I get a sense of a city.

    • You are a fearless city biker! I remember following you blindly (well, you know what I mean) through the streets of Toronto and being so relieved you knew what you were doing. I need some of your confidence to rub off on me in Vancouver!

  3. Great shots. Vancouver looks absolutely lovely. It gets great write-ups in UK magazines.

    As for my city tactics? I head out for long walks and explore wider areas before heading down twisting streets and stopping in sleepy squares.

    • Yes, Vancouver is a lovely city to live in 🙂 I like your city tactics, starting out broad and then narrowing the focus. London certainly has a lot of twisty streets to get lost in – definitely not a grid city!

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