I remember vividly apartment hunting in New Westminster. It was the fall of 2006, I was fresh out of grad school and had just lucked into a dream job in downtown Vancouver. But I was decidedly not a downtown Vancouver person – it’s frenetic energy and prohibitive rent was not practical. I needed a place far enough away so I could leave work to recharge, with bonus points for affordability, transit access and walkability. New Westminster fit the bill perfectly.
My parents, and then-fiancé, presently known as Envirospouse, walked with me around the Columbia Skytrain station. We walked on the grassy boulevards, and came upon two tall high-rises. The buildings were concrete and when we tried the phone number, the manager, a gentleman named Rob, was still in. I jumped up and down ecstatically, while Envirospouse… whacked his shoe against a telephone pole.
Envirospouse had stepped in something fresh, just as my call to Rob had gone through. After he whacked out most of the detritus stuck on the soles of his skater shoes (how young we were! We wore skater shoes!), he informed me this was a good omen. Like when birds leave you a gift on your shoulder, I had been blessed with dog doo.
Minutes later, we were sitting in Rob’s office. He was working through a standard series of questions. I had my nerdy Tina Fey glasses on. I remember he asked me quite seriously if I smoked. I looked at him, eye contact not wavering, “it’s a filthy habit”. He snorted, asked me to fax over a confirmation of employment, and there we were.
The distance between my apartment and the skytrain was a mere 0.707 km. I mapped it. I clocked it. I never ran it, as I used to carry my whole life in my messenger bag. Flash lights, cell phone, keys, a sewing kit, a first aid kit, some powder, an old eye liner, lip balm, a wallet, a notebook, a fancy pen, a water proof pen, three hats, something to read, something to eat, and a watch-maker-sized tool kit (in case the Tina Fey glasses took a hit). One rainy day as I was hiking up the hill on Fourth, I realized that not one but two community buses went right by our apartment. Soon, I was zipping home on those buses.
I have such fond memories of the community bus drivers. They encapsulated all the things I love about New Westminster. They didn’t know me by name, but they knew all my habits. They knew when I’d worked late, and sympathized about the never-ending rain. They waited longer at the stops on snowy days, when tackling the hill appeared foolhardy. They nudged the bus slightly closer to the curb when I was carrying groceries home from 6th and 6th. They even ribbed Envirospouse when he was guiltily bringing home flowers, or wearing his big red parka (which is hideous, and he still wears it so if you see a friendly bearded man in ancient red parka with his children at Hume park, please say hello).
We lived in that apartment for almost 7 years. The last of those years, we started looking around and wondering if/how we could raise a family there. I had this inkling that the care of a newborn required an ensuite washer and dryer. And maybe a spot to put the child in. Envirospouse wanted a yard to plant fruit trees, (he was having a community gardening adventure that you can ask him about), and so, we started house-hunting for a permanent address.
Initially we looked on both sides of the Fraser River. Then we moved over to just this side of the river. We circled spots in Burnaby, in Coquitlam; we balked at Port Moody and Port Coquitlam as this whole time, we didn’t even have a car so going so far away from the Skytrain was lunacy to our minds. I counted that we saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 places (Envirospouse claims it was less), and the first place we both agreed on was in Sapperton.
Oh Sapperton. It was the intersection of all our interests. I barely remember examining the insides of the place, but just by virtue of the neighborhood’s atmosphere, felt like we’d hit the jackpot. I swear the neighbors smiled as we walked to the front door. Envirospouse admired the back yard and the wood stove at the heart of the house. The street was a designated bike route. Two skytrain stations and two parks were within walking distance. A Thrifty’s was nearby, and quaint store fronts, including a bakery, were a few streets over. An enormous cherry tree shaded us as we stood outside drinking it all in.
When we moved in, the charm of the area kept on coming. One of the neighbours ran over and invited me to a get-together they were planning on for the next evening. Another neighbour offered us a fresh strawberry smoothie as we sweltered while unloading the truck. At the end of the day, when we’d gotten everything in the house, we sat down and breathed it in.
Sapperton anchors me to New Westminster. It’s tree-lined streets, friendly neighbourhoods and accessibility has tamed wild wanderers like me. So many of us are part of a diaspora, walkers from different cities and countries, looking for a place to belong to, looking for that feeling that you get when it’s pouring out and you walk inside and the house smells like the best pasta you have yet to eat, and your partner helps you out of your raincoat while seamlessly handing you a steaming plate, as you shrug off your boots and hang your umbrella up. That feeling of comfort, of homecoming, of warmth, of belonging, that’s what New Westminster is to me.
It’s been ten years Royal City, and I never want to leave.