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We are sitting in the backyard of a row-house he shares with three other students in Vancouver’s Strathcona district. One of the city’s last neighbourhoods to be gentrified, Strathcona’s slightly dilapidated turn-of-the-century homes sit on the edge of the infamous Lower Eastside. As we talk, bums cruise the back lane checking out the garbage cans for recyclable treasures. Johnny watches me watching the bums. He smiles. Traditionally an enclave of working class folk, Strathcona has morphed into something of an artist’s hangout over the last decade. But however it’s considered now, it’s still a long way (physically, socially, emotionally) from the Burgess family home on Whistler’s Westside road.
“I was always fascinated by the city,” he explains. “Since I can remember. Coming to Vancouver was illustrious. I’d get so excited. I used to just walk around and explore things. I mean, Whistler is so young, it has very little history. In contrast, Vancouver has a long and interesting story. And I was pretty keen to find the city’s hidden treasures.” He pauses for a moment. Smiles again. “That excitement has worn off a little now — I know the city too well. Still…”
It was on such an exploratory trip that Johnny “discovered” Strathcona. “I first came here to visit a friend,” he recounts, “and I was blown away by the vibrancy of the neighbourhood — the colour and texture of the houses even. I was also attracted to the crowd that was living here at the time. They were a little older than me, but they seemed to share my interests — art, skateboarding, living creatively. I felt comfortable here right away.”
He laughs. “It’s pretty strange doing the back and forth thing between Whistler and Strathcona,” he says. “You get used to something so quickly. And then you go home and realize just how different your life has become. You know, like going from an inner city neighbourhood with all its mix of people and styles to a place…” He hesitates. Laughs again. “To a place where everyone is so good-looking.”
So what about Whistler? Born and raised here, educated in the local schools, Burgess is another shining example of what the local lifestyle can produce — another young ambassador for this young community. But will he ever come back here to live? “I’m not sure where I’m going to eventually end up,” he says. “Maybe Vancouver, maybe not. But I don’t think I’ll end up in Whistler.”