Mark Higgens moved to New Westminster from California more than a year and a half ago. Having lived in the West End prior to moving south 17 years ago, he wanted to try a new neighbourhood when he returned to the Lower Mainland. Still, he moved to BC’s oldest city with some misgivings.
Those misgivings quickly evaporated.
“I talked to my friend Hugo about maybe moving downtown just to be around the community and to have more gay things to do at night,” Higgens recalls.
“And he told me not to bother because New West is the new West End. Everyone is moving out there because it’s affordable, it’s clean, it’s nice, and it’s 20 minutes into the city.”
Higgens now lives by New Westminster’s Heritage District. Similar accommodation in Vancouver’s West End would be out of his price range, he says.
“Seeing that I’m kind of older and I work nine to five, it’s quieter and it’s got everything within walking distance,” he says.
Tracey Reader relocated to New West with her partner Patricia and her three children two years ago. She thinks that when all the waterfront development is done, New West will be like a mini-Yaletown or Davie St.
“It’s going to be the place to be,” she predicts, pointing to the revitalization of the River Market at the Quay, the new waterfront park and all the new residential and commercial development along the Fraser River.
“Financially, the West End is out of range for most people, and a lot of gay people are moving in here,” she says.
Reader knows of at least six other lesbian couples who have recently moved into the area. “People can have their own apartments as opposed to sharing a rented house with a roommate from hell,” she says.
Brianna Stusiak moved to New West two years ago for its central location. She works in Surrey and plays a variety of sports in the Lower Mainland.
“There’s getting to be more of a community here,” she says, “but because a lot of things are new, I don’t think people in New West know each other. But it’s moving in the direction of a close-knit community like Commercial Dr.”
Reader says she’s comfortable being openly gay in New West and hasn’t faced any discrimination.
Her neighbours know she’s a lesbian, she says, and their response has been overwhelmingly positive, even asking her to sit on the strata council as vice-president.
Reader owns and operates a restoration business and is in constant contact with local businesspeople, who also know she’s a lesbian. “The people that know me don’t think of me or my partner as gay,” she says. “They see us as individuals and us as a couple.”
With the influx of gays and lesbians, Reader says it’s no surprise that gay social events in New West are beginning to thrive.
Someone in the community is always planning something, she says, adding that she’s becoming a regular at the gay-friendly Heritage Grill and the gay-owned Coming Home Café.
Prior to opening the Heritage Grill, Paul Minhas first looked at downtown, West 4th Ave, Kitsilano and Commercial Dr before he took over his current space on Columbia St in New West. While he had some initial uncertainty about the location, he now says he’s happy he stayed in New West. Last year, he even bought a new high-rise behind the Heritage Grill.
He says he likes the small-town atmosphere and all the diversity between uptown, downtown and Sapperton. New West’s waterfront will also be nice once it’s finally completed, he says.
Last spring, Minhas turned the Heritage Grill’s spacious backroom into a permanent gay space.
“When I built the backroom, some of the people within the gay community asked me if I wanted to do a GIN [Gay in New West] night.”
Minhas thought, “Why not? And it just grew from there. There’s karaoke on the second and fourth Fridays, a G-spot women’s dance party on the third Fridays, and on the third Saturdays, the Amanda Luv drag show.”
Luv launched her show at the Fireside Café in neighbouring Surrey three years ago. But as a regular at the Heritage Grill, she had her eye on its unfinished backroom.
Last May, Luv was thrilled to move her old-school cabaret to New West. Her audience promptly doubled in size.
“It’s a lot more central for people to come to because it’s on the SkyTrain route,” she explains. Her old fans still came to the show while a new crowd soon emerged from the New West and South Burnaby border.
The gay community in New West is much larger than people realize, Luv says. It may seem smaller because the women are more of a house-party crowd that goes out for breakfasts and brunches together, but it’s there.
Luv recently hung up her tiara — not because of any drama, she stresses; only because she needed a break from the responsibilities of putting on a monthly drag cabaret.
But she credits Minhas for the positive changes on Columbia St.
“Paul’s not gay but he welcomes everyone with open arms. Columbia St, a few years ago, was dead. But now you go down there at night, you see lights in the trees and the city’s more pedestrian-friendly,” Luv says. “It’s much more community-based down there, more than it’s ever been.”
Guy Dubé, the owner of the Coming Home Café, says he bought his café on pure instinct four years ago after he noticed a space had become vacant near his home in New West.
He says New West’s reputation for being a scary, conservative place is unwarranted.
“I never felt unsafe and it’s such a nice little town,” says Dubé, who is openly gay. While the population tends to be older, that doesn’t seem to translate into socially conservative views, he notes.
Living and working in New West’s gay community, Dubé confirms its existence. “It’s not a party crowd per se, but if you ask them to a party, they definitely come out.”
Stusiak frequents both The Heritage Grill and The Coming Home Café.
She thinks the Grill’s small backroom is the perfect size for GIN nights. “It gives it a house party feel and makes it easy to meet other people,” she says.
People from the community always drop by when she spends time at the café, she adds.
Stusiak believes more gay venues will emerge in the next few years. The community will get bigger, closer and more organized, she predicts.
Vance McFadyen plans to ask New Westminster’s city council to declare a Pride Day in 2010.
McFadyen believes he will have the support of councillors and the mayor. Councillor Lorrie Williams officiated McFadyen’s marriage tohis partner Curt in 2003, and Mayor Wayne Wright attended the ceremony, McFadyen points out.
McFadyen and his partner have lived in New West since 1986 and have watched the area’s gay community grow. He believes the timing is right to seek a Pride Day proclamation.
He’s not looking for a big event or a Pride parade like the one in Vancouver’s West End, he says. He just wants to celebrate Pride in the city he calls home with a party at the Heritage Grill and a special Luv show.
“I think we should start out small because you can lose support or lose interest if you do too much at once,” he says.
Higgens thinks a Pride Day would be fantastic for New West.
“I think that’s what the town needs — it needs to relax and have some fun,” he says.
Stusiak believes that if New West has its own Pride Day, people will start to realize how many gay people live there.
Dubé thinks it would be fantastic if the mayor acknowledged the gay community as a vital part of New West.
Mayor Wright thinks a Pride Day in New West for 2010 is possible.
“For me personally, I don’t see a problem,” he says in a phone interview. “It will come to our council — the council makes all the decisions — and we’re a very community-minded place, so I don’t think we would have any problems.”
McFadyen plans to bring his request to council on Jan 18.