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The Cost of Forgetting

lessons from Canada’s “worst” neighbourhood


A Night at the Theatre

Even this close to downtown, the buildings are small. This landscape is from a time when bustling city centres were not synonymous with glass towers, live-work studios and lifestyle marketing. Tonight I am surrounded by wood-shingled houses and brick or concrete four-story apartments glowing under the rain and street lights. I am walking through Canada’s “worst” neighbourhood, our poorest postal code, North America’s largest open drug market, on my way to the theatre.

Soon, I am sitting on red metal bleachers in a school gymnasium, singing along with 250 other voices. This is not why we are here. It is just a way to keep us occupied while actors tie laces on costumes, arrange plastic bags in a shopping cart and re-adjust someone’s kimono. We are here to see In the Heart of a City, a play by and about Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood. It is the result of a year-long effort by residents to reclaim their community’s stories with the support of the Carnegie Community Centre and a few professional directors and writers. Tonight we are here to be told tales different from the ones we know, tales that do not focus on “drug-infested alleys” and “the walking wounded.”

The community’s efforts have packed the house since the show opened, but these volunteers are not the first to recognize that change on the ground needs to begin with the attitudes of those who walk it. Thirty years ago, the Downtown Eastside Resident’s Association (DERA) launched another effort to shift perceptions of the neighbourhood. One of the young organization’s first acts renamed the area, derisively known as Skid Road, to its official and now infamous title, the Downtown Eastside.

Downtown Eastside’s Forgotten Legacy

Although it is rarely discussed in the media, both the name change and the play belong to a history of community activism, one proudly presented in the recent performances. There are the unemployed workers who occupied the top floor of the Carnegie museum in 1935 to protest unemployment. There are the mothers of the Raymur Housing Complex who, in 1971, sat on the train tracks that ran through their neighbourhood until the rail company promised to build an overpass for their kids. And today there are tent cities raised to protest welfare reforms and a lack of social housing, and to provide a source of community for the homeless population. As Vancouver’s original town site and long-time home of labourers and new immigrants, Downtown Eastside residents have fought for over one hundred years to maintain the integrity of their voices and bring recognition to their concerns, as they claim this neighbourhood and its future as their own.

In some ways DERA succeeded in its efforts to raise the neighbourhood’s profile. Today the Downtown Eastside is better known than ever. So popular it can be hard to find, submerged beneath the gallons of ink spilled in describing the details of its faults and its road to recovery. With so much attention, governments at all levels have mobilized to change the neighbourhood once again through a process known as “revitalization.”

“Renovation” Plans

The Vancouver Agreement, signed in 2000, places the Downtown Eastside under the spotlight of Vancouver’s development efforts, uniting all three levels of government toward the revitalization goal. After an initial commitment of approximately $13.9 million, provincial and federal governments announced another $20-million investment in April, 2003. The Vancouver Agreement unifies a labyrinth of strategies, action plans, capacity studies, reports, initiatives and partnerships. Within this maze are tactics like the Four Pillars harm-reduction program, economic plans to attract “legitimate business” to the area, heritage-building preservation incentives, community economic development, street-level beautification, an affordable housing strategy and community policing.

Many, however, question whether these efforts will bring empowerment and dignity to Downtown Eastside residents, or quietly remove them, their histories of resistance and the strong communities they have formed.

Common concerns about revitalization claim it is gentrification in a nicer package. In the end, both displace long-time, low-income residents with those able to shop at expensive stores and pay higher rents. One of the largest concerns about revitalization lies in the term itself. According to community researcher Jeff Sommers, “Revitalization implies that whatever is going on is not vital already.” This approach assumes the neighbourhood is inherently flawed, missing the necessary conditions for a good community.

The Community Centre

For Muggs Sigeurgeirson, this characterization does not apply to her neighbourhood. Sigeurgeirson has lived in the area for 27 years and sat on the board of the Carnegie Community Centre for 17. She speaks passionately about the centre and the Downtown Eastside population it serves. “My problem is remembering to leave the neighbourhood,” she says. As we tour the hundred-year-old stone building, she lists Carnegie’s accomplishments like a proud parent.

On the top floor is the learning centre, which recently won a national literacy award, and provides support ranging from computer skills to basic reading and math. Across the hall is a smaller room that holds quiet events like Chinese calligraphy and yoga classes. Everything, she boasts, “is so well used” and, she adds, “it’s free.” The Carnegie is the only community centre in the city where nothing, except the concession’s food, is bought or sold – no payment for classes, not even a pop machine. It is also the only community centre in North America open every day of the year. On Christmas, they stay open 24 hours.

The scent of coffee and eggs greets us as we come through the doors to the second floor. The concession, where Sigeurgeirson will be volunteering this afternoon, charges only $1.75 per meal. Volunteers can also buy breakfast, lunch, or dinner using four of the eight tickets they receive for a four-hour shift. This is vital, according to Sigeurgeirson, with so many residents on social assistance or pensions. The extra meals of healthy food make the month go by with less hunger and stress.

The Carnegie Centre is at an intersection that has been described as the Downtown Eastside’s “ground zero,” the notorious Main and Hastings, the centre of Vancouver’s “drug ghetto.” But if it sits in the vortex of such a decimated area, why is the Centre one of the most well used in the City? Their public-library reading room is the busiest one in Vancouver and the Carnegie Centre’s volunteer program is recognized as one of the best in Canada. Three to four hundred volunteers keep the three floors of programs, resources and food concession running, and the Centre sees 1,800 to 2,000 visitors a day. Sigeurgeirson tells me throughout our tour that the Centre exists because the neighbourhood is dedicated, involved. They make not just the day-to-day operation, but events like the community play, possible.

Sigeurgeirson believes the poverty and hardship in the Downtown Eastside make the community stronger, not weaker. “Low-income people learn to help each other,” she says. “The basic history [of the neighbourhood] is coming from industrial workers and trade unionists whose response to social problems has been to organize. That is the legacy of the community that taught us to do this stuff.” According to Sigeurgeirson, there is plenty of life here, plenty of things worth saving.

Creation Stories

Popular versions of the Downtown Eastside’s history are straightforward. They describe a bustling neighbourhood, a good kid fallen victim to an unfortunate set of circumstances, the elimination of street-car and ferry services to the area, a decline in the resource-based economy where many residents worked and a shift west in downtown development efforts. They tell of forces that weakened the ability of local businesses to stop a tidal wave of drugs and crime pushing the neighbourhood over the edge, plummeting to its current state.

A study by the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) on the decline of retail stores in the area, points to a more complex situation. According to the report, “the drug trade, often held up as a cause of the decline, may have simply filled a vacuum left by already-retreating retail, only then becoming a factor in the further decline of the street.” The study goes on to point out that, while common theories suggest that retail was unable to survive due to the prevalence of low-income residents, income demographics changed very little in the period between a healthy retail community and the decline.

The CCAP report also highlights often-overlooked contributors from outside the area. Factors like a consumer trend towards “suburban shopping, large malls and big box stores,” displacement in the wake of Expo ‘86 and the de-institutionalization of people with mental illness have all worked to concentrate poverty in the area.

In his dissertation about the neighbourhood, Jeff Sommers links the area’s current state with the gentrification of other areas. The recent renovations of Gastown to an upscale tourist destination shifted residents from affordable hotels and meeting places two blocks up to Hastings Street, now considered the neighbourhood’s main strip. “The City’s police, responding to political pressure exerted by resident groups in gentrifying neighbourhoods around the Central Business District, began relocating the street-drug and sex trades to the Downtown Eastside, thus intensifying the scope and expanding the scale on which those activities took place there,” writes Sommers.

Economic displacement in Kitsilano, Yaletown, Gastown and others have made the Downtown Eastside, according to DERA’s Dale Moseley, the “tail end of a process that has happened all over the city … an outflow of people which flowed into the Downtown Eastside,” one of the last remaining areas in the city with low-income housing. “Problems in the DTES are not created in the DTES,” says Sommers. “[P]eople describe it as the epicentre, but epicentre means the point of origin … the DTES is a place where the problems from the rest of society spill over.”

The Downtown Eastside represents the consequences of our affluence, just as the destructive consequences of political and economic decisions exist in all cities. However, rarely are deep poverty, high rates of homelessness and open drug use as concentrated and as visible as they are here. Sommers and Blomley write in their book, Every Building on 100 West Hastings, that these characteristics “are products of the same forces that induced the proliferation of condo towers, art galleries, restaurants, cafés, nightclubs, townhouses, heritage neighbourhoods, and inner city middle class consumers.”

Yet it is precisely these causes of concentrated poverty, the revitalization tactics of other neighbourhoods, that the City is introducing as solutions. The visioning sketches for the Woodward’s building, a keystone development and symbol in the Downtown Eastside, show sidewalk cafés, art galleries, retail outlets and more than half the housing units at market prices. According to the city, this building represents the revitalization goal, with one hundred units of affordable housing and the rest bringing in more affluent renters. But as Heather Smith points out in her article, “Planning, Policy and Polarization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside,” “the challenge … will be to ensure that any state sponsored revitalization does not pave the way for full scale gentrification and displacement of the neighbourhood’s low income and service dependent populations.”

According to Sommers, it is an impossible challenge. Once revitalization is in full swing, “people not living in publicly funded housing,” he says, “are going to be pushed out.” Even the Real Estate Foundation agrees. According to a 1999 report, between 1995 and 2005 there will be an additional 10,000 market-housing units in the Downtown Eastside, “which will dramatically alter the housing mix throughout the Downtown Eastside and into False Creek causing marked gentrification.” The report goes on to say, “It is expected that, in the long term, redevelopment of Downtown Eastside sites will continue, creating pressure for higher land costs.” The lead-up to the Olympics in 2010 adds an additional force to the market that has already, according the Real Estate Foundation, increased by 200 per cent between 1986 and 1996.

Revitalization may displace more than people. Sigeurgeirson is certain the unique and vibrant community of the Carnegie Centre will disappear if the pressures of gentrification manifest in the Downtown Eastside. “If yuppies moved in en masse they’d take over the board and put in programs that suited their needs,” she says. In Sigeurgeirson’s opinion, the Carnegie Centre plays a pivotal role in the neighbourhood’s community network and its loss would be devastating.

The Woodward’s Squat

Ours is a society that has told citizens directly, through police and political pressures, or indirectly, through rising land and housing costs, that they are not wanted in certain areas. For the displaced and others, the Downtown Eastside has become a place of acceptance that cannot be found elsewhere. Shawn, a housing activist, told me, “I was homeless, from everywhere between here and Québec City, and always felt alienated … when I’m in the Downtown Eastside it feels like I’m accepted here…. I’ve had some extreme behaviour and people still accept me for who I am.”

I met Shawn and four other residents to talk about their participation in last year’s three-month-long occupation of the empty Woodward’s building, now the Downtown Eastside’s symbol of change. Since the Woodward’s department store closed in 1992, the building they left behind has embodied the struggle for the neighbourhood and, in the recent squat, the power of the community to stand together and demand recognition. Concerns and tension about gentrification, loss of affordable housing and community control had been mounting. They burst through the boarded-up windows of the Woodward’s department store in the fall of 2002, when a handful of activists and Downtown Eastside residents launched an occupation of the vacant building.

The Woodward’s building has been both the focus of community pride and the emblem of the Downtown Eastside’s final slip into decay. It has passed through various proposals, from purely private development, to social housing under the provincial NDP, back to potential sale to developers under the provincial Liberals.

The occupation of the building’s interior ended quickly, but the squat continued outside for three months, with an estimated 200 people camped around the perimeter. Squatters maintained political pressure through organization and mutual support. “We had our own infrastructure,” says Jewel, one of the participants. “We had our own soup kitchens set up. We had volunteers ready to run it, control it, keep it working. We had our own security team running.” No matter which questions I asked during our interview, almost everyone wanted to talk about the community they had at the squat, and about ways to get it back.

As a result of the protest, the new city council, dominated by the Coalition of Progressive Electors, bought the building from the provincial government in March, 2003, with promises to use the space to support the interests of Downtown Eastside residents. COPE Councillor Ellen Woodsworth, speaking at a rally, said, “We’re here in support of everyone’s right to affordable housing. We need the province to provide social housing. We need the federal government to fund and help provide social housing and we all need to work together on this – this is a basic human right.” COPE, composed in part by community advocates and activists, promised a radically different approach to the Canada’s most-talked-about neighbourhood.

The COPE solution put the squatters into two Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels in the area. The notorious SROs are rooming houses with tiny units and shared bathrooms. Many involved with the Woodward’s squat believe this was an intentional move to disrupt the bonds and solidarity created during the protest. Intentional or not, that is what happened. Once a force powerful enough to wrest a vacant city block from the hands of the provincial government, those I spoke to say the community of the Woodward’s squat is scattered geographically and fragmented. Jewel wants to start a new squat, giving up the meagre housing she has, to resurrect the solidarity of the Woodward’s squat.

Jewel and the other participants banter and tease each other with the affection of family. There is only a small group of them left. I am worried. If removing the community from the squat ruptured their networks, what will displacing people from the neighbourhood do to the larger bonds and solidarity formed here?

The Question

The Downtown Eastside is full of elements no one wanted in their own neighbourhoods. It is an unlikely place to look for lessons or inspiration. And yet I have seen some things I wish I had more of in my life: solidarity, mutual support and acceptance. If the revitalization efforts are successful, we will likely lose the spaces, the stories and the networks that sustain these qualities.

On the night I saw In the Heart of a City, I bought a program with a poem by Sandy Cameron inside. It includes the phrase: “Memory is the mother of community.” If and when the clothing stores move in, along with the coffee shops and the nice apartments with the excellent, downtown locations, whose memory will we lose? Whose will take its place? While so many talk about what the Downtown Eastside lacks, I want to remind us of what it has. I want to ask, is a community like this something we can afford to forget?

Olive Dempsey lives in Vancouver, writes and makes her living doing communications and publicity work for worthy organizations. She plans to pay off her student loan and change the world before turning 30.

This article appeared in the September/October 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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