Over the last many years, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has become the most notorious, but likely the most looked at place in the country. Its ‘sin city’ stereotype, the public’s (or is it reporters’?) fascination with depictions of open drug use and exotic behaviors, plus the trial of the most prolific serial murderer in Canadian history, placed the neighborhood in an unfortunate national spotlight. But locally, Vancouverites are coming to understand the neighborhood. Exit polls for the November 2008 Vancouver civic election revealed that homelessness – endemic in the Downtown Eastside – was the number one issue for the majority of Vancouver’s voters. This website is intended to help the population of the city and anyone else interested become better acquainted with the neighborhood and its residents.
A personal relationship:
I came to know Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood in 1999 when I began working on a long-term academic research project on women’s health and housing. (I am a professor of film and women’s studies at Simon Fraser University.) I was the research team’s videographer, but I soon came to understand that the neighborhood did not need yet another camera – they had been ‘videoed to death.’ So I taught a video-making workshop at the Women’s Centre, jokingly proposing that they might want to make a film about the upscale Shaughnessy neighborhood since Shaughnessy came down to film them. But the group had ideas of their own. They wanted to film street art and to talk about a day in the life of a woman on welfare – run off her feet while all those with authority around her assume she’s lazy with nothing to do.
In 2006 I was awarded a 3-year SSHRC project grant for my work in the Downtown Eastside. I wanted to follow up on the people I had interviewed three years earlier. Participating again in the neighborhood, I was astounded by recent changes brought about by gentrification.
I must say that I like the Downtown Eastside. I enjoy the neighborhood’s refreshing candor and its acutely accurate nose for bullshit. Not everyone there is made from the same mold. One cannot ’not fit in’ in the Downtown Eastside, and this is not just the result of poverty. Surrey, to the South, has Greater Vancouver’s other poor neighborhood with the same attendant problems of drug addiction, prostitution and homelessness. But Surrey is much less of a neighborhood. In contrast, the Downtown Eastside has discernible boundaries, community-focused landmarks, a feisty history, and colourful activism. Here, groups such as VANDU – the Vancouver Area Network of Drugs Users – can be seen leading Chinatown children on pony rides during the Blood Alley fair, and an earnest (and effective) Pivot Legal Society loudly defends activists conducting live-ins and occupations of abandoned buildings adorned with yellow daisies on the hoarding. The arts flourish here in a way that puts most urban cultural programs to shame.
Located just east of the downtown core, the Downtown Eastside is prime real estate. Its name – the Downtown Eastside – dates from the 1970s and a period of neighborhood political activism. Before then it had been referred to as the ‘skids’ or skid row. By the 1970s the neighborhood had deteriorated, but it had not been spiffy for a long time. Logging was the main industry of the area since the city’s founding. Woodward’s – the famed department store that most Vancouverites remember nostalgically for its Christmas displays and tearoom – was the commercial centre. But surrounding Woodward’s were cheap hotels, each with its own tavern. Hotels housed the forest industry’s workers, returning home from the job with a pocketful of cash to spend on booze and a good time. Narratives of the neighbourhood compete because what is at stake is who must go and who gets to take over.
This neighborhood bustles. Everyone seems to be running to get somewhere. Traffic lights and cross walks are ignored. On sidewalks, people engage in street conversations that give the impression of a small town. Yet among the buildings are institutions particular to the neighborhood: Insite, Canada’s first safe injection site; and the Carnegie Centre – the community centre that is the ‘heart of the community’. No drugs are allowed in the Carnegie centre. Anyone feels safe to hang out there, to enjoy the library or a game of chess, or work out in the gym. Healthy and cheap meals are served up by volunteers. I was surprised to discover that every doctor I know volunteers time in the Downtown Eastside. Sheway caters to pregnant sex workers. The Portland Hotel Society that maintains rooms for the most difficult to house employs a full time doctor. His stories offer insight on the community.
Visions for the Future:
Now gentrification is grinding eastward. Buildings that formerly housed the poor in SROs (Single Room Occupancy) stand boarded up as owners wait for building permits and multiple returns on their investments. In opposition are activists and artists. Seemingly, the whole community participates and performs in events staged by the Moving Theatre company. Today, city council attempts to offer a helping hand. Vision Vancouver took City Hall in November 2010, its earlier partner, COPE (The Committee of Progressive Electors), and its usual opposition, the NPA (a party formed in the 1930s to hold back the ‘communists’ from power) all but eliminated from office. City Hall is even-handed in its approach, but even-handedness is not likely to preserve the neighborhood in its current form.
In the context of my work:
The website “Women in a Changing Downtown Eastside” (http://womendtes.com/) brings together much of my media work over the last decade. Here, the viewer will find my first films on the neighborhood – Building Bridge: A Housing Project for Women (2003), Health and Home: August Mini Research Project (2001), and several in depth interviews with Bridge Housing (now Woodward’s housing) resident, Irene Thomas, as well as videos about neighborhood institutions.
Media is the stepping off point to enter this website and getting to understand the neighborhood and its issues both experientially and academically. One view leads to another through hyperlinks and referrals. Here, one can explore the issues of addiction, poverty, racism, and the search for solutions – all are linked and available together on the website.
Resources included or linked suit all from the idly curious to the serious academic researcher. Those afraid to venture in the neighborhood can take a web tour via our “mapping project” and get to know the neighborhood without leaving the familiar comfort of their computer screen.
A number of people contributed to constructing this website – from the sympathetic student researcher to researcher-members of the Downtown Eastside community. I am grateful to all for their enthusiastic participation.