The first thing I’d notice, the first thing signaling arrival in the stretch of Hastings street between Abbott and Main that comprised the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, was always the smell. It usually was a vague combination of industrial cleaning products, cheap native cigarettes, urine and stale, dirty clothing. Or maybe (aside from the unmistakable urine) that’s just what my brain associated from the collage of sensory information that made that part of the city so distinct from the rest.
The second distinction that becomes clear is the people. It’s not a categorical thing, like you would expect. Not as much about style of dress, or age, or racial demographics, or the various details of presentation that signify class or occupation, though all those things are certainly present in the information once you get past the immediate sense of difference. It’s mostly about movement.
There are some people standing, waiting, conducting their business (street dealers primarily work in teams of at least three: one holds the drugs and makes the actual exchange, one approaches the customers, negotiates deals and operates as the more charismatic “face” of the transaction, and one “keeps six”, watches for police and alerts the others if things get dodgy). Some people are lost in a drug daze, often twitching in a distinct and, once learning it, quite recognizable pattern of movements sometimes called the “Hastings Street Shuffle”. Some people are scanning the others, trying to find a score. Some people move slowly up and down the alleys with carts full of bottles, looking for more, that will eventually be exchanged for cash at the recycling center with which they can get another score and, if there’s enough left, a little bit of food from one of the pizza shops or bodegas that line Hastings on street level beneath the Single-Occupancy hotels, or the McDonald’s around the corner at International Village, on the edge of Chinatown. Some are hunched over and broken, in obvious pain from untreated illnesses or disabilities, or simply withdrawal, but who don’t seem to have anywhere in particular to go and rest.
There are lots of different kinds of movement amongst the people that comprise the Downtown Eastside. But what’s predominantly missing from those movements is what’s most telling. What you don’t see is the purposeful, directed stride that characterizes the pedestrians and busy commuters of the downtown core. The “I have somewhere I need to be” kind of posture and gate that guides the crowds down Granville or Robson as an efficient, forward stream of human lives. The thing is, the people of the Downtown Eastside don’t really have somewhere to be. If they did, it wouldn’t be there.
The DTES is, instead, where people end up.
This is a population defined by loss. In the time that my own life became intertwined with that of the DTES, I came to know these stories a lot more intimately than most people do. Neighbourhoods like this exist by the process of people being shunted out of other peoples’ lives and view, quite literally marginalized, with places like East Hastings functioning as the margins. In hearing those stories, I knew that for many people there, there really wasn’t any hope left. Nowhere left to go. The substances they were pursuing were often in a very real sense the only way some of them had left of finding any sense of comfort or joy or peace, and I stopped being able to understand how people begrudge them that when it’s their own systems that deny them everything else. The DTES was comprised primarily of people who’d seen the absolute worst life could offer. And it can offer some pretty unspeakable things.
Just as the DTES can reflect the worst of life, though, it also showed me some of the best of people.
A little clarification: the DTES is not simply a “bad neighbourhood”. It is, in fact, the worst and most condensed example of intense urban poverty and desperation in Canada, and possibly North America. Rates of HIV transmission are comparable to the African “third world”. Drugs and sex are openly bought and sold in open-air street markets, operating 24/7. The alleys are littered with used rigs and condoms and crack pipes. Theft is not only commonplace, but expected to the point that a sort of general, laissez-faire forgiveness is offered in the event that you make the mistake of giving someone a chance to steal from you. Fights will often break out quite openly. Arrests and overdoses are common. There’s a sort of tide of the crowds in response to the passing beat cops on their routine strolls.
It is not, however, particularly dangerous.
Not unless you do something ridiculously naive like start taking pictures of people. At heart, the people of the neighbourhood have their own issues to deal with, and they aren’t particularly eager to create any trouble. They want, more or less, to just be left alone, and if you can offer them that, and don’t make yourself an obviously exploitable target, you’ll be afforded the same courtesy (give or take a little sexual harassment, or the periodic transphobic remark… which is not, I might add, particularly worse in my experience than the similarly sexist or cissexist treatment I’ve received in Vancouver’s “good neighbourhoods” like Kitsilano).
But more than this basic sense of mutual respect for one another’s desire to be left be, the DTES also conceals a great deal of compassion, dignity, grace and a strong tradition of community activism. People in these circumstances do their best to offer help to each other in so far as they’re able. Overdoses, for instance, are routinely reported to the nurses who are available in various clinics or centers throughout the neighbourhood. Organizations like the Vancouver Area Network Of Drug Users, or The Downtown Eastside Women’s Center, are numerous and represent strong communal bonds. People will offer comfort to one another during a crisis if it seems wanted. They’ll share extra food or sterile gear. There’s a certain former sex worker who now walks the area handing out free safe-sex kits. The DTES is home to North America’s first (and presently only) safe injection site, InSite, as well as having been home to the NAOMI pilot project, a study on the possible community health benefits of legally distributed (though controlled) heroin. A “red light alert” is posted every week or two in public spaces like InSite, where sex workers share information on dangerous, violent, unpaying, boundary-violating or otherwise bad tricks. I myself was briefly a literacy tutor with the “life skills” classes held at the Carnegie Center. And the DTES even has its own real-life “superhero” in the form of Thanatos, an anonymous man dressed in a “death” costume who hands out sandwiches, warm socks, information for social services and shelters, etc.
A person passed out in an alleyway off Hastings will probably be asked if she’s okay within five or so minutes. I cannot confidently say the same of Robson street.
It’s these kinds of things that make me feel good about human beings, in contrast to the sense of anger and disgust I feel over the existence of such poverty in the first place. In the Downtown Eastside, human compassion and community emerged in proportion to the need. That is why, despite one of the worst chapters of my life having been written on that stretch of Hasting Street, I will always deeply love the neighbourhood, and what it represents to me will always be more positive than dark.
It’s also why I’m terrified of what that community is presently facing. It’s what those who, from a distance, wishing to buy, sell, or “solve” the neighbourhood, fail to understand about it. Why there are incredible mistakes just begging to be made.
Geographically speaking, what we think of when we describe The Downtown Eastside, in terms of “Canada’s poorest postal code”, we’re speaking of a very narrow strip that runs along Hastings St. through the larger eastern area of downtown before petering out past main street. It’s part of the older portion of the city, and functioned as its “skid row” for a long time, due to the numerous Single Occupancy Hotels that housed migrant labourers…loggers, primarily…that still define this particular stretch of road as the most functional destination for those who’ve lost all stability in their lives. On both sides of the “Hastings Corridor”, however, are other older parts of the city that no longer retain their original functions. To the north is Gastown, that has become a “hip” tourist destination with redbrick streets, wide sidewalks, a “steamclock”, extremely spendy high-fashion boutiques, kitschy Canadiana gift shops hocking maple syrup and Olympics memorabalia (still…London, you’re going to regret this so much), with an overall “old timey” feel that attracts the young and wealthy. To the south is Chinatown. Not quite so ritzy, not quite so gentrified, and still predominantly comprised of Chinese owned-and-operated businesses, but, again, a tourist destination.
Hastings additionally functions as a major east-west thoroughfare for the northern side of the city in and out of downtown. Between that and its location between two majour areas for tourism and related commerce, it stands as a strong and highly visible “embarrassment” to the city, as well as a stretch of property with immense commercial potential relative to extremely low cost of investment. The only thing keeping those property values low is exactly the “embarrassing” poverty, drug trade and sex trade that the city’s powerful would very, very much like to be swept out of view. So… gentrification… “revitalization”…
This process has happened countless times in countless cities, typically in situations exactly like this. An area with low property values due to crime and poverty, but existing in a dense, centrally located area with a lot of “flavour”. Sometimes the process goes by way of artists moving in, for the affordable rent. Then come the hipsters. Then come the wealthy and young, with whom comes the full force of gentrification. The community spirit that originally existed as active resistance against the conditions of poverty and desperation that were fall-out from a capitalist system becomes a “hip” legacy to fuel the aesthetic by which that exact same capitalist system sells those properties at an enormous profit after it’s all been de-fanged and rendered safe.
Often, though, the process doesn’t even bother with all that. You move in directly. This seems to be the shape things are taking in the DTES. Initial signs of gentrification are already popping up… there’s now a gourmet donut shop beneath the Pennsylvania Hotel selling “earl grey” and “carrot cake” and “maple bacon” donuts for $3 a piece. The new Save-On Meats, across the street from the infamously violent Portland Hotel, has gone from dingy, low-budget grocery to a hip restaurant being featured in a reality TV show on the Oprah channel. Its iconic neon pig, as well as the equally iconic neon seahorse from further up Hastings, are appearing on hipster two-tone t-shirts being sold off Granville.
But creepiest of all, there’s a new upscale condo development going up directly across the street from InSite itself. Not subsidized housing. Not multi-purpose land-use (like the more “revitalization”-oriented W2 complex). A condo development.
Where this is all leading is clear. And how it’s going to be sold to the voters of a left-leaning city is through the concept of revitalization, that’s door was already opened by the aforementioned W2. The idea is going to be that the DTES is full of suffering, poverty, disease, drug use, sex work, etc. And that those problems need to be solved. We’re going to help those people, and clean up that neighbourhood.
What’s going to be neglected in the message is the presence of the community bonds that already exist there. When you set up those structures, “revitalize” the neighbourhood, it’s going to appear that the problem is solved, because the problem won’t be visibly there anymore. But in fact it’s just going to be pushed around, dispersed out into other parts of the city. What will actually be destroyed in that process, though, is the sense of community. The togetherness. The activism. The organizations. The “heroes”. All the ways that people knew that even if their lives were fucked, they at least had a home, and neighbours, and people looking out for them, and people to look out for, and a community to be a part of.
As those problems disperse out into the city, without a centralized location through which those who want to help can actually reach those effected, those problems are going to get a whole lot worse. Things that activists have fought for for decades, ways to actually help, are going to obliterated in the name of making things look like the problems were solved while some developers make a whole lot of extra money. Immense amounts of work are going to have to be rebuilt all over again.
Everything beautiful and wonderful and strong in that community will be lost, while every single individual will be left continuing to carry exactly the same burdens and tragedies and pain that drove them there. Though they’ll now be left carrying it a lot more alone, and without anywhere left to even end up.
People are going to fall through the cracks. Lives are going to be lost.
There’s an especially creepy dimension concerning the racial dynamics that I worry might also be lost in the dialogue surrounding this process. Canadians often like to kid ourselves into believing we don’t have ghettoes, but it’s simply not true. The Downtown Eastside has a very strikingly disproportionate percentage of people of First Nations, aboriginal descent, relative the city as a whole. I’m sure as the property values hike up, the SOR hotels are demolished or renovated into new functions, and the zoning laws are redrawn, the echoes of forced relocation won’t be lost on those forced to move from the neighbourhood they’ve come to know as home.
See, places like the DTES exist as shadows of our culture as a whole. They embody the bleak, disturbing legacies of the societies we’ve built. They show us what we missed, the flaws in our systems, the unaccounted variables, the people we forgot about. Things we, collectively, would much rather not look at.
That’s what things like gentrification and revitalization are about. They aren’t about saving neighbourhoods, of course. Neighbourhoods aren’t defined by geographical locations, they’re defined by the people who live there and the communities and connections and relationships they build and experience. It’s not a physical stretch of what long ago was thick, damp, temperate boreal forest, and now consists of four consecutive blocks of shabby old brick, mortar and concrete buildings with iron-barred windows that I’ve come to love and feel so fiercely protective of. It’s what resides there, of course.
And it’s not just about money lining the pockets of property developers, either. It’s human attitudes in relation to physical spaces that dictate the rise and fall of the property values, the market forces that drive those interests. There is no physical property that land possesses that makes it of interest to the develops. It’s the disdain that makes it cheap, the misunderstanding and negligence that makes it politically accessible, and cultural attitudes about things like place, “authenticity” and history that makes it commercially viable, marketable.
What such issues are ultimately about is what we are and are not willing to look at, or to see.
Some of it is about seeing others…with both compassion and contempt. Some of it is about seeing ourselves… our history, our legacy, our mistakes, our shame, our potential.
It’s in this respect that I most wish I could show others that place through the lens of how I see it. How I love it. And how, in its way, it loved me back, when I was least able to offer myself the same.