East Hastings: A Love Story

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.


  1. Ruth says

    As always, eloquently taking me into a world that is outside my experience and helping me see the humanity within it. I am continually impressed by your writing ability. Thank you for sharing your experiences and perspectives. I am enriched by them.

  2. embertine says

    This is beautiful, Natalie, thank you. I couldn’t agree with you more about the so-called “gentrification” of problem areas. The developers talk the good talk about cleaning up the area and helping the community, but the only way they can think to do that is to push out the actual community and replace it with good old taxpayers. And in the meantime, where do the original residents go?

    Sorry that you’ve had a shitty couple of weeks, and I hope things are looking up a little.

  3. says

    Dammitsomuch. Fucking asshole developers and asshole planners and asshole people. Every time they decided to ‘improve’ a neighborhood, the first thing they do is install new people, because of courseall that those poor people need to bootstrap themselves up is the example of respectable middle class people. That’s barely even a fucking paraphrase from the plans behind so funking many projects. And of course, once all the original inhabitants are gone and it’s all hipsters and yuppies, they claim ‘success.’

  4. ik says

    I’ve often been wondering how best one could end the poverty within these areas without driving out the poor. It seems like the problem and the solutions are likely different from generalized poverty diffused through an area.

    Also, what if erverythng gentrifies at the same time?

    Ugh hipsters. I think I’ll take what I like, and what is in itself pleasing. Like the OLD rich people.

    Incidentally, one of my ideas for effecting a large-scale end to many kinds of societal stratification involved pretty much breaking up EVERYthing. While I suspect it still would work, this is an unforseen cost.

    • says

      I can’t speak to East Hastings specifically, as I’ve never been there, but generally speaking what’s needed is to arrange an influx of money and resources without a corresponding influx of people. Not that it’s inherently bad to have new people moving into a neighborhood, but if it’s going to stay a neighborhood it can’t be all new people who just moved in, they’ll (often deliberately) swamp the locals. Things that help include provision of appropriate services (clinics, daycares, others as needed; check with the residents), infusions of capital (loans at low interest/grants/subsidies to purchase and/or renovate homes and businesses), and availability of job/business training and technical assistance. Especially in the case of the capital infusion though, it is essential that control of the redevelopment be held mostly or entirely by the preexisting residents of the area.

    • says

      You can’t “end poverty” without massive systemic change. Otherwise all you can do is move it around. As I was hoping to convey in this post, changing ONE particular geographical location’s relative poverty does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING positive, disperses the poor, and obliterates the community structures they were benefiting from. People who already had money move in to replace the poor who can’t afford to live there anymore.

      The correct response for immediate help to such areas isn’t “ending poverty”. What you do is work on making sure supports, help, clinics, harm-reduction, information, social services outreach and things like that are available in abundance.

      • says

        This is, of course, correct. The strategies I outlined above are more in the nature of remediation/alleviating some of the worst effects of poverty. Of course, the could (and would probably have to be) be implemented as part of an overall transformation of tour political economy, vut they can help some in the meantime.

      • ik says

        Yeah, I was talking about ‘Shut Up and Do The Impossible’ type schemes. And moving people of all classes around on a statewide or nationwide scale.

  5. cami says

    I lived on the road for many years as a teenage runaway. Back then there were neighborhoods in every city that a travel kid could land and quickly find food, shelter, a fix or companionship. Often times I could find other street kids to take me to a feed or to share their squat with me within an hour on landing. The haight in SF, North st in Philly, the lower east side of NY, Washington Park in Portland, Clark st in Chicago, Rhode Island Ave in DC. These were our spaces. The places where we belonged. The streets where we could feel some love. East Hasting was the spot in Vancouver. There were kids on those streets. I could easily score product there and walk to the gaslight and swing to the college students. Plus the all you can eat dives in Chinatown were close by. Yeah, I’ve pulled through the downtown eastside. It was many years ago but I remember that shit. There was this one cat named spoonman and he still owes me a tarot reading, if I remember right.

  6. Jason B says

    Thanks a bunch, i enjoyed this one very much.
    I work near the East Side, used to volunteer at a breakfast program and used to train at a school right at Hastings and Heatley. I would walk to skytrain after class at 9:30pm down Hastings then down main. What an intense place.
    I have never lived it but i am familiar with much of what you describe and as i’m concerned about suffering I think about it often.
    The places I’ve read about that have done well in similar situations involve addressing the issues that brought the residence to that neighborhood, and if people want it, help them. I have no answers its not in my scope to figure it out. But i do know these developments are not the way to help. basically, making it hip then kicking people out for being poor and destroying their community while their at it.
    I think i’m just rambling but thanks again and if you know of a way that I can help out please post about it.

  7. says

    The idea of condos and expensive high rises going up in the DTES fills me with such revulsion…I feel bad for the people living there who as you mention have built a community. I also rage over the idea of taking down old things and putting up new shiny things.

    I actually like Gastown because while it is touristy, it hasn’t been totally rebuilt, much of buildings are still the way their were years ago after the great fire. But one of the oldest parts of Vancouver is the DTES, if its gentrified a historic part of the city will be lost.

  8. says

    I see the same thing happening in downtown Surrey, with the added veil of painting Dianne Watts as some sort of saint for the homeless who personally donates to them and takes calls etc etc…but doesn’t try to enact any actual policy to help them (even though her slate controls the entire city council), just like R.B. Bennett during the Depression.

    And yet the city and corporate-owned mainstream media are more than happy to sell this profiteering crap as ‘revitalization’ and ‘help’, just like when we ‘helped’ the First Nations with residential schools. Or, better yet, all that “social housing” (I guess that’s the dog whistle term for subsidized housing) that was supposed to be in the Olympic Village — the hell happened to that?

    -sigh- I hang out in Victory Square sometimes, and have toyed with the idea of walking into the DTES to find a somewhat quieter spot (at least, on days where the sunniness of Victory Square doesn’t keep me there). I like the area for the same unidentifiable reason that I like being in Whalley or Aldergrove, part of which seems to be the lack of newness and polish. The hipster things you describe are all aberrations, they need to be gone, because they signify the death of all that is good about the area and a reintroduction of consumerist capitalism where anything that’s not profitable in ten years gets torn down for something else.

    I should take a longer walk there before more of the good things get bulldozed, or worse yet appropriated.

    • says

      Perhaps it’s the honesty.

      In the rich, consumer-capitalist areas, there’s a heavy focus on image and outward appearance, and a corresponding push to keep everything looking ‘good’, ‘new’, ‘fashionable’, ‘acceptable’, or what have you, and most of all to make it look like there aren’t really any problems, y’know, like homelessness, or massive class disparity, or disagreement with the aristocracy’s circus, or anything inconvenient like that.

      Whereas in the DTES, it’s right out there for everyone to see. And I damn well don’t doubt that most of the residents see it for themselves as well. If anything, the DTES is representative of our society’s problems in the extreme.

      One wonders why the stereotypical addict is totally ignorant of their own problem. From the looks of it, it seems like the ‘good’ consumer-capitalists are the ones in denial, not the ‘addicts’.

  9. Rasmus says

    I think you miss the main economic driving force behind what’s happening. This neighborhood is centrally located. It’s close to a lot of other stuff. The centrality in and of itself is incredibly attractive for all sorts of purposes.

    The people who live there now make use of the central location to form a community based on coping and surviving. The people who are moving in use the centrality to form a community based on going to the same parties, comparing clothing and furniture and on recommending one another for ever higher paying jobs. They want a community with a similar structure to the one that’s there now, but one that operates a couple of levels higher in the hierarchy of needs. And they have a lot more money, of course, so it’s inevitable that they will win unless there is law or regulation in place that would stop it. The only way to permanently stop gentrification in the central areas of attractive cities and towns is to make it illegal.

    I think the real question is how on earth the present community managed to survive into the 21:th century! It seems to me that there must have been restrictive regulation in place that hasn’t been eased until recently, or maybe sort of long planned government construction project like a subway station, or railway station, or the like that the developers wanted to wait for.

    Of course, there’s absolutely no way to argue that it’s reasonable or liberal to demolish well-built brick and mortar/concrete houses with apartments. Most of these houses could probably stand for centuries if renovated at a tiny fraction of the cost that it costs to demolish and construct new apartments. The new apartments could just as well be built at the edges of the center of town where wealthy people are just as happy to live.

    • says

      I think your missing the actual history and details of the neighbourhood.

      It’s not the centrality that causes the present community to be there. There are other, more centrally located neighbourhoods. But what East Hastings has is the SOR hotels. Cheap, pre-furnished accommodations that rent out on a week-to-week basis. In addition to that, there are numerous businesses and services that are established to meet the needs of the impoverished and destabilized lives that gravitate towards those hotels. That is the reason East Hastings is what it is, not simply its location.

      Those SOR hotels, as said, were originally established to house the migrant labourers who worked the logging industry that built Vancouver. Vancouver has ALWAYS been a city comprised of the displaced and dislocated. Those hotels, their role in the economic life of the city, led to that stretch of the city shifting in role from “main street” / downtown to skid row, and that shift happened a long long time ago. Unlike Gastown and Chinatown, however, the basic economic niche that the DTES fills has NOT changed.

      It’s about something very, very different from “going to the same parties”. This isn’t hipster poverty. It’s about basic, immediate necessity: shelter.

      • Rasmus says

        Yeah, I understand that. The history of the area matters a lot.

        It’s just that I know that more or less all of the larger cities in the western world (and for all I know in the rest of the world too) had neighbourhoods that were originally built by and inhabited by people who were displaced from the countryside by the economic effects of the industrial revolution. The most central of these neighbourhoods were full of cheap housing, cheap hotels, brothels, small scale booze factories, cafés and other shops and services that working class and underclass people would go downtown to look for.

        I also know that most of these buildings had either been torn down or been repaired and upgraded and renovated several times and turned into middle class homes by 1980, at least in western Europe. Some of these areas in certain cities have even had time to deteriorate some of the way back and become neighbourhoods for low income people. It’s puzzling to hear that one has survived in its original economic niche, as you put it. Most of these areas in Western Europe are basically spawning grounds for rich people now. And yes, I realize that’s obscene.

        The city would wise to do what it can to slow down the gentrification process and to try to maintain some sort of lower socio-economic presence for as long as possible. It could protect most of the buildings from demolition (one way to do that is to mandate that any new building has to be an exact replica of the one that was torn down – no commercial developer would ever do that), regulate rents and outlaw condo-ization of rental houses (the black market will still displace poor people, but the black market is much slower to do so).

        Even if the city doesn’t care much about the poor it ought to care about future tourism profits. Tourists like cities that have historic neighbourhood without high-rises and other buildings that look out of place. The developers don’t give a shit about that, of course. They’re not in the tourism business.

        I know that Sweden has a system where there is a government level above the city at the county level that can veto anything that the city want to do that the county authority doesn’t approve of. I guess there’s probably something similar at the state level in Canada but that it’s function is broken or compromised by corporate interests in one way or another.

  10. sphex says

    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.

    OMG, Natalie. You did, you showed it to me. I am glad it was there for you.

    This post had me tearing up. You are an amazing communicator.

  11. says

    I…have a little too much to say about how many people keep telling me to stay out of “bad neighborhoods”. You know, ’cause I am small and white and cis and female and pass for straight and a lady should always have a gentleman to protect her. Except for some reason I try to treat people around me with respect, and then I find that I’m much safer in places with enough people than empty places, and many places I wouldn’t be half so safe if I weren’t white and cis.

    Anyway, your portrait of DTES is intriguing: it sounds like an intense place and I wish I’d had more time to explore it, except I am bad at understanding strangers’ communities. But I am truly surprised and grateful for the extent to which you talked about realities and misjudgments common to many “bad neighborhoods”. I should look for such writings on other neighborhoods.

  12. Dunc says

    This immediately brought a Jello Biafra / D.O.A. classic to mind:

    ‘Scuse me
    Pardon my greed-
    You’re evicted, time to leave
    Don’t matter if your family’s lived here 30 years

    We’re tripling the rent
    Time’s up, the sheriff’s here
    Too bad for you if you freeze out in the street

    The croissant and cookie palace
    Downstairs will symbolize
    The old neighborhood whose soul has slowly died
    Been gentrified

    Ah yeah!
    That’s progress!
    Doesn’t progress make you feel good inside?

    [“That’s Progress”, from “Last Scream of the Missing Neighbours”. Its’ even got a Vancouver connection.]

  13. scramble says

    *sigh* This one made me cry.
    Long-time admirer of your work here, and first-time poster. Thanks for this. I’ve never experienced the kinds of trouble in my life that would cause me to need a place like East Hastings-i’m actually quite priviledged in a number of ways-and my heart just completely breaks to think that people who do need East Hastings may lose it.

    We’re seeing the same thing in the Boyle Street and Alberta ave areas here in Edmonton. And in my own fairly short lifetime, I’ve witnessed the ‘revitalization’ of Downtown and Oliver, only to see all the poverty- and addiction-stricken folks move west down Stony Plain over the course of 15 or so years. Seriously, nothing changed in their lives. They just moved. And before long, the developers wll turn their sights on ‘revitalizing’ Stony Plain, shifting the poor once again around the city neighbourhoods like chess pawns in an endless game to scrounge up more money. “Revitalization” is nothing more than a very large-scale scam to keep generating money for poperty developers.

    As for the fact that this has been an ongoing, centuries-long reality for our city’s Aboriginal people, you articulated my rage over that better than I could myself.

    Our cities deserve so much better. So. Angry.

  14. says

    There’s a place just like that in every city. Sad, and yet beautiful. A place where once-beautiful buildings tell of former glories, and where people come when there is nowhere else for them. It’s beautiful, because in that microcosm of all humanity, the sense of hope is palpable; but at the same time it’s tremendously sad that anybody should have to sink that low in the first place.

    These are the people that we want to forget even exist — and yet, every one of them has an interesting story. And when such a community that is greater than the sum of its members is broken up, a little something dies in the city.

  15. ik says

    I’ve often kind of wondered about how one knows what ‘bad’ neighborhoods are actually dangerous to walk through or live in, and which are just poor or lack amenities or run down; ones that I don’t want to live in if I can afford not to.

    I feel like my parents are giving me BS advice about what kinds of areas are dangerous, but I really don’t know and I don’t want to be unsafe. And I have very, very little experience with being in the world at large.

    Also, I’ve kind of wondered what situations being white may make one less safe (alien-ness?) or safe from violence in a violent area due to privilege or being disconnected from the violence in the area and thereby not a target. How does one know?

    • says

      I think you find that out pretty quickly once you start going to these places. I’ve lived in a few neighbourhoods which were widely believed to be unsafe, but where most of the violence was between rival gangs. Being white, middle class and disconnected from that world has kept me safe, for the most part. I guess I only found that out because I had to live in those places out of economic necessity.

    • Rasmus says

      I’ve been to several of the allegedly worst neighbourhoods in Sweden (ohh… scaaary…) and I’ve never once felt afraid. I think Gaptooth’s reply is basically right. People who live there have a good eye for who’s part of their social sphere and who’s not and if you’re not you’re probably safe, unless you’re walking around with a lot of valuables on you, or if they have no choice but to rob the next person they see, or something that unlikely.

      I know of one instance where a white man who was out for a jog was severely beaten because a gang apparently mistook him for someone from a rival gang running away from them. There are white gang members, of course.

      Last time I walked through that same area I overheard two young men discussing something that sounded very illegal that they were planning to do later. They didn’t even bother to lower their voices for me.

      Use your own judgement.

      • Dunc says

        The other thing I noticed here in Edinburgh (and I imagine it’s the same in other places) is that when you get to know people in “Bad Neighbourhood X”, they always say “No, it’s not that bad here – it’s Bad Neighbourhood Y that’s really dangerous.” Of course, the people in Bad Neighbourhood Y say the exact opposite…

  16. myna lee johnstone says

    you didn’t mention the Woodwards bldg/development with the lowincome addition which has provided quite a nice space for several persons on income assistance
    did you visit and if so what is your take on this
    i have a relative living there who was chronically homeless because of mental health issues and it was a relief to have this person accepted there
    the spaces are nice and the views are amazing.
    so i visit the DTES frequently
    what i hate is the automobile traffic
    it needs to be slowed down and limited
    as it does everywhere but when you have motorists treating your neighborhood as tho it is an expressway you need drugs of some sort to cope with the noise,stress and exhaust

      • myna lee johnstone says

        ah yes, you did
        well, when i am up in the common room in the low income division, i like to look out at the surrounding places and see how some have brought nature unto them thru container gardening on the balconies and i have a good feeling that many incomes are dwelling within the same area even tho i dislike the inequalities in our economic system
        shopping at Nestor’s one sees quite a variety of customers, all relatively tolerant of each other
        i believe that a carfree city,which does not exclude service vehicles ofcourse, would change totally how we occupy cities and bring about harmonious habitats everywhere

        • says

          Yeah, I don’t have anything against W2. I think it is more or less the best way such a project could be done. However, I worry about how it provides inroads for gentrification, and a sort of political excuse for less consientous developers. You know what I mean? It’s not W2 I have a problem with (although I dislike it aesthetically, on the skyline), but what might come in its wake that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible, or at least as easy.

  17. Art says

    Good post, very atmospheric. I feel I could recognize the place just from the description.

    Minor point in the phrase “kind of posture and gate” I think the word you are looking for is gait, as in a patten of movement.

  18. Sheila G says

    Hi, Natalie. I’ve been reading your blog since the first day it appeared on FtB.

    Thank you for your thorough explanation of the history of East Hastings. I’ve been to Vancouver a few times, and the last time was about 3 years ago on a family vacation with my husband and two teenagers.

    The four of us walked from Gastown to Chinatown and then back to our hotel. As we passed through the Hastings neighborhood, we all looked at each other and walked faster. I have to admit, I felt as though I might be in danger and I also had the ignorant thought process which went something like, “why isn’t something done about this slum?”. I had heard in the past that this was the hangout for local drug dealers/addicts so I knew what went on there, but not why.

    From my tourist perspective, I wondered why this dangerous place was located between two popular tourist areas, lol. I confess it never occurred to me that Hastings was there FIRST. Of course I knew Gastown was a revitalized area; my own American city has a similar tourist area called Bricktown that was formerly a manufacturing district, then more recently, a collection of derelict empty manufacturing buildings.

    Serves me right for not doing more of my own research on the area before going with my white cis female privileged perspective.

    I would also like to say that our party was NOT accosted, bothered, molested, nor even approached by anybody as we walked through the area, shortly after dark. I’m sure those people living there were going about their business and saw us for what we were, ignorant tourists.

    Just out of curiosity, IS there a problem or even any instances of tourists being crime victims in the East Hastings neighborhood? My guess is, no, it’s not a problem.

    Again, love your blog and thanks for this post.

  19. Bia says

    It seems things are the same and different everywhere.

    I live in a college town which is part of a larger metro. “The City”, is roughly 15 miles north from here on I-35. In my youth you could find anything you want on what we call Campus Corner, most nights anyway. On others we’d have to travel to The City for our kicks and fix. The thing that’s always struck me as odd is just how different these two neighboring cities are.

    Here you see very little on the streets. Even in the poorer areas you never see open prostitution or drug deals, not openly at least, you have to know what you’re looking for. Go north a few dozen miles and suddenly it’s a much different world, one thing they share though are the certain kinds of convenience stores that carry tiny roses in glass containers.

    Oh and they sell steel wool too. You know for those people in a rush to start cleaning…

    In any case, even in the city shit happens mostly behind closed doors, or through car windows. See you have to know someone to get a number, and the person on the other end gives you a location. When you get there you wait for the car they tell you to follow. This could be five minutes or it could be an hour. Usually it’s not the latter.

    Down here, there are definitely nicer parts of town, but they’re never more than a couple miles from a trailer or cheap motel. I wouldn’t lie, there are McMansions down here, multi-million dollar homes not even five miles from entire communities getting by on Social Security checks or meager wages and food stamps.

    The funny thing about it is even as a former dealer there were a lot of things going on around me that I never saw. For instance it wasn’t until after my first follow that I started noticing all of the orange caps laying around town. They’re seriously everywhere. Gas station parking lots, hotels, fast food joints and mega marts.

    Every day these tiny orange beacons, these signals of hidden pain and human suffering start to appear, and every morning around dusk they’re quietly swept away by trucks and people who don’t even notice them. The poor, the ill, the addicted, they don’t have their own part of town here. These communities are constantly moving, because the moment they slow down or stop anywhere, is the moment they get swept away.

  20. trewesterre says

    I accidentally walked through there once a few years ago. My tourist guide book claimed there was a Japantown to the east of Chinatown so I walked a few blocks past Chinatown and the place just kinda went downhill. I determined that Japantown was defunct and figured I’d walk up to Gastown.

    It was definitely interesting. I didn’t feel unsafe; it was mid-afternoon and people were just wandering around. Though I stupidly hadn’t put my camera away after leaving Chinatown so I got a few comments on it (some guys asked if I wanted them to take my picture, I politely declined). It was definitely kinda strange to see so many people who were obviously high in one place (and in the middle of the day), but everyone just seemed to be going about their business.


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