How many times have you opened a newspaper, turned on the TV, or listened to the radio, and there it is again: more headlines, more human tragedy, more sensational grit and grime from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I do it all the time, and sometimes feel overwhelmed by how negatively the community can be portrayed. Sometimes I think there’s empathy and realism in the stories. I appreciate that because it shows what is really happening in a community that I have known for three decades, once lived in, and now represent as a Member of Parliament.
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside gets more attention than pretty well any other neighbourhood in Canada. People are alternately shocked, saddened, disgusted, and awestruck at the various news stories about it, yet the media coverage doesn’t even begin to portray what the meaning of the Downtown Eastside really is.
Thirty-five years ago it was called Skid Road and wasn’t seen as a neighbourhood at all; not by the powers-that-be and often not even by the people who lived there. Residents were considered bums, down and out, alcoholics, and “clients” of one government agency or another.
It took a revolutionary effort in the early 1970s to transform Skid Road into a community called the Downtown Eastside. This happened because visionary people like Bruce Eriksen started organizing and fighting for people’s rights to decent housing, community space, protection under the law, and simple human dignity. The fight began with the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) in 1973 and the community has struggled to survive ever since, sometimes against overwhelming odds. People who live in this fragile yet highly resilient community have endured much and have given much. From their experience comes the truest sense of community that you will ever encounter.
Back in the ’70s—when I was a young organizer with DERA—the area’s population was mostly older. It included injured workers and old-timers who came to know the hotels and rooming houses as home. There was no homelessness then, as we see today. There was no visible drug use on the street. People were poor and the single-room hotels were terrible places (as many are today), run mostly by absentee landlords who earned the bulk of their revenue from the numerous beer parlours. But the depth of poverty was not like what we see today. We got Oppenheimer Park fixed up, we battled the city to save the old historic Carnegie Library (now a community centre), and we fought tooth and nail for the Standards of Maintenance bylaw to be enforced against slum landlords. In addition, new, higher quality social housing got built; finally, the neighbourhood seemed to be improving.
But in the 1990s, massive cutbacks in federal housing programs, the erosion of social programs, and welfare cuts took an enormous toll. Poverty deepened, and drug use and homelessness became visible and prevalent. (The impact it has had on individual lives is apparent in the stories told in this book.) On top of this, smart-assed developers realized that the Downtown Eastside was a gold mine, a would-be blank slate for extending the wealthy downtown business district; probably more than anything, this has been the enduring struggle and story of this community for more than three decades. Elsewhere in North America, most other low-income inner city neighbourhoods have been obliterated: demolished, gentrified, and sanitized, and some left empty and uninhabitable. Not so here. The only reason is because the people of the Downtown Eastside fought back. They asserted their right to live, to exist, to have hope, and to have a future. Their story is one of resistance—one that deepens the value of what community and survival really means to the lives of its residents and the place as a whole.
There have been many attempts over the years to wipe out the Downtown Eastside. Even today, encroaching and rapid redevelopment threatens the very soul of this historic area. It is a never-ending battle. Any other community might have given up the struggle and accepted these powerful forces as inevitable. But not here, and maybe never.
There is the physical survival of the neighbourhood from the forces of development, block by block. But there’s also the political survival to contend with too. I’ve witnessed various attempts over the years, under the guise of public policy, to break up the community in order to save it from itself. The view here is that poor people should not live together in a community because it creates a “ghetto,” allowing anti-social and deviant behaviours to take over. In order to deal with crime and the visibility of poverty on the street, it is seen as necessary to disperse people, all done in the name of “revitalizing” the area and ridding it of these social ills. This view gains credence as the visibility of poverty increases. There’s a general wringing of hands, and the pressure mounts to clean things up (read: people). I wonder in what other place today would we tolerate people being moved about like goods to be sold. Historically, such policies have been seen as oppressive and colonial. What established community—with history, deep roots, and social connections—would willingly submit to dismantling itself?
And so the struggle continues for a small community, not only to survive, but to thrive. The unique and powerful stories in Hope in Shadows are really about people trying to find a way to ensure that basic resources are available to them. They are stories of making the Downtown Eastside a healthy community for those who call it home. It’s not high-minded stuff, really. It’s as basic as understanding that years of lost purchasing power and economic despair have robbed people of their basic rights. It’s as basic as understanding that a law enforcement regime against drug users, sex workers, and people struggling to survive only creates further harm and marginalization.
At Bruce Eriksen Place at Main and Hastings—a good example of sound social housing—there’s a mural that Bruce repainted in 1996 shortly before died. He originally created it as we were battling to save the Carnegie Library from demolition in 1976. It’s a painting of old blind Bill panhandling outside the Woodward’s department store (gone and now the site of a 40 story condo development). Bill was a regular in the community, and included in the mural are the words of French writer Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
By no means does everyone in the Downtown Eastside have to beg, sleep under a bridge, or steal. Not everyone is a drug user or sex worker, despite what some media reports portray. It is a community of diversity, as the stories in this book show us. It is a community of people from many backgrounds and experiences who share the place as home in sometimes dire circumstances. It is a place of poems, plays, art, activism, solidarity, hope, and still, the resistance to be of its own mind and future.
When I first worked as a community organizer with DERA, I had no foresight that a group like VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) would be created and become a new voice for transformation. I never knew the Downtown Eastside would experience the ravages of an HIV epidemic, or that it would lead the way across the country to stop the madness of the war on drugs. But all of these things did happen, and are now part of our collective experience and expression. I always knew that the Downtown Eastside is a remarkable place. It is like the heartbeat of our city and what happens here happens to all of us.
Member of Parliament—Vancouver East
Libby has been the Member of Parliament for Vancouver East since 1997.