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A resident advocate’s view of the Downtown Eastside

February 20th, 2009 · 45 Comments

In case some of you missed this in the comments, here is Wendy Pedersen’s take on her neighbourhood, which she advocates for through the Carnegie Community Action Project.

FROM WENDY PEDERSEN

Hello. If you want to know what low-income DTES residents think about their neighbourhood, you can read this report: http://ccapvancouver.files.wordpress.com/2008/07/ccapvisionwebsm.pdf
Its called Nothing About Us Without Us and its written for an association of 5000 low-income residents called the Carnegie Association.
I’ve been in the DTES for 20 years, both my kids were born here and it reminds me of the fishing community I grew up in – and it has the same economic pressures that threaten to disperse it….big market forces do squeeze out the little guys.
Right now we’re doing a mapping sessions with low-income residents – we’re mapping people’s most meaningful places and asking them why. We have some UBC students helping and both of them say that they cannot believe the interconnection, depth of history, connection to place and meaningfulness that exists here. They say they could not make a similar map of their own neighbourhood. Here’s some things people said about Oppenheimer Park (direct quotes): I helped raise the totem pole with the eagle on top…..we had a kissing booth at the hard times festival…its like zocalo Mexico where everyone sits on the outside looking in…its where 1000’s of people gathered for the On To Ottawa trek…there’s always someone there to have a conversation with about what’s happening….years ago we had a vision quest there.
And the Carnegie Centre: “Its our living room…..its my kitchen….its a place of change…it means alot to me…its the first place I’ve ever found with people who are comfortable with who I am…its the centre of my community, my social life is tied here, it branches out from here…..Carnegie kitchen was my first volunteer position. It was the first time in my life that I was open and honest about my drug addiction. When I told them in the kitchen, they didn’t judge me, and accepted me. It was a big step towards my recovery……In the early 1980’s i was the president of the united acupuncture centre of BC, we used to meet here in the Learning Centre. That was what made acupuncture legal to have it and covered by medical. It was very important what you did, says someone else…..its where I can be a pow wow dancer.” At some of these sessions, people have burst into tears when talking about the missing women. We also talk about the uncomfortable places. People say the forlorn places with no lights are not safe. They don’t like condos because people who move in them look down on you etc.
I don’t think the public really understands (or maybe even cares) who lives here and what they think. Institutionalization of people in the are is not the answer. Building on community and good relationships definitely is.
As a researcher whose job it is to help the low-income community develop a vision for the future, I’m fairly obsessed with Francis’ questions and I thank her for framing them so well.
Are there any unexpected upsides to having such a concentration in one area?, she asks. What some people call ghetto, we call community. People give you a cigarette if you need one. Most people nod at you as you walk down the street. Sometimes it takes a long time to get home because you have so many conversations at street corners. People tell lots of stories about you at your funeral. At one of the visioning sessions someone at the Aboriginal Front Door said: I like being me and I like being known. We quote that in the report.
There are 5000 hotel rooms in the area and not many of them are rented at $375 any more and welfare/min wage are not keeping up with inflation. This survival mode has made it easier for the black market to take hold of people for sure. 30 years ago, people would go to the store and buy a newspaper, or out for breakfast, even if on welfare. 2 million a month has been sucked out of the neighbourhood because welfare has not kept up to the 1970’s level in terms of cost of living.
Why the Downtown Eastside bothers people so much? Is it the visible drug-selling and drug-taking? says Francis. I think the open drug market has been a double edged sword too. It has sheltered the 10,000 or so low-income people not in the drug trade from the impact of gentrification because I agree, its just too hard for the upper classes to take. But for those of us willing to live with it, we get cheaper stores, cheaper housing, tight knit community, decades long friendships and a sharing of resources that builds a sense of how to be together that doesn’t exist in other places in Vancouver. That’s the part that reminds me of the old fishing community. We also have the rich Indigenous, Chinese and working class cultures that have been established here for a century or more to enjoy. Suprisingly few low-income residents name the outside drug market as a problem. When we probe about this we find that most residents have a sophisticated view of addiction and want treatment on demand and housing etc….they care more about getting at the roots of the problem than punishing those who are trapped by it. The Carnegie Association won’t ask the police to move people off the corner because of this.
So, to everyone who is reading this, maybe this challenges your view of my neighbourhood, maybe not. Think of me with my 2 kids who have the priviledge of growing up in a really tight community like their grandparents did. We wouldn’t get that in any other area of Vancouver except maybe for some remaining pockets of Italians around Commercial Drive, if we were Italian.
I would take away the drug trade any day, but then we need something in its place (like zoning, rate of change bylaw, replace the hotels with decent housing, more low-income housing, commitment to a mix of incomes 75% low to 25% high?) to shelter this area from losing the concentration of low-income people, oops, I mean the community, that wants to stay together (95% of the 650 surveyed in the report above said they want to stay if they have decent housing).

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