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The never-ending quest to transform the Downtown Eastside

February 16th, 2009 · 18 Comments

Vancouver’s defining neighbourhood has been in the limelight this past month, with two media outlets (the Province and the Globe and Mail) running extensive series on how to fix the neighbourhood, while police chief Jim Chu put out his own report on what to do.

The unspoken message behind all of this is, “Yikes, the world is going to be here in exactly a year and this is going to be so embarrassing to explain. Let’s get some action.”

It is fascinating to see how this neighbourhood attracts attention, concern, calls for change in a way that the same 15,000 poor, mentally ill or addicted people spread out over a larger area never would. And whenever people call for change, I always wonder what they really mean and what parts of the Downtown Eastside they’re really trying to change.

The message in so many reports over the last umpteen years has been that if the Downtown Eastside could somehow be dispersed, it would be better.

Some people seem to imply it wouldn’t cost as much if the 15,000 people were scattered around more. Others seem to be implying that if they were scattered around more, then they wouldn’t have the critical mass they do now — a critical mass that creates a different code of acceptable behaviour in those few blocks. And if that large group of people, acting in ways that people outside the area often find intimidating or troubling, were gone or at least less visible, then the street economy would recover.

It’s true that in other cities I’ve visited — and I got to see a lot when I had a year to research homelessness with the Atkinson Fellowship 10 years ago — there is no neighbourhood quite like this one that combines both extreme poverty, a high concentration of drug addiction, a noticeable street culture of its own, and a very prominent place in the city.

In Toronto, there are a lot of poor, mentally ill and addicted people but they seem to be spread out over a wider swathe, one that extends from Parkdale in the west to Jarvis in the east along Queen. So you never feel quite so much a minority walking through even the worst area of Toronto as you do here.

In American cities, there are frightening and concentrated dysfunctional places, but they’re not so public as our Downtown Eastside, which butts right up against the central city and which becomes a public spectacle for thousands of commuters who drive through every day.

Even Winnipeg, though it has some scary sections, is scary more the way Surrey Central can be scary — just rundown and creepy-feeling, as opposed to having the very public street culture that the Downtown Eastside does.

It’s a subject for a book, why the Downtown Eastside exists in Vancouver. My personal theory is that it exists BECAUSE the rest of the city is doing so well. Vancouver always did a better job of attracting people to live in the central city, with the result that the well-off ended up crowding out the extreme poor. UBC geographer David Ley has documented how cheap housing and rooming houses throughout the West End, Kitsilano and Fairview got torn down as the city gentrified, pushing low-income people into a tighter and tighter area.

And the only way the Downtown Eastside got preserved — the only way the poorest didn’t get pushed right out to Surrey and Burnaby and all the other places they’re now starting to migrate — was because it was so concentrated, so problematic, that even the most diligent gentrifiers were hesitant to move in. In a strange, Darwinian kind of way, the people there managed to preserve their housing and a space to exist by being so completely outside the norms.

But what would be fascinating for some enterprising researcher to take a close look at is: Are there any unexpected upsides to having such a concentration in one area? Are there any economies of scale that are created by having so many people with so many problems within a few blocks? I’d be interested to know if the cost of the social services for all the service-heavy people who live there is higher or lower if they were more dispersed.

And what about the social side? Does the dense level of services and sense of community provide a benefit in any way, one that would be missing if people were dispersed?

Another question I’d be interested in finding out more about: How much of the public disorder is created by outside buyers and sellers using the Downtown Eastside as a drive-by drug market? That’s one of the side effects of critical mass that almost never gets covered. I have to say I’ve never really looked at it myself, in spite of writing about the DTES forever.

That same enterprising researcher could take also look at why the Downtown Eastside bothers people so much. Is it the visible drug-selling and drug-taking? Or is it mainly that it’s a lot of poor people dressed in scruffy clothes and acting kind of weird and selling stuff on the sidewalk? If people were just poor, but weren’t staggering around with crack pipes and needles in their hands, would we find it any more acceptable?

I know I’m opening myself up for a lot of people to say I’m a liberal idiot or blind to the real tragedies in that community. I hope I’m actually neither, although, as with all issues, I’m willing to be convinced that I’m wrong. Though I’d ask those people — why are we so blind to the equally real tragedies taking place in neighbourhoods outside the Downtown Eastside, where many of these problems also exist?

On a final note, I was walking through the Downtown Eastside recently at 2 a.m. doing research. And, once again, I was struck, as I have been so often in the past, by how much like a neighbourhood it feels. Yes, there are terrible things. A young native girl who looked like she was still in her teens was injecting on the steps of First United while a talked with a couple of other people. A nasty looking guy — her pimp or dealer — kept hanging around checking on how she was doing.

But further down the street, in front of the Owl Drugs, a young native guy, Patrick, was sitting on the street, talking with another guy and an older woman in a wheelchair. Patrick had wood shavings piled all around him as he worked on carving the head of a walking stick. He showed off the others he had, the head of one of them as intricate and fine as lacework, a mini-totem pole with eyelash-size knife marks that created faces and wings and a fretwork of Kwakuitl design.

As I left to continue walking towards the downtown, Patrick called out “Have a good night.” I heard that a lot during my night-time stroll, except for those said instead, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

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  • jesse

    Great post. I hardly think, though, that cities like Calgary and Toronto have been any less successful than Vancouver yet neither have something so visible as what Vancouver has. The DTES is not a product of success, it’s a product of something far worse and we all know it.

  • “On a final note, I was walking through the Downtown Eastside recently at 2 a.m. doing research.”

    This is one thing I really like about the DTES. I feel fairly safe down there at night. It feels like a proper neighborhood, full of community members. I wish my neighborhood (Fraser/Kingsway) could have one tenth the engagement community members of the DTES have.

  • hohoho

    “I feel fairly safe down there at night. It feels like a proper neighborhood, full of community members. I wish my neighborhood (Fraser/Kingsway) could have one tenth the engagement community members of the DTES have.”

    That’s the type of inane comment that comes from someone who does not live in or near the DTES. It’s a f**king hell-hole, not a “community.”

  • Gorewell

    Nobody is “against” poor people. It’s the behaviour. Pure and simple.

    The fact that the police do next to nothing about open drug use is alarming.

  • Well Mr hohoho contrary to your OPINION the DTES is a relatively safe place ,one can walk through there at 2am or 4am and not have a problem.Most of the people that live there are decent people,albeit poor,trying to survive.
    I have lived there and I know many people who still do.Open your mind,employ a little empathy,get to know the area a little before you condemn it and dismiss all those that live there,most through no fault of their own.

    as to your question why the DTES exists ,its quite simple if one is poor,and or,a single young male,young & native,disAbled and poor,”scruffy looking”,on welfare or disability,have a mental disability etc one has very few options.A room/SOR is a all that many can afford in Van(the rent is usually $375per month the exact same as welfare allows for housing) and most of these rooming places will rent on the spot with no questions asks,no referrals,applications etc etc .
    The concentration is due to the concentration of these affordable “housing options”,most if not all SOR’s(6,000-7,000) etc are located in the DTES.
    All these problems would exist even if there was not a DTES it would just be dispersed,out of sight out of mind.
    One could say that the DTES has a silver lining,in that it forces the city and many of its citizens to confront and or acknowledge problems etc that would and are in most part ignored.

  • Not running for mayor

    I read this somewhere else so I can’t take credit for it. But the author asked the question, if one wanted to create a DTES in another city what would need to be done.
    1) Put all SROs in one neighbourhood
    2) Put services (foodbank,social services) in that same area so you don’t need to leave.
    3) Allow undesirables to prey on those poor people but not enforcing laws in that neighbourhood.
    4) Wait and watch the effects.

    So now we know how to create a DTES, would the opposite get rid of it? Would anyone have the courage to try? Would it be the right thing to even do?

  • Darcy McGee

    > In Toronto, there are a lot of poor, mentally ill and
    > addicted people but they seem to be spread out over a
    > wider swathe, one that extends from Parkdale in the
    > west to Jarvis in the east along Queen.

    It stretches farther than that, from Hamilton to Pickering in fact.

    Gerard Kennedy was instrumental in getting a functional food bank system up and running in Tornoto to support the poor: has anybody considered talking to him? You need to create a distributed system to allow the population to spread. There has been (until recently) quite a bit of work at all skill levels, and yet these folks stay on the DTES. Is there a support system for them in Surrey? Hope?

    Gentrification is generally not a good thing, and the rise of tall towers on the DTES is not a solution to any problem. I’ve a friend who lives in one of those. Effectively people who live there ignore the problem by staying disengaged from the street. They take elevators to cars, walk only very short distances in the neighbourhood and generally ignore problems outside their four walls.

    Frances: your copyright notice says it only runs from 2007 – 2008: I’m officially claiming copyright on everything on the site since January 1, 2009 🙂

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  • hohoho

    Dirk, where do you live?

  • urb anwriter


    I’m in a grumpy mood, so this is about my third (4th) complete revision…


    FB, a good post. Thanks

    I’ll leave now, before I get sent to my room.

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  • Hello. If you want to know what low-income DTES residents think about their neighbourhood, you can read this report:
    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.
    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).

  • Jeannette M


    I also live in DTES (edge of Gastown) and I feel completely safe walking around it at night. Do I wander into alleyways? No, but do I feel safe walking around Hastings and Carral, Hastings and Main, etc on my way home in the middle of the night? yes, COMPLETELY. I have never felt unsafe in this hood, which is a startling contrast to when I lived in New West and near Broadway and Commercial – and even in some ways, feel more safe than when I did in the West End.

  • Hi Francis can you edit my one sentence in the last paragraph to read like this?:

    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.

  • Francis, with your indepth understanding of the DTES could you comment on Wendy Pedersen’s take on the DTES.

  • M2

    “And the only way the Downtown Eastside got preserved…”

    I have heard the stories of Bruce Eriksen, Libby Davies and Jean Swanson. I know a smidgeon of why there was no new highway slicing through the DTES. The story of the Carnegie Community Centre, VANDU, DERA, CCAP, the DTES Neighbourhood House, the Japanese Canadian community, the Chinese Canadian community, and the people who lived here when it was ‘discovered’.

    These tell us a few things:

    a) An individual stood and said, “This isn’t good enough”. They spoke and people rallied behind them, and some victories for my neighbourhood were won. It seems the in-between times, our infrastructure is left to continue again to slowly disintegrate. Until the next time the consuming desire to possess will overwhelm the greedy again.

    b) We do, because we can. It’s just like in ‘normal’ neighbourhoods. Like-minded citizens get together for more trees on their street or to limit commercial activities that bother residential areas, etc. We would not be heard if we were diluted thoughout the city. Our desire is the same: to have the most livable neighbourhood we can. Our methods are different, though.

    c) While we are the spot under the carpet where the dirt is swept, so that others may appear to live clean lives in their clean neighbourhoods, we thrive. We do thrive. We gather; have conversations both heretical and revolutionary; form associations where action is taken; go to City Hall and speak our minds and tell our stories; celebrate our community, heritage, friends; morn the passing of our kin, friends and neighbours; volunteer to assist our neighbours in a miriad of ways.

    At an interview for Mennonite social housing recently, questions/answers: Where do you live? (DTES building had fire, now homeless); Means of support? (disability benefits);
    “What do you do when you get up in the morning, what do you do all day long?” (Well, when things are blackest, I shut myself in. Otherwise, I volunteer at the Carnegie Community Centre.) We face this sort of question, usually impersonally, too often. People outside of my community have their opinions based on mass-media (“most people there are mentally ill or drug addicts”), or what they see when they drive through from their homes in ‘nicer’ neighbourhoods, or when they look at statistics (show me a set of statistics that defines a person – can not be done).

    While others spend concern on whether their neighbour cuts the grass often enough, we here, while we can still get out of bed, when we can still face the day, will continue to be the pea in the princesses bed.

  • Ex-Vancouverite

    I wonder aloud when our society made the shift whereby it was acceptable to let people use, buy or sell drugs openly? If it is illegal why do we tolerate it in the DTES? I say legalize it because selective enforcement has added to creating the kind of environment it is today-one where I would not want my kids to go.
    I also wonder why we think it is ok for mentally ill people to be abandoned and left to fend for themselves. If someone was committing suicide the police stop them. If they are committing suicide with drugs we let them? That seems to be the case in the DTES.

  • Raingurl

    My BF is hinting at a move closer to our work so we don’t have to pay for transit anymore. We’re thinking Strathcona or DTES………..We’re not UNfamiliar with the neighbourhood, we love CRAB Park and I LOVE Prime Time Chicken (LOL) What insight (Insight?) do you have toward the DTES now? I realize this article is over three years old but I’m quite sure you moderate everything. I don’t really see that anything has changed except for the fact the BC govt bought a bunch of SROs and now THEY are the slum lords. I have noticed Main and Hastings is getting a paint job and I hope they pressure wash the crap away from Carnegie (oh, the innuendo in that statement, eh?) I would love to walk to work and I want to support his decision to move away from Translink and back into the car, walking and our bikes. 🙂 If you have time, would you please write an update to this very interesting article? Thank you.