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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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