The Cost of Forgetting: Lessons from Canada's "Worst" Neighbourhood

By Dempsey, Olive | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

The Cost of Forgetting: Lessons from Canada's "Worst" Neighbourhood


Dempsey, Olive, Canadian Dimension


A Night at the Theatre

Even this close to downtown, the buildings are small. This landscape is from a time when bustling city centres were not synonymous with glass towers, live-work studios and lifestyle marketing. Tonight I am surrounded by wood-shingled houses and brick or concrete four-story apartments glowing under the rain and street lights. I am walking through Canada's "worst" neighbourhood, our poorest postal code, North America's largest open drug market, on my way to the theatre.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Soon, I am sitting on red metal bleachers in a school gymnasium, singing along with 250 other voices. This is not why we are here. It is just a way to keep us occupied while actors tie laces on costumes, arrange plastic bags in a shopping cart and re-adjust someone's kimono. We are here to see In the Heart of a City, a play by and about Vancouver's oldest neighbourhood. It is the result of a year-long effort by residents to reclaim their community's stories with the support of the Carnegie Community Centre and a few professional directors and writers. Tonight we are here to be told tales different from the ones we know, tales that do not focus on "drug-infested alleys" and "the walking wounded."

The community's efforts have packed the house since the show opened, but these volunteers are not the first to recognize that change on the ground needs to begin with the attitudes of those who walk it. Thirty years ago, the Downtown Eastside Resident's Association (DERA) launched another effort to shift perceptions of the neighbourhood. One of the young organization's first acts renamed the area, derisively known as Skid Road, to its official and now infamous title, the Downtown Eastside.

Downtown Eastside's Forgotten Legacy

Although it is rarely discussed in the media, both the name change and the play belong to a history of community activism, one proudly presented in the recent performances. There are the unemployed workers who occupied the top floor of the Carnegie museum in 1935 to protest unemployment. There are the mothers of the Raymur Housing Complex who, in 1971, sat on the train tracks that ran through their neighbourhood until the rail company promised to build an overpass for their kids. And today there are tent cities raised to protest welfare reforms and a lack of social housing, and to provide a source of community for the homeless population. As Vancouver's original town site and long-time home of labourers and new immigrants, Downtown Eastside residents have fought for over one hundred years to maintain the integrity of their voices and bring recognition to their concerns, as they claim this neighbourhood and its future as their own.

In some ways DERA succeeded in its efforts to raise the neighbourhood's profile. Today the Downtown Eastside is better known than ever. So popular it can be hard to find, submerged beneath the gallons of ink spilled in describing the details of its faults and its road to recovery. With so much attention, governments at all levels have mobilized to change the neighbourhood once again through a process known as "revitalization."

"Renovation" Plans

The Vancouver Agreement, signed in 2000, places the Downtown Eastside under the spotlight of Vancouver's development efforts, uniting all three levels of government toward the revitalization goal. After an initial commitment of approximately $13.9 million, provincial and federal governments announced another $20-million investment in April, 2003. The Vancouver Agreement unifies a labyrinth of strategies, action plans, capacity studies, reports, initiatives and partnerships. Within this maze are tactics like the Four Pillars harm-reduction program, economic plans to attract "legitimate business" to the area, heritage-building preservation incentives, community economic development, street-level beautification, an affordable housing strategy and community policing. …

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