Eastside Story – Walking Downtown Eastside Vancouver

My day job revolves around corporate responsibility, it’s an extension of my personal values. In my own way I try to be the change that Ghandi so gracefully advocated. With that in mind, when I spotted a Down Town East Side (DTES) walking tour on Ethical Deal it was a given that I’d want to find out more about the social issues, that although well documented, can also continue out of sight, out of mind.

The tour was run by JC Tours & Travel a local entrepreneur with a social conscience and a particular interest in the changing social landscape of DTES over the last 30-40 years. The tour James runs is really still in its infancy, starting the tail end of 2012 and will likely grow in terms of content and context as it develops. What I experienced was a good start and I didn’t begrudge parting with a small sum to get to know more about an area of town that, I have to admit, is not one of my most frequently visited places.

The start point turned out to be a former east side icon and now sign of urban regeneration, the old Woodwards site. Built in 1903 as a second location for his department store, the Woodwards building became part of the fabric of the Eastside until its closure due to comapny bankrupcy in 1993. Thirteen years later the building was razed and the site is now home to multiple businesses and SFU.

Although James didn’t spend much time on the history of the city, he did say that the shift from the early days core to an area having a more transient population was pretty common for North American cities. I was reminded about some of the tales from the Seattle underground tour. The growth and decline sounded very similar. In Vancouver’s case the decline of DTES seemed to accelerate from the late 1970’s as population growth led to inhabitants migrating to the ever increasing suburbs. Being a port and benefitting from a more temperate climate also made Vancouver attractive to short term residents.

We continued along East Hastings. The stretch from Abbot to Main was teeming with people that are almost certainly living in shelters or are on the street, some out of choice, many through a range of circumstances from losing work to mental illness and drug addiction. It’s a challenging place to be and I can understand why people avoid the area. To be honest its very easy to criticise and make sweeping statements that “something should be done”. The reality is that there is no magic wand and I’ve visited many cities that have areas of high poverty and exclusion. Vancouver is not unique. Despite what some may describe as bleak there are signs of hope and places where people are treated with dignity and I believe it’s important to focus on these positives rather than run down and write off other humans.

I was particularly impressed by the commitment to this difficult area by local entrepreneurs and businesses. Sole Foods urban farms uses vacant lots to grow food as a social enterprise. Pigeon Park Savings is operated in partnership with Vancity and provides basic banking for residents that struggle to qualify for services that many of us take for granted. United We Can and the Pot Luck Cafe are both great examples of social enterprises that aspire to help people break the poverty and exclusion cycle. As excluded as some residents may feel, there is hope here.

The social issues in DTES began to change for the worse in the mid to late 1980’s. During this period the addiction issues started to move from alcohol and ‘soft’ drugs to more destructive substances. The city was preparing for and hosting Expo and even though Expo put Vancouver on the world stage, it seems like the event also indirectly has a lot to answer for. Post Expo, addiction in the DTES increased and this opened up turf wars for drug dealers. Again, these issues are not new or restricted to Vancouver, however, with harder drugs being available, the character of DTES once again changed.

The evolution continued in the 1990’s when changes in health care led to more community based care. The changes led to more people with mental health issues on the street adding to the mix of transient, long term homeless and addiction sufferers. It seems that once an area hits a certain point, community cohesion declines, poverty increases and social issues spiral.

Our tour reached the return point around Heatley Avenue and James headed a block north to Cordova. By the time we reached Heatley the difference in places was marked. The streetscape had become less challenging once we’d past Union Gospel Mission, DTES was fading in to the background.

The return journey wasn’t without it’s reminder that we were traveling through a poverty stricken area. The line up for food hand outs at Oppenheimer Park which is located in what was previously known as Japantown, was probably in to three figures. I’m sure the former city mayor whom the park is named after didn’t envisage his name becoming synonamous with poverty and homelessness. On a more positive note, the park is also a home to street soccer in Vancouver. The beautiful game doing what it can do, bringing people together with only a ball needed.

Nearing the end of the tour we passed by Pivot Legal. Pivot are another organization providing services to the DTES community that would normally be out of reach. People stuck in the poverty or homeless cycle are not likely to know their legal rights or have someone to advocate on their behalf. Pivot fill the gap. James also explained that there was a Community Court in the area. Offenders are taken out of the Provincial legal system and outcomes are more community based rather than leading to custodial sentences or un-payable fines. Another laudable initiative in the area.

Our finish point was back at the Woodwards site. James’ aim for the tour is to educate and inform people on how DTES has arrived at where it is today from a social lens rather than focus on the early history. One cannot escape some of the historical buildings of interest, the Carnigie Library for example, but overall I think the tour meets its aim of introducing people to the DTES as it is, warts and all. Thank you JC Tours for taking a different approach and I wish James every success as he develops his business.

Walking away from the area I was left to reflect on the experience. Was I feeling guilt, anger, repulsion, helpless, positive? The truth is probably a blend of those emotions. It’s clear that humans have the capacity to inflict great pain on each other, invariably to satisfy a need for financial gain and this certainly angers me. In this case I want to leave things on a more positive note. The range of charities and social enterprises working in the area shows that those struggling to overcome their challenges, those that want to break the cycle, have options.

As for me, I’ll continue to look for opportunities to be the change. What will you do?

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