It’s home to Chinese New Year Parades, Japanese Taiko drumming, Aboriginal Pow Wows, Ukrainian New Year Celebrations, Italian and Chinese Opera, Anglican Church processions and Passover Seders, rhythm and blues, gospel and punk.
There are communities within cities where people live as if within a village. The Downtown Eastside is one such urban village. It’s got schools, parks, gardens, stores, libraries, theatres, cultural centres, museums, galleries, gyms, cultural and athletic fields—and friends—all within easy walking distance.
This village is home to the largest urban Aboriginal “reserve” in Canada. It’s home to the 2nd largest historical Chinatown in North America. Almost half the population is a visible minority. It’s home to Chinese New Year Parades, Japanese Taiko drumming, Aboriginal Pow Wows, Ukrainian New Year Celebrations, Italian and Chinese Opera, Anglican Church processions and Passover Seders, rhythm and blues, gospel and punk. Each street is like walking a different neighbourhood, filled with people from different walks of life and circumstance. Over 70% of the population is low income—many of them pensioners and retired resource people. Some have no home at all.
One of the city’s least understood and most publicized communities, the Downtown Eastside’s character is shaped by its mixture of housing, industry and history. It’s been an entry point for immigrants and young families, a working and retirement home for resource workers, a haven for middle class professionals who value sustainability over growth, and a sanctuary for artists and the marginalized.
Vancouver has always had cycles of prosperity and loss, but our neighbourhood has been hit particularly hard in recent years. Warehouses and jobs moved out to the suburbs. Fishing stock declined. Redevelopment of Gastown pushed low-income residents east. Downsizing of mental hospitals led to an influx of unsupported mentally ill people. Welfare reduction policies left little spare money for discretionary funding. Social housing cut-backs, conversions into high end condominiums and soaring house prices meant not enough affordable housing to go around. Homelessness doubled. Self-medicating drug use increased and so has the black market in prescription drugs. Insensitive development threatens the neighbourhood’s heritage and scale. These are indeed challenges.
But this neighbourhood has a history of community members joining forces when health, survival and identity are threatened. They’ve organized for work, wages, social services and treatment programs. They fought for voting and citizenship rights and recognition as a residential community. They stopped a freeway from destroying the neighbourhood. They’ve fought for housing, green places, cultural centres, theatres, memorials and the only safe injection site in North America. Community members have good ideas about solving problems themselves based on plans the neighbourhoods have developed for themselves.
Residents want more affordable and social housing and housing that doesn’t displace residents. Most don’t want towers—they like the community’s heritage and streetscapes. They want appropriate densification that retains the area’s physical form and scale, building on history, not destroying it. They want more green places, sustainability, access to healthy food and retail at pedestrian level at prices residents can afford. They want to support and fund Downtown Eastside arts and culture. They want public spaces to be public and streets that are safe for walking and cycling. They want more treatment centres and services that reduce harm, and healing centres that get at the roots of problems. They want to preserve the community’s cultural and social diversity and they want a place where low income residents feel at home. They want residents involved in decisions about their own neighbourhood.
This is our home in the heart of the city- the historic district, Vancouver’s founding story and soul.
by Savannah Walling