By Savannah Walling
“It is like the heartbeat of our city and what happens here happens to all of us.”
Libby Davies, MP, Vancouver East, from forward to Hope and Shadows
Some stories about Vancouver’s development are to be found only in the streets, buildings and landscapes of the Downtown Eastside – and in the memories of its residents. They are part of the founding story of this city, the common heritage of all who live in Vancouver. These Living Stories – and the stories of people who live here today – are the foundation of our Downtown Eastside community.
A spit of land on Burrard Inlet is the birthplace of Vancouver. During most of the city’s first hundred years, this area was simply known as the East End. Its natural borders are the waters of Burrard Inlet on the north. Its eastern and western borders were formed by tidal streams flowing through the gullies of today’s Campbell and Carrall/Columbia Streets. Its southern limits were the tidal flats of False Creek. Today’s it’s called the Downtown Eastside.
The place from which Vancouver grew, it’s one of the city’s least understood and most publicized communities.
Ancestor’s of today’s Coast Salish peoples used this spit of land for thousands of years, establishing along the fertile shores of Burrard Inlet and False Creek seasonal villages like K’emk’emlay’ (Q’umq’umal’ay’) and Lek’lek’i (Luq’luq’i). Use rights for its waters, lands and tidal flats were overseen by a complex traditional governing system. The area was a hub of major trade routes between inland Coast Salish and interior groups – a place to meet others who hunted and gathered. There has always been a strong First Nations presence here and still is today – it’s called the largest urban reserve in Canada.
Since Vancouver’s founding upon unceded Coast Salish territory, this spit of land has been an entry point for successive waves of immigrants and young families. It’s a working and retirement home for resource workers. It’s a haven for middle class professionals who value sustainability over growth. It’s a sanctuary for artists and the marginalized. Today the world of these residents co-exists in many of the same places as the world of the street scene.
Shaped by a mix of housing, industry, cultural diversity and history, the Downtown Eastside’s distinctive, overlapping mini-communities feature Vancouver’s oldest buildings: Gastown, the Main and Hastings corridors, Chinatown, Japantown (Powell Street), and Strathcona. Each street is like walking in a different neighbourhood, filled with interesting people from different walks of life and circumstance. The neighbourhood attracts and keeps people with a deep loyalty to their home.
Over and over, year after year, community members have mobilized in their struggle for dignity, fair working and living conditions, affordable homes, work and wages, harm reduction and treatment centres; theatres, gardens, community spaces and cultural centres. They join forces to protect their community whenever its survival is threatened. They fought for recognition as a residential community. They fight to preserve its historic physical form and scale; its beautiful old buildings, its green spaces and access to the water front. In the words of Downtown Eastside poet Sandy Cameron, “the history of the DTES has been one of struggle, of loss, of celebration and perseverance”.
Back in 1935, protestors – striking long-shoremen and their supporters – marched towards the Heatley St. entrance to Ballentyne pier where strike breakers were unloading ships in the harbour. When the demonstrators refused to turn back, they were attacked by police with clubs and chased for three hours through the Downtown Eastside streets, stores and even Strathcona School. Supporters set up a hospital at the Ukrainian Hall. Although the strike failed, the longshoremen continued to fight for the right to form an independent union of longshore and warehouse workers. Ten years later, they succeeded.
During the 1950’s, city planners declared this area a slum despite evidence to the contrary, neglected its infrastructure and as a result the neighbourhood deteriorated physically. The city’s planners intended to wipe out huge chunks of today’s Strathcona, Chinatown and Gastown to make way for high-rise towers and a super-freeway to speed traffic from New Westminster to downtown Vancouver and a third crossing over Burrard Inlet. By 1967, despite protests, 15 blocks of the neighbourhood were acquired and cleared for urban development. Hundreds of homes were lost. But the neighbourhood refused to die. Shirley Chan, Hayne Way, Darlene Mazari joined hundreds of people within the neighbourhood and beyond who stood up for community. They fought for years until they stopped the freeway and convinced city officials to abandon urban renewal in favour of rehabilitating existing homes.
In 1975, the newly-formed Downtown Eastside Resident’s Association (DERA) demanded official recognition for the area as a residential community and the right to its name from a so-called Skid Road to the Downtown Eastside. People like Bruce Eriksen, Jean Swanson and Libby Davies started organizing and fighting for people’s rights to decent housing, community space, protection under the law and human dignity. They never gave up. Thinking outside the box, they called on a host of creative, humourous, publicity-friendly but hard hitting strategies. Their years of struggle achieved bylaws requiring hotel sprinkler systems; lighting in alleyways to reduce crime; safe and secure social housing with its own bath and kitchen and the establishment of the Carnegie Community Centre.
Grassroots initiatives forced government policy to change, to abandon plans for an inner city freeway and high-rise towers. As a result of these initiatives, the provincial and federal government invested in innovative social housing programs and a Neighbourhood Improvement Program that launched a cultural renaissance, improving facilities at cultural centers; and supporting creation of the Powell St. Festival.
As new physical and social changes seriously strain our community’s social fabric, new grass roots initiatives are rising to confront the challenges. Today, for example, the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) works on housing, income and land use issues. It is also mapping the Downtown Eastside community to uncover stories of places residents value in our neighbourhood, places they find meaningful, and how we can make dangerous or unwelcoming places safer.
Downtown Eastsiders are sharing our stories of today and times gone by with words and images, in paintings, photographs, songs, dances, films, essays, plays, and poems.
Our stories provide ways for people to talk – in their own words – about their experiences and ways of being in the world. These stories are not always easy to hear, nor easy to obtain, nor easy to tell. They uncover our hardships and defeats, but they also reveal our strengths and possibilities. Loss is a profound turning point in many of these stories. So are struggles for justice and human rights and testimonies that play a part in the process of transformation.
Our stories celebrate people who manage to thrive and be decent to each other in spite of terrible obstacles, misery and poverty. Our stories remember those who have been lost and those who have re-discovered who they are. Our stories honour our ancestors and heroes past and present.
Our stories, like our ceremonies, show how – as a community – we can come together despite our seeming differences to bring about positive change for the future and make the Downtown Eastside a healthy community for those who call it home. Our stories remind us to never, never give up; that gains always have to be defended; that you can’t leave it to other people to fight your battles; that all of us are involved; that success – and survival – depend upon helping and supporting each other.
In the words of Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome in the book Hope in Shadows, our stories are “sparks of life and threads of wisdom”. Our stories make us whole, giving us a sense of our roots, our places of belonging, our destiny. They help us draw strength from the past; to feel proud of our history and who we are; to have the courage to keep going; and to never lose hope.