It’s no secret that I’m a real fan of any housing that lets people live in the city of Vancouver. Houses, duplexes, condos, rental suites, basement suites, laneway houses. Bring them on, in greater numbers. I think that anyone who wants to should live where they want, in the city that has won the Best City in the World award and offers everyone the joys of living in a big, cosmopolitan, multicultural metropolis such as this.
Vancouver hasn’t always been such a “cosmopolitan” place. We’ve always been a railway terminus and a seaport, a place of sawmills, stevedores and gandydancers, hard-working blue-collar workers. And for many, many, many years, these people have ended up in the Downtown East Side (DTES) when they couldn’t work any more because of age or injury. That neighbourhood has been the skid road — a term that started in this town when the corduroy log-paved roads would be greased to allow logs to slide down them to the sawmills — of Vancouver. It’s a district of Single Room Occupancy hotels, where the sad and the broken live. There are drugs, drug users, drug sellers (they don’t have to be pushers down there, just vendors). There are people struggling — and losing — with substance abuse of every kind. There is prostitution. There are the mentally ill. And there are also the agencies and organizations who help these people through their struggles. It’s a tough neighbourhood — but caring.
So in the middle of this vibrant town, full of life and activity and fun, there’s a place of shadows and sorrow.
Right next to this area is Vancouver’s Chinatown, a cultural treasurehouse. But it is also feeling the pressure of urban development.
The property these areas sit on is becoming more and more valuable; development is pushing into it, squeezing the “have-nots” into a smaller and smaller area.
Now maybe the city has found a solution to the squeeze.
From the Vancouver Sun comes this story of a new revitalization of the downtown east side and its centre, Hastings Street.
Today, Hastings is the heart of the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s most troubled neighbourhood. Hastings has become synonymous with drugs and poverty, an internationally-known eyesore.
But change may be around the corner. The city of Vancouver has spent the last couple of years going through a new Downtown Eastside local area planning process (LAPP), in tandem with many of the neighbourhood’s most vocal anti-poverty activists.
And therein lies the secret to this plan’s success. Lots of times experts and pundits and caring folk from all around the city will try their best to solve the problems of civic blight. But it’s only because they have pulled in people who live and work and advocate here that I think that they might have a chance to make this work.
If the Downtown Eastside plan succeeds — and that’s a big if — much of Hastings between Clark Drive in Strathcona and Abbott Street in Gastown is likely to be replaced with new developments. Taller buildings filled with single room occupancy hotel rooms, known as SROs, around Hastings and Main will probably survive, but most everything else is up for grabs, unless it is a designated heritage building or existing social housing.
There will be condos allowed in the five blocks between Clark and Heatley, as well as in the two blocks from Carrall to Cambie. Any new development will have to include 20-per-cent social housing.
The condo-free zone between Heatley and Carrall is called “Hastings Central.” Maximum heights range up to 12 storeys, although pure social housing projects can apply to go higher. All new projects in this zone have to be at least 60-per-cent social housing.
Overall, the plan calls for 4,400 social housing units to be built in the Downtown Eastside. Most people think this is the rough patch around Hastings and Main, but the city plan defines it as a much larger area that includes surrounding neighbourhoods like Victory Square, Gastown, Chinatown, Strathcona and Thornton Park.
Is it going to work? Who knows? It’s a noble effort, there are lots of people who are fighting it — well-meaning people with good arguments against it.
I’ve had some spirited discussions with them. Why should developers buy into this plan? Why should we, the lucky ones, bother with these people, drug addicts and the like?
Because, that could be us. One or two mis-steps. Age. Illness. Injury. We could be there. According to counsellor Andrea Reimer:
She figures fewer than a hundred of the Downtown Eastside’s 18,000 residents are involved in the street disorder that goes on. Most of them just “fell through one crack, and then another.”
“How many times did I meet guys who lost their job, got divorced, had gambling addictions, were injured at work and were on pain medications they couldn’t get off of. People with brutal childhoods. It’s amazing that some of them are still walking around, right? And some of them aren’t.”
I want it to work. I want the people who live in the DTES to have clean, safe, pleasant homes to live in. And I think it could work if those homes were a mixture of those who have and those who have not.
I want it to work because I think the true measure of a society is how they care for those who cannot take care of themselves.