Sam Fenn and I have spent much of the last week looking at development (or gentrification, depending on where you stand) in Vancouver’s downtown east side. Today, there was a large rally of 200-250. CBC did cover the protest, but made little mention of its actual demands. Nevertheless, its worthwhile to watch their video (partly because there’s actually a shot of me, around 1:42:00).
Going to that rally today, I expected to see mostly middle-class university kids who have their own ideological agenda, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The vast majority were community members (mostly Aboriginal), who want suitable housing and reasonable jobs. They called for a “social justice zone.” If you are anything like me, you probably like the sound of that, but have no idea what it actually means. The demands are quite specific, and rather ambitious. From the CCAP, (click the link to read more details):
1. NO CONDOS BEFORE LOW-INCOME PEOPLE’S HOMES
2. REVERSE THE LOSS OF HOMES & SHOPS FOR LOW-INCOME RESIDENTS
3. ENSURE JOBS FOR LOW-INCOME RESIDENTS
4. PROTECT RESIDENTS’ SAFETY
5. END DISCRIMINATION SO EVERYONE CAN ACCESS THE SERVICES THEY NEED
The demonstration was not jovial and exciting, like your usual environmental rally. The overwhelming majority of the speakers were angry and desperate, and expressed feeling deeply neglected and abused by everyone involved in the transformation of their community. Of the formal consultation process, protestors seemed to have little hope, citing the rapid growth in condo developments during the two-year ordeal. Of the police, there were several stories of brutality (one speaker said that the cops were beating him, and when he asked why, they said “because you’re Indian”), and there were other stories of residents being harassed by petty fines. Of PiDGiN and other up-scale commercial developments, the crowd said “they are trying to divide our community.” And at the protest’s first stop, BC Housing, speakers labelled them “negligent slum lords,” claiming that people have died because of poor conditions at squalid social housing developments and government-subsidized SROs.
Spending nearly a week in the downtown east side, I am surprised they are not even angrier. On every corner, you see nothing but neglect. From the Listerine and Lysol addicts with nowhere to turn, to the women who choose to be homelessness rather than be sexually assaulted in squalid SROs, the DTES is undoubtably the most tragic environment I have ever witnessed.
However, the community’s strong social bonds make it supportive and resilient. For the most part, people who talked to Sam or I did not ask for hand-outs. Instead, they argued passionately about how gentrification destroys the existing community support networks. For example, one resident argued against PiDGiN because he claimed the new condos above the restaurant threaten the weekly flea market. The market is a critical opportunity for the community to support itself, but the new middle-class residents disapprove and complaign. Similarly, at today’s rally, the key concern over the Pantages condo development was what it would mean for the future of InSite, a supervised safe injection site across the street from the Pantages lot.
Surveying all the community support groups, from the CCAP to the DTES Women’s Centre, and reading publications like the Downtown East newspaper, it is clear that DTES residents couldn’t be working harder to fight for their neighbours. Even at a micro level, you see people supporting each other in ways that seem unthinkable anywhere else in Vancouver. For instance, during our first night covering the PiDGiN restaurant, a mentally-disturbed man with a clenched fist ran after Sam and I. Earlier in the day, we saw him choking and punching a stranger, and when we asked what his problem was, Sean, another resident, told us: “that’s Jeremy, stay away from him, all he does is drink Listerine and start fights.” Here I was, a kid with nearly a thousand dollars of sophisticated audio equipment, and Jeremy was coming after me. Luckily, we had Sean by our side. When we were fleeing Jeremy, in that moment of intense fear, Sam asked Sean “do you have our back?” He said yes. Sean, who we had known for less than half an hour, was willing to face Jeremy to protect us.
Ultimately, there was no fight. When Jeremy reached us, Sean stepped in, cooling Jeremy down. Then, all Jeremy did was grab our microphone and rap incoherently about a girl who broke his heart. I don’t know if Jeremy actually wanted to fight us, or if all he ever wanted to do was play with our microphone. But looking at his clenched fist and scarred face, Sean didn’t know either, and he had prepared to defend us.
Sure, this is just a trivial story from a yuppie who is deathly afraid of any and all danger. However, it was an important moment for my understanding of the community. Even as an outsider, I knew that somebody had my back. And that, I have realized, is what the DTES is all about. In the face of tremendous challenges — like homelessness, mental illness, and addiction — the residents are not giving up on each other.
Keep posted on this blog and our Twitters (@gord_katic, @samadeus) to learn more as this story progresses, and the other podcasts Sam and I are working on. Here’s a sneak peak of some of the things we have in mind: we go to a Pentecostal rock concert in interior BC, and explore charismatic Christianity; we learn more about the DSM-V by sharing confessional audio diaries from those struggling with mental illness; and we look at historic tourism at the sight of a great Canadian battle, Vimy Ridge. It all begins first day of classes, Sept 2013.
One point of clarification for this piece: the anti-gentrification protest and the PiDGiN picket are two separate things. We’ve covered both, and I wrote about both in this piece. Some people at the rally who called for a “social justice zone” does not necessarily support the PiDGiN picket. However, the rally did stop at PiDGiN and there were speakers who denounced the restaurant.