A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the Fight for Its Future

By Neil Boyd, Larry Campbell and Lori Culbert
Greystone Books, November 30, 2008, $24.95

A Thousand Dreams tells grim stories of missing women, sardine and cat food diets, epidemic illness and the crippled support systems that struggle to manage the situation that is life, and survival, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Although they never lived in the neighbourhood of which they write, the book’s authors spent much of their professional lives in its streets, meeting its residents and uncovering its secrets. The team, consisting of a journalist, a coroner-cum-politician and a criminologist document work being done in the east end community. Careful not to overlook the positive, the book shines a light on successes like harm reduction and Insite, the supervised injection site that won a recent constitutional challenge over the Harper Government. However,the battles depicted here are largely bureaucratic, and power is accessed through political clout.

Much of A Thousand Dreams details the health and social services available in the community, yet it is not for residents of the neighbourhood, it’s an introduction for outsiders. Compelling to read but not comprehensive; the book uses case studies to illustrate how an individual navigates the system, telling stories of a few as seen through the eyes of community organizers attempting to support them.

Outside of these studies the vast majority of the east end’s poor, drug-dependant, mentally ill and desperate appear faceless in the book, shifting indistinguishably like clouds overhead. No doubt, an impression not intended, but A Thousand Dreams focuses on challenges understood by most Canadians — ineffective RCMP funding, back-room maneuvering, high-rise developments, Da Vinci’s Inquest — not cat food for dinner, a dirty needle for dessert or a damp parking garage for a bed. The remarkable stories are about the activists, writers, organizers and health professionals who fight for the future of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.–Megan Stewart

Megan Stewart is an independent journalist in Vancouver, where she is completing her graduate degree at the University of British Columbia.

This review first appeared in The Dominion.