Residents fight gentrified Downtown Eastside

Photo: David P. Ball

"Our block has never been and will never be for sale," James Mickelson said, sitting just west of Hastings and Main, a few doors down from his home, the Regent Hotel.

Behind him, the wreckage of Pantages Theatre; its old brick front, and a jagged heap of cinderblocks, plywood and two-by-fours are all that remain of the heritage building, once hoped by locals to become needed social housing. Pantages is being demolished. A condominium tower being marketed to social workers -- Sequel 138 -- will replace it, here in the heart of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES).

From atop a street stage, surrounded by what organizers of last Saturday's march for safe, affordable housing called a "block party to block condos," residents and workers of the neighbourhood spoke of the rising costs of housing amidst an explosion of condominium development they say has outpaced affordable housing in the area by a factor of 11 to one. That number contradicts the City of Vancouver's own housing plan, but experts said there is little enforcement or inspection. The need for long-term, safe affordable housing is at crisis levels, they said. The City of Vancouver were not available for comment.

"Middle-class condo owners can stay out of our neighbourhood," said Mickelson. "This is the heart of the city. It's our neighbourhood." This was echoed as volunteers served free food nearby, children painted the sidewalks and neighbourhood artists with paint rollers fashioned a new crosswalk for residents across the busy four-lane road.

Speakers at the annual women's housing march addressed a plethora of crises facing DTES residents: rising housing prices, a lack of affordable lodgings, unsafe conditions for women, and deeply entrenched racism to name a few. The march also launched a boycott campaign against condominium developers and businesses unaffordable to residents.

Accompanied by giant anti-condo puppets, a mobile performance stage, DJ, salsa dancers and even a neighbourhood jazz band, the colourful march wove through the streets of the DTES and its parallel, upscale neighbourhood one block north, Gastown, where customers in expensive restaurants and luxury coffee shops faced an onslaught of street theatre. The skits decried the changes to the neighbourhood and their impact on local residents. One actor playfully alerted passersby to the spreading dangers of condominium use, suggesting they are leaky and untrustworthy as she held aloft a coat hanger of condoms.

The march was labelled a "gentriFUCKation" tour -- highlighting the damaging effects of commercial development, rezoning and rising prices on low-income residents, a process known as gentrification.

"We're hoping to get housing and not condos that push the poor out," said Stella August, a Nuu-chah-nulth Indigenous woman who helped organize the annual housing march with with DTES Power of Women Group, based out of the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre. "This is our territory; this is our community."

Despite the festive tone of the block party and street theatre, however, this year's march was overshadowed by a tragedy that many said represents the life-or-death nature of oppression in the DTES. Just the night before, 50-year-old Verna Simard fell to her death from her sixth-floor suite in the Regent Hotel. Her death came almost exactly a year after the unsolved falling death of another Indigenous resident of the same hotel, Ashley Machiskinic.

"For the woman we lost, I think she would want to have us carry on," August said. "[Verna Simard] was a supporter of [the need for] housing."

In fact, only days before her death, Simard attended a meeting of a hundred residents hosted by the DTES Neighbourhood Council, and spoke of her desire to get more involved in community organizing: "I want to come to meetings and get involved," she said. "I think we have to fight now to make thing better."

Mickelson, who lives in a single-resident occupancy (SRO) suite in the Regent Hotel like Simard, Machiskinic and hundreds of others, knew Simard well and said she had become sick from dust from the Pantages demolition next door, on top of already moldy conditions in the hotel. One of Simard's closest friends started a shrine of candles and flowers at the spot where she fell outside the Regent, explaining to rabble.ca that she tended it overnight as passersby offered tobacco and condolences.

"Verna was a very good friend and she's going to be missed," Mickelson said. "The conditions provide women no safety from violent men."

While the challenges facing residents of the DTES are complex and deeply rooted, say experts, the issue of rising housing costs can be explained by what urban geographers call "gentrification," a process in which low-income renters in a neighbourhood are displaced by middle- and upper-income owners, driving up property values, rent, and other costs.

"The problem," professor Nicholas Blomley, chair of Simon Fraser University's geography department explained in an interview, "is that the rate of market housing growth is out of balance with the provision of replacement housing.

"The [City of Vancouver] Housing Plan requires that they be in balance, and that monitoring occurs to ensure balance. This hasn't happened."

Blomley said that demographics of the DTES -- predominantly racialized and poor, and largely First Nations -- play a significant role in gentrification of the neighbourhood.

"The fact that a large Indigenous population lives in the Downtown Eastside, often under difficult conditions, is clearly associated with a history of dispossession and colonial policy," he said. "The existence of Chinatown, also in the DTES, is also a product of organized racism."

In February, City Councillor Ellen Woodsworth successfully put forward a motion creating Vancouver's first women-only shelter, and increasing women's safety in other housing shelters in the city. She credited organizers in the community for that housing victory, but cautioned that more needs to be done.

"The lives of women in the Downtown Eastside are getting worse, and particularly for Aboriginal women," Woodsworth told rabble.ca. "Welfare rates have not risen but it's not enough to pay for food.

"A shelter's not housing. Why are people are forced onto the street?"

Organizers said the annual women's housing march, in its 5th year, is an example of residents fighting back against gentrification and oppression in the DTES. A number of organizations, agencies and committees are taking an increasingly critical position of the city and various levels of government and their approach to the housing crisis. The opening of a women's shelter and projects such as a recent community consultation and visioning process by the Carnegie Community Action Project are cited as success stories.

"Community organizing plays a crucial role," Blomley told rabble.ca. "The fact that the Downtown Eastside hasn't already been razed has everything to do with generations of principled, organized resistance."

David P. Ball is a freelance writer and photojournalist in Vancouver, B.C., on Coast Salish territories. His website can be found here.

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