Community and resistance in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

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So much has been written about the Downtown Eastside by the media, academics, as well as enumerable studies and even internationally. Yet it remains an enigma to those on the outside looking in, often reduced to harsh one-liners and stereotypes that fail to portray the complexity, rich history and deep sense of community that exists in what is often described as Canada's poorest urban postal code.

Reading the current series in the Globe and Mail, "The Nation's Slum: Fix It," I have been both infuriated and provoked by the articles. Like many, I balk at headlines and descriptions that portray a helpless throng in deep despair waiting to be pulled out of poverty by healthy doses of middle classness and development.

But, when you read these Globe articles more closely, it becomes clear that the underlying story, the real story, is one of community, resistance and social justice.

When I was a community organizer in the early 70s, the area was known as "Skid Road," not much different than many such inner city areas in North America. It took a remarkable effort to transform "Skid Road" into a community called the Downtown Eastside. This happened because visionaries like Bruce Eriksen, an unemployed local, started organizing and fighting for the right to decent housing, community space, protection under the law and human dignity.

Out of the early struggles came the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA): the realization of a long journey whereby local residents asserted their own voices for a decent quality of life. We took on slum landlords, a city that ignored its own by-laws and demanded and got funding for new social housing and the opening of the Carnegie Library at Main and Hastings.

People in the Downtown Eastside fought back because they believed, and still do, that as a community, with roots and connections, decent housing and basic amenities are attainable and don't have to come at the expense of evicting people because they are poor.

So what is the trouble with the Downtown Eastside?

The problem lies not with the community itself -- though it is often portrayed that way -- (it knows what it needs); it is more a problem with the attitude of government -- that can't acknowledge the failure of its public policy regarding the provision of social housing, income distribution and health. Neoliberal polices of fiscal restraint, privatization and de-regulation have taken a huge toll in this community. While various good initiatives have been started, like the Vancouver Agreement, it has unquestionably been the loss of social housing and loss of income that is doing the neighbourhood in.

The abandonment of federal housing programs in the 1990s still resonates in the levels of homelessness we see today. And the fact that income supports are stuck at 1994 levels means poverty is deepening and affecting more people. I remember the days when local residents could still afford breakfast at the Ovaltine, or buy household items at any number of local stores. That's now an impossible luxury for many residents.

Underlying this struggle is increasingly valuable real estate. The pressure for re-development becomes a convenient solution to the areas problems, thus further marginalizing the efforts of local residents to keep their own neighbourhood. No one is calling for the status quo here. Upgraded and new housing are badly needed -- but for whom and how much? And why is there an assumption that if you move in more middle class people, the area will "improve." Would any other neighbourhood willingly let itself be dismantled because someone else says it will be good for them?

Much coverage has also been given to the drug crisis, providing many a sensational story, with numbers over the years that would have you believe every single resident in the community is a drug user. Not so, of course. But more important is that the Downtown Eastside led the way in challenging current conventions on drug policy and the war on drugs by advocating for substantive changes -- like INSITE, and the need for drug law reform. A debate that began in the "nation's slum" is gaining resonance across Canada.

The Downtown Eastside is a very strong community that has survived many attempts by others to reduce it out of existence.

What the Downtown Eastside needs most of all is what local activists like the Carnegie Community Action Project have been working for all along: recognition that this is a community, that low income residents have a right to be there and live a decent life; and not face the continual insecurity of poverty and lack of safe, affordable housing. This means all levels of government must do their part to ensure liveable incomes; prevent the loss of low income housing; upgrade -- where feasible -- and replace and develop new social housing units.

The Downtown Eastside is an energetic and strong community that has led the way on many issues and refuses to give up. It is a community of diversity; of parents and their kids; of poets and artists, where activism and hope thrive.

I hope the series in the Globe and Mail will help get us past the gruesome headlines and stereotypes to a better understanding based on the real community that is there.


Libby Davies is the Member of Parliament for Vancouver East.

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