The city of Vancouver celebrated its 125th anniversary this past week. Of course 1886 was when the various settlements were incorporated and the city was born in a western political sense. People had been living in the area for thousands of years. When learning about the history of the city during this past week it seemed as though the history of Vancouver is really the history of the Downtown Eastside. One of the reasons the Downtown Eastside is not Downtown proper is because too many of the buildings have maintained heritage status and supposedly cannot legally be torn down. So skyrise office buildings and apartment buildings rise up west of historic Gastown and Chinatown, both early settlements during incorporation.
One of the celebrations in town was a birthday party in the plaza where the Olympic flame resides. I intended on going to the daylong concert but parenting and cooking duties hindered my participation. It was just as well since the headlining act was a band called 54-40, an act relatively unknown outside of Canadian radio until Hootie and the Blowfish covered one of their songs and then they became a footnote on Hootie and Blowfish’s Wikipedia site as well. I suppose I’d know more of their works but the advent of internet radio has allowed me to bypass Canadian content laws.*
The night after the concert, however, my wife and I went to a far more interesting and far more subversive celebration called “We Are the People.” I can’t imagine the show’s authors meant to invoke the opening line of the US Constitution, knowing a little about their other works. It’s possible I’m the only one who noticed their similarities since I was likely one of the only Americans in the audience. The show itself told the story of the Downtown Eastside in song form, a narrator introducing each number with a bit of historical background. My wife said she’d be angry if I mentioned this, but its structure reminded me of “Red, White, and Blaine” from Waiting for Guffman. And considering the small town feel of the Downtown Eastside, I think the comparison holds. I recognized several of the performers from the street and I’m pretty sure one of them works at the butcher shop. Both shows also served to inform as well as entertain.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine some of the numbers making the cut in a hagiographical production in middle America. Consider “Balmoral Cockroach” in which the titular character makes its way from a single room apartment in the slums to the upscale neighbourhood of Shaughnessy via a the shoe of a bourgeois family man/client of a prostitute trying to feed her own kids. There was also a rousing labour movement anthem, a song lamenting the prohibition of the opium trade, and one where the antagonist was a policeman trying to keep the streets “clean.” Along with these were less controversial acts like a Japanese dirge reflecting on the World War II internment camps (I technically live in what was once Japantown, but where very few Japanese people have lived for 70 years). There were also celebratory songs about the once thriving black population of the neighbourhood, a community which also seems to have all but disappeared.
Underlying the entire show was a recognition of the Coast Salish peoples who once solely populated the area. The Downtown Eastside is now considered the largest urban aboriginal reserve in Canada since up to 30% of the population is First Nations. There is a sad irony that 125 years ago, at the birth of the city, the native peoples were displaced from their land to make way for European entrepreneurs and their imported Asian labour force. Two generations later, as the city expanded and the Downtown Eastside became Skid Row (also skid road), the marginalized and displaced natives resettled the area. Now, the land is being re-viewed as increasingly valuable and it looks as though the natives who once left by force and resettled by necessity may have to leave by (economic) force again.
It was not my intention to be so political in this entry or this blog in general. My opinions are not fully formed on the politics of the neighbourhood. And yet, one cannot talk about the history of the Downtown Eastside without being political in some way. It is a tiny village surrounded by water, skyscrapers, and wealth with a voracious appetite.
One of the characters in the performance was a fictionalized Libby Davies, who happens to be the current Member of Parliament for East Vancouver and who also introduced the show. Her character successfully convinces a city alderman to cast a vote against highway expansion that would effectively destroy the neighbourhood. What some people saw as dispensable slums others consider community. Moving is difficult. Moving against one’s own will is demoralizing. Moving against one’s own will when all you have to your name is your neighbours is life destroying.
At intermission we spoke with a friend from our church whose husband couldn’t be there because he was at a meeting at the City Hall. The meeting was over the proposed change of the zoning codes to allow for more at market skyrise condos in Chinatown. There will be other performances tonight and on the weekend and I suspect that the audiences will be larger what with the absence of a cause to fight for or against (at least for a night or two).
*There are plenty of current Canadian bands I choose to listen to on their own merits, two of which have slightly embarrassing names: The New Pornographers, Les Breastfeeders, Broken Social Scene, The Be Good Tanyas, Arcade Fire, Bedouin Soundclash, Destroyer, to name a few.