Yesterday I got my first Vancouver Canucks paraphernalia, just in time for them to lose 8-1. A woman is printing t-shirts in the neighbourhood that say “DTES Canucks Fanclub”. Many people are wearing them around here and the park building that usually closes around 5pm has stayed open later on game days to show the game and serve popcorn.
There is a real sense of community here as well as a sense of pride. Many people, I suppose are ashamed to live down here and I still find it difficult to say where I live since I don’t want to have too much of a conversation about it (it seems impossible to live down here and not make some sort of a statement [this is actually the case for the majority of neighbourhoods in Vancouver—each having their own stereotype]). People are generally very open and willing to get to know each other. I often conduct conversations with folks just walking down the street, though I suspect part of that is due to being with my kids. People love to flirt with babies and toddlers.
Of course there is no denying the problems associated with the Downtown Eastside. Even the most liberal of civil libertarians probably would admit to the harmful effects of heroin addiction despite wanting to end the prohibition of it. The same people who want to legalize it are the most ready to praise the establishment of the safe injection site—that site being a way of mitigating the harm that comes with hard drugs.
Instead of getting too much into the science and politics of harm reduction, I’ll just present what I see as the reason the Downtown Eastside exists in the way it does. It seems to me that the singularity of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is due to the confluence of a great many factors, modern, historical, and even prehistorical.
I’m willing to hear other reasons for this place being as it is, but here is my theory:
When we lived in a different neighbourhood, I maintained and developed a small shade garden and occasionally helped out a master gardener prepare her garden for tours. The woman I helped had lived and gardened in several different areas in North America and claimed that Vancouver was the best place to grow plants on the continent because the soil was so rich. My understanding is that its latitude is just high enough to have experienced glacial activity fairly recently (in geological terms). The glaciers turned up the crust so that rich minerals had moved close to the surface and have yet to be depleted as they might have in other parts of Canada and the US. The Fraser Valley is famous for its rich farmland and it is due to these glaciers. The rich soil becomes even richer because of the weather.
More recently, the climate has become quite mild, melting the glaciers. Storms coming off of the Pacific Ocean are quelled by Vancouver Island and a misty rain consistently dampens the ground making for moist and acidic soil. The proliferation of coffee shops are partly the result of the regularly grey skies, but also the green grass and huge variety of rhododendrons and magnolias in people’s gardens.
Speaking of grass, the rich soil and moist climate also makes for the perfect conditions for marijuana. It is apparently very easy to grow marijuana here and the particular strain of it is famous among enthusiasts. There is a chapter about the marijuana industry in BC in Misha Glenny’s book McMafia discussing the global market for “BC Bud”, where Glenny rides with a smuggler across the quite lax US-Canadian border with hundreds of pounds of dope in his truck.
I have not yet mentioned in my blog the use or abuse of marijuana in the neighbourhood. It is not the drug of choice here since even the strong strains here are much too mild for the people on the street. But apparently, though some dispute this, BC Bud is so sought after that dealers will trade it pound for pound at the border for cocaine and heroin. If good marijuana is so easy to grow then that makes for really cheap cocaine and heroin—perfect for addicts who have little money.
There are many political reasons for the current state of the neighbourhood, but none more important than the international negotiations that led to the extension of the 49th parallel as the US-Canadian border before the incorporation of Vancouver 125 years ago. The US had ambitions to extend up to the 54th parallel, thus making the lower mainland and much of BC a part of America.
Vancouver has to be a part of Canada for this neighbourhood to be as it is, not just because of the American prosecution of the war on drugs or the differences between the countries’ treatments of the aboriginal nations, but also because (meteorological) Vancouver is the only city in Canada accessible by hitchhiking that does not freeze for long periods of time in the winter. If Vancouver is in the US, people could just go to Seattle, Portland, or LA. Despite the wet winter months, it’s much safer to live on the streets here than in Winnepeg or Toronto. So people make their way west and this is their only real option.
It is my understanding that Vancouver is the biggest city in the Lower Mainland (though it is only a matter of time before Surrey exceeds it [Surrey residents having their own serious drug problems]) because some wealthy land owner here bribed the railroad builders to extend the line from the harbour of New Westminster to Gastown. There are now two train stations in Vancouver, and the area between them, incidentally, is made up of Gastown, Chinatown, and the Downtown Eastside.
It is also my understanding that the biggest city in North Texas for a while was Waco, but when the railroad was to go through North Texas, Waco elected not to have it and so it went through Dallas instead. Now Dallas is Dallas and Waco has a lone skyscraper as the remnant of its former stature. Likewise, Vancouver is Vancouver and New Westminster is the name of the Anglican Diocese in the area. Big cities are much more attractive to people with few options. There are more programs, rooms, and a better infrastructure for the homeless in Vancouver and Dallas than in New West and Waco.
I’m sure other factors contributing to this neighbourhood in particular would require a dissertation, but this is a start. These four factors, in my estimation, create the possibility for the Downtown Eastside. More recent political and economic factors contributed to it and also threaten to destroy it. When that happens, I have no idea what will happen to the people already here who can’t afford to live anywhere else. Perhaps as Surrey grows, its desirability for the undesirable will grow with it.