Ghettoizing neighbourhood can’t fix it
Twenty years ago, local musician Kuba Oms was recording at the Miller Block, a now defunct Hastings Street recording studio near Save-On-Meats. He jaywalked and was stopped by a cop, who handed him a ticket.
“I said ‘Are you kidding me?’” Oms recounts. “You know there’s a guy shooting up over there, and a crack dealer over there. And the cop said ‘That’s a health issue.’”
That story pretty much sums up the city’s attitude toward the Downtown Eastside over the past few decades. In some ways the cop was right — it is a Vancouver health issue. But letting people openly do drugs in public and turn Hastings and the wider Downtown Eastside into a ghetto is political correctness gone mad. Drive down Hastings Street between Abbott and Gore and you’ll see dozens, even hundreds of people hanging out on the street, in various states of sobriety. They are definitely not social distancing. It’s a miracle that COVID-19 hasn’t swept the entire area.
The height of this madness was the recent occupation of Oppenheimer Park. Vancouver has real issues of homelessness, but to some degree Oppenheimer was about a fringe group of politicos manipulating the homeless. Many police resources were diverted to the park and there was a crime wave in nearby Chinatown — one business closed because they were being robbed a dozen times a day.
The province recently made hotel rooms available for the homeless people occupying Oppenheimer Park, so things have calmed down somewhat. But the big question is what happens in a few months? Is government going to find permanent homes for them?
Odds are if they do, it will be in highrises in the Downtown Eastside. For decades that’s where the city and province have been concentrating social housing, especially for the mentally ill and drug addicted.
Their argument is these residents feel comfortable there. But the reality is the more poverty is concentrated, the worse the area seems to become.
Maybe it’s time for the city of Vancouver to give its head a shake and realize that its much-ballyhooed Downtown Eastside Plan is actually part of the problem, not the solution. Part of the plan decrees you can’t build condos on Hastings between Carrall Street in Gastown and Heatley Avenue in Strathcona, or in historic Japantown around Oppenheimer Park. Development in those areas has to be rental only, with at least 60 per cent social housing. This pretty much ensures that no market housing is built in the poorest area of the city.
When the plan was unveiled in 2014, Vancouver’s former head planner Brian Jackson said the aim was to ensure that low-income people in the Downtown Eastside weren’t displaced. “The plan is attempting to achieve balance,” he explained then. In fact, the plan does the exact opposite. There is no balance in the Downtown Eastside: It’s been turned into a ghetto. A friend who’s worked there for two decades calls it a war zone.
The city desperately needs some market housing, co-ops and development on Hastings and around Oppenheimer. The anti-poverty activists will scream blue murder that it’s gentrification, but it’s actually normalization. You don’t have to displace anybody, you just have to add a different mix to make it safer.
I live in Strathcona, where about 6,500 people live in social housing and about 3,500 in market homes. It’s a close-knit neighbourhood that has the balance Brian Jackson was talking about — it’s diverse and features a variety of incomes.
Japantown and the Downtown Eastside could be a real neighbourhood again if the city retained its stock of handsome historic buildings but allowed some development of its many non-descript structures. It could be like Strathcona, even the West End. But I fear it could get even worse, if the planners and politicians continue to concentrate all the Lower Mainland’s poverty and social ills in one small area.
John Mackie is a veteran Postmedia reporter who has written several stories about Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Plan.