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OUT THERE: A juxtapositional afternoon in the DTES & Gastown


Oh, the West Coast!  There was a joke when I lived in Ottawa that went something like, “If you’re Canadian and you’d like to visit your money, then come to Ottawa!” because it was a good place to see where our tax dollars were hard at work, what with all those national museums and whatnot. During a week down at the coast this month, and experiencing for the second time this year the supremely complex and disruptive construction going on around the new Port Mann Bridge, a project of mammoth proportions, my new joke is, “If you’re British Columbian and want to visit your money, just drive to Vancouver.”

Not only will you see for yourself how enormous this multi-billion dollar project is, but as a tax payer from this part of the province, you might seethe at the fact that the coast is getting fabulous new infrastructure and we are getting diddly squat.


But this is not a column about infrastructure imbalances, but rather an imbalance of another kind you can only see in places like Vancouver: the imbalance of the so-called “haves” and “have nots.” The gap between rich and poor is so blatant in Vancouver, so in your face, that it puts a black mark on the face of that city harsher than this month’s rioting after the Stanley Cup final. Not to minimize that disaster at all, but it was one night. I have witnessed for myself the poverty juxtaposed between the affluence for the time I lived in the GVRD in 2004-2005, and in all my subsequent visits to the city in the years since.

It doesn’t go away, and it’s not getting any better.


Vancouver’s downtown east side (DTES) is the epicentre of “have not” culture. I’d been there a couple of times in the past, but during this month’s trip I got a more personalized tour from my friend Nola Maison, whom I used as a source in my recent Mentally Interesting piece. Nola spent time in a shelter in the area, so she knows it well.


My afternoon visiting with my friend was a juxtaposition in and of itself. We met at Waterfront Station and then proceeded to have a coffee at Starbucks right by the Gastown steam clock. Gastown is a chi-chi shopping area and slight tourist trap, and on that particular afternoon, there was a Disney cruise ship in port and the tourists were aplenty. Once done gabbing over drinks, we poked around the shops, neither of us buying anything, but enjoying the stores nonetheless. I spent quite a bit of time in an upscale shoe store where I tried on several pairs of $300+ shoes I have been drooling over online for months. I was treated like a celebrity and enjoyed every moment of it. After that, Nola and I walked up to Main and Hastings, where the corner was very busy.


On the sidewalks, for about a block of East Hastings between Main and Columbia, the entrepreneurial spirit of the neighbourhood was in full swing. On blankets, all manner of “stock” was available for sale, kind of like a bazaar. Nola told me that most of the wares on offer were stolen goods, and if one was so inclined, one could find a nice variety of prescription medications for sale if you were in need. She told me a lot of Seroquel gets sold here. For those of the non-mentally interesting crowd, Seroquel is an atypical anti-psychotic prescribed at higher doses for schizophrenia and at lower doses as a mood stabilizer and/or an anti-depressant booster for people with mood disorders. If you’re not mentally interesting, you’ll just feel stoned.


Someone heckled me for taking photos, so I tried to be discrete. I was struck by the run-down buildings and plywood boarding up the fronts of long-closed store. From Gastown to this in a matter of a few blocks is a harsh contrast indeed.


The next block, between Columbia and Carrall, was even more crowded. It was thick with people and hard to navigate. What we were navigating around was a huge long line-up of folks accompanying shopping carts piled high with recyclable cans and bottles. They were there for the afternoon opening of United We Can, the local bottle depot. Nola told me this organization has weird hours, and indeed, it was about 2pm. The amount of bottles and cans people were hauling with them was quite astounding and Nola said that a person can make $60-120 per day just recycling cans and bottles. She also said that panhandling can bring in anywhere between $60-80 per day. Incidentally, there was a bit of a police presence on hand at this time.


Between Main and Abbott Street on Hastings, there are a lot of smelly alleyways, more boarded up businesses than we could count, and seedy pawn shops and thrift stores. But there are some bright spots: a community garden sprung up in the place of a burned-down club, and although it was protected by a heavy mesh-like gate, it looked quite like an oasis and it was obvious someone was taking good care of the space. I also saw InSite, Vancouver’s controversial safe injection site--a project of which I happen to be a fan.


Eventually, we found ourselves at the Army & Navy store, which is a shopping experience like no other. It’s a store that sells literally everything under the sun and a great mix of people shop there for the fabulous prices. I loved the basement full of shoes, personally. The store is wedged between East Cordova and Hastings and is broken in two by a very ugly alley that is an experience in and of itself.


The whole time I was in the DTES, I was never threatened, propositioned, approached, or bothered, except when I was heckled by one of the entrepreneurs. And apart from seeing all that entrepreneurial action, I never saw anything nefarious go down, and I never saw any drug paraphernalia or other iffy detritus.

In fact, I have to say it had a kind of jovial, community feel about it. It was a nice day, everyone seemed to be in a good mood, and I didn’t really feel too uncomfortable. While I don’t think the DTES will ever be a tourist hot spot, I did feel that my walk-through with Nola was a good thing to do. After all, this area is controversial, it’s on the news all the time, and the issues there are very real. What I saw was merely a facade, and I know that. But I don’t think anything will every be done about the problems there unless the Average Joe goes out and sees it for himself rather than just via the safety of the boob tube.


The DTES is juxtaposed between Gastown and Chinatown, but Nola and I didn’t have time to visit Chinatown. Nola had transit to catch back home so we headed back towards Waterfront Station. Before we parted, though, she took me to an amazing graffiti alley off a quiet block juxtaposed between the chi-chi-ness of Gastown and the grittiness of the DTES. What I was there was beautiful. A lot of people had put in a lot of time and effort to make what would otherwise be a grungy byway between vastly different districts into a piece artwork using part of the urban landscape as a canvass. It was as definite bright spot in a dark place.


After Nola and I parted, I returned to Gastown to await my own ride to where I was staying. I was starving so I hit a cheap sushi joint on Water Street. It was filled with people more of the ilk I saw at the fancy shoe store. I had come full circle, and my afternoon had suffused me with a lot of gratitude that I didn’t need to recycle bottles or hawk stolen goods to put food in my belly. But the contrast between the two neighbourhoods I’d visited that afternoon didn’t sit well with me. The imbalance was obscene.

From multi-billion dollar bridges to fancy shoe stores to a small army of bottle recyclers and sidewalk salespeople...It made my sushi a little hard to swallow.

Out there is an occasional column dedicated to the adimttedly controversial notion that there is, in fact, life beyond the gates of the Mountain Kingdom. Check out this gallery of Allyson's photos from her trip.