The most notorious slum in Canada gets a millionaire makeover
“I’ve got to be
out by September,” says Joe, pointing to the Pacific Hotel, a boarding house in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Inside, rats with names— Mick and Joe are two—patrol the halls. Sometimes bugs drop from the ceiling. But for years, the Main Street hotel, with its streetlevel pub, has been home. Come fall, it’s unlikely Joe will be able to stay here, the city’s last affordable neighbourhood. The rash of new condos like Ginger, the green-and-orange block going up next door, with units topping $900,000, have made his $350-a-month rental rare. “I don’t know where I’m going to go,” says the carpenter, who’s on disability, as he casts his eyes over a stretch of Main Street the Vancouver Sun recently dubbed “too desolate” for “even the drug crowd.” Right now, there are no vacancies here.
The unthinkable is happening. The Downtown Eastside, Canada’s most notorious slum, is quietly disappearing. The “sold” signs are everywhere—most along Hastings Street, ground zero of the city’s drug and homelessness crises. In the past 24 months, hundreds of lots have changed hands as developers and speculators snap up deeds to the city’s so-called final frontier. Some of Vancouver’s biggest players have bought in, including Holborn, the group behind the $500-million Residences at Ritz-Carlton; Westbank Projects, developers of the Shangri-La, the city’s tallest tower; and Macdonald Development Corp., which hopes to erect the Downtown Eastside’s first high-rise. Despite fierce community opposition, Concord Pacific—the company founded by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing that made a killing redeveloping the site of Vancouver’s Expo 86—is barrelling ahead with a glass condo project along Hastings’s seediest stretch. Nearby, heritage developer Robert Fung has seven multi-million-dollar restorations on the go, including two turn-of-the-century Hastings Street jewels: the Flack and Paris Blocks. Rave reviews,
meanwhile, keep pouring in for Salt, a chic charcuterie in Blood Alley. Vikram Vij, who owns Vij’s, one of the city’s hottest restaurants, is said to be sniffing around the area for a new venture. Yep, there’s gold in them thar blighted alleys.
These urine-soaked sidewalks seem the world’s least-likely candidate for a makeover. But a few years ago, Bob Rennie, the city’s most influential realtor, started telling investors that property values in the Downtown Eastside, depressed for decades, were set to spike. “It didn’t take a genius to figure it out,” he admits. Vancouver is a peninsula. (Outpacing the entire continent, about 20 per cent of Vancouverites have already squeezed themselves into its dense core.) But the downtown was almost out of developable land. “The only thing left was the Downtown Eastside,” says Rennie. The market just needed a signal. And it came in 2003, with the resolution of a long-running dispute over the abandoned Woodward’s department store on Hastings Street.
For years, an ugly battle had raged between area activists who wanted the massive, blocklong site to become social housing, and some in the business community who thought you might as well stick a fork in the neighbourhood if that happened. Then, in 2003, the province sold it to Vancouver’s newly elected city council, for a paltry $5.5 million. The deal hinged on the city’s left-leaning council endorsing the 2010 Winter Olympics, which council had originally opposed. Jim Green, the past director of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, then a powerful city councillor, negotiated a plan that would ultimately see the construction of a mixeduse project that combines market and nonmarket housing on the Woodward’s site. Many of Green’s old friends and allies were dismayed. “It was a classic case of Nixon in China,” says Gordon Price, director of the city program at Simon Fraser University and former long-time Vancouver city councillor. There would have been a “riot” if anyone else had tried it, he adds.
When completed in 2009, the $330-million redevelopment will stack 536 market condos
atop 200 units of social housing, making Woodward’s the most radically inclusive project in city history. “There’s nothing like it in North America,” says lead architect Gregory Henriquez. At ground level, the million-squarefoot complex will house a grocery store, a gym, London Drugs, the local office of the National Film Board, and SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. TD, the first bank
to move into the neighbourhood in decades, will open a branch. “A lot of people are going to mix in there, and, hopefully, learn to live together,” says noted installation artist Stan Douglas, who’s finishing up a giant photomural of the Gastown riots for its atrium.
But the project unleashed a wave of gentrification. Two years ago, Rennie, the project’s marketer, sold out the redevelopmentsmack in the middle of the war zone—in just 12 hours. Marketed with the tag line “Be Bold or Move to Suburbia,” the sale took on the “fevered atmosphere of an Oklahoma land rush,” wrote the Sun. For the development community, this was the cue. Not only were middle-income Vancouverites willing to invest here, hundreds had lined up for the Woodward’s pre-sale two months before demolition crews even set to work.
This spring, hundreds of low-income tenants, including some of the city’s neediest residents, were evicted as landlords cashed in on
the boom. A fifth of the area’s low-rent residential hotels, with a total of 1,178 rooms, have been sold. About 80 people now sleep in Oppenheimer Park each night. The problem is “dramatically bigger than it ever was,” says Rev. Ric Matthews of First United Church, where 120 people sleep on the pews daily. Michael Clague, a long-time neighbourhood advocate, says the Downtown Eastside is facing two very different futures. “One, we gentrify, and the community that’s there disperses and vanishes,” he notes. Or take the energy that’s coming in—driven by the private market—and harness it to create social good, says Green. It’s a battle being waged in most gentrifying neighbourhoods across North America—but in this case magnified by Vancouver’s overheated, condo-mad economy, and the history of these streets.
The Downtown Eastside, says Price, is unlike any other hard-luck neighbourhood. Historians believe the term “skid row,” which originally referred to the path loggers used to skid logs to the mill, may have originated
here. Since the ’40s, it’s been a bare-knuckles haunt with a healthy stock of bars, brothels and cheap hotels. Then came the gradual emptying of the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in the ’60s; thousands of ex-patients flooded the city’s cheapest neighbourhood. Today, 85 per cent of the area’s estimated 4,000 drug users have hepatitis C, 40 per cent are mentally ill, more than 30 per cent have HIV, a rate of infection not seen outside subSaharan Africa, and one in 150 residents is thought to suffer from oral cancer (compared with a provincial rate of one in 10,000). The mortality rate is about 15 times the norm. “On average, addicts will die in their early forties,” says Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician practising in the Downtown Eastside; he has only one patient over 60.
Perversely, the powerful grassroots lobby
that for 25 years worked to shield the neighbourhood from market development, and support its cruelly marginalized residents,
helped to create the current mess. First, a large stock of high-quality public housing was built to shelter the growing disadvantaged population, explains University of British Columbia urban geographer David Ley. The intent was humane, but the housing served to “consolidate” the area for low-income people, he says. Then, the neighbourhood was targeted for “whole series of social services,” he says, noting the needle exchange, free dentist, and supervised-injection site, among scores others. Too many fell into the trap of becoming “palliative care,” adds Rev. Matthews— including his church. By being allowed to “tread water,” says the minister, originally from Johannesburg, “marginalized people simply continue to be treated as marginalized.”
The result was the most extreme concentration of urban poverty in Canada. By the ’90s, every business except the pawnshops and 24-hour convenience stores had left, says Reid Shier, who then ran Or Gallery on Hastings. The introduction of crack cocaine—cheap as dirt and wickedly addictive—“took the neighbourhood by storm,” says Dean Wilson, a heroin addict who has lived here for over 20 years. “Before, no one would come down here unless they had $40. Then, all of a sudden, you could get a $10, a $5 hit.” Even the artists—gentrification’s foot soldiers—couldn’t ride out the tide. Shier closed up shop in ’98. By then, the area looked like a war zone: boarded-up, anarchic, forbidding.
When Woodward’s opens in a year, the picture will be very different. But what’s to become of the residents? Some are being driven east to outlying suburbs, but they won’t disappear completely, as they have in gentrifying U.S. neighbourhoods like New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. Within these 10 blocks, there remain 10,000 units of lowincome housing, plus over 200 social service agencies. “They aren’t going anywhere,” says Price. But there’s been a definite shift in thinking by officials who see the failure of containing service, and the need to introduce a more mixed community, adds Ley. Last month, the B.C. government, which has begun reopening psychiatric hospitals, including Riverview, cut the ribbon at a facility treating psychiatric patients with addictions in neighbouring Burnaby—outside the Downtown Eastside. A year ago, a drug treatment facility opened in the Okanagan town of Keremeos. Still, no one believes the neighbourhood’s edge will ever fade. Walking down Hastings today, you’ll still see people tweaking on the street, dancing alone to their own mad beat. You might pass someone walking a pet rat on a rope. “This will never be another Yaletown,” says Ley, referring to the high-end, high-rise neighbourhood next door. “No one wants another Yaletown,” adds Rennie. M
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