The Back Page

FINDING AN EASTSIDE FIX

Can the Olympics help turn around this Vancouver neighbourhood?

PAUL WELLS January 26 2004
The Back Page

FINDING AN EASTSIDE FIX

Can the Olympics help turn around this Vancouver neighbourhood?

PAUL WELLS January 26 2004

FINDING AN EASTSIDE FIX

Can the Olympics help turn around this Vancouver neighbourhood?

The Back Page

PAUL WELLS

JIM GREEN HAS A COLD. Every few sentences the Vancouver city councillor’s gravelly voice shrinks to a glottal croak and he pauses apologetically to cough his way clear.

He has a bad car too. He is driving me down Hastings Street in a rental too small for this fireplugshaped man, who wears a black overcoat with a matching porkpie hat. “My own car is in the process of blowing up,” he says.

But if you think Green has problems, you should see the neighbourhood he has called home for 30

years: the Downtown Eastside.

This used to be a working-class neighbourhood dominated by dockyards a few blocks away. Longshoremen and fishermen lived in the low-rent hotels that dotted the area, drank and fought in any number of beery dives. So this was never the ritziest neighbourhood, but it was stable: if you came here, you had a pretty good idea what you were getting into.

Green knew it well. A Vietnam-era draft dodger from the U.S., he worked as a longshoreman and boilermaker on his way to a Ph.D. in anthropology (his thesis was a history of the Canadian Seamen’s Union).

But somewhere in the 1980s the whole area “went sideways,” he says. His pet theory, contest-

ed by some other Vancouverites I met last week, is that Expo 86 made the Downtown Eastside fall apart. His new pet theory is that another global festival—the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistlercan help pull it back together. He used to live here in the nondescript Patricia Hotel. Out of 130 single-room units, perhaps 120 were rented by current or retired seamen. In 1986 the proprietors evicted every one with eight days’ notice as Vancouver got ready for the tourist influx. Some residents killed themselves. Then the money that used to get spent in dive bars decamped overnight to the Expo site and didn’t come back. With the closing of the immense Woodward’s department store, the area’s economy was shattered. “Then crack cocaine hit,” Green says. “And that’s about all you need.”

In 2001, with roughly three per cent of Vancouver’s population, the Downtown Eastside played host to 17 per cent of the city’s medical-emergency responses and 19 per cent of its mental-health caseload. Prostitution and theft are rampant. Drug addiction is pandemic. Social workers, non-profit developers and residents work bravely to bring hope back. Often the odds are too high.

Philip Owen, the last mayor, finally tossed up his hands and began advocating safe-injection sites so needle-drug addicts could shoot up in clean facilities where help was available if they overdosed. For his efforts Owen’s party replaced him as its mayoral candidate. Last year those machinations were punished by voters who have had enough of the Downtown Eastside’s horrors. They handed the opposition an overwhelming victory in municipal elections.

Green, who narrowly lost the 1990 mayoral election, was elected to council. His old pal, former coroner Larry Campbell, is now mayor. The cover on last month’s Vancouver magazine portrayed Campbell as a bloodied boxer, with Green as his corner man.

There is fragile progress. Campbell has opened a safe-injection site on Hastings Street The province sold the Woodward’s building to the city with a promise to include 100 units of social housing. Bidders have competing plans for the restshops, galleries and apartments. “Woodward’s represents the unifying project, if there’s going to be one, for bringing everything back together,” Green says.

We stop for a sandwich at a bright, clean café. Outside, a pimp drops off one of his hookers, a girl who cannot be 18 and who totters in a daze on the side-

walk. Green points out that visitors to these streets are rarely harassed. He points at the girl. “She’s the one in trouble. Not us.”

New governments in Vancouver and Ottawa are eager to turn cities around. The Olympics offer a deadline. This desire to clean up a mess before company arrives in 2010 may be less than noble, but Green thinks even flawed motives can be channelled into support for good works. He led the organized opposition to the Olympics, believes he won concessions, and now sees the Games as a way to focus everyone’s attention. “We have a tool here,” he says of the fast-approaching Games. “We can transform this neighbourhood.” 171

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