“Downtown Eastside shouldn’t be ghetto for poor”
The Province, Jan 21, 2011
I’m not sure why you wrote this article or how you have come to the perspectives on the Downtown Eastside expressed in it, but I thought I would respond to some of things that you say.
It seems odd to me that, after describing the Downtown Eastside as “a close-knit neighbourhood” and “the friendliest postal code in the Lower Mainland,” you would call for its complete destruction. Do you think friendly, caring and supportive communities should not exist in the city? Why would you advocate that the residents of this remarkable neighbourhood be dislocated and dispersed, and then integrated into other neighbourhoods?
On the one hand, perhaps you think that they will infuse the other areas of the city with their friendly, caring ways and so improve the character of our city as a whole. On the other, perhaps you believe relocation would facilitate their assimilation into the habits of atomized and alienated middle-class living, and enable them to construct successful lives of comfortable self-preservation through strategies of commodity acquisition and the pursuit of private interests and personal security. Or perhaps you think that, being surrounded by wealthier, vocationally-minded people, they will come to emulate the work ethic and fiscal wisdom of the upwardly mobile, and conform their lives more closely to the dominant mechanisms of capitalist command and discipline.
Maybe you imagine a better life for them than what you think they now experience. Instead of volunteering at Carnegie or VANDU, they could be working for $8 an hour at Walmart; instead of helping a neighbour with child-care or contributing to the Neighbourhood Council, they could be shopping at the mall; instead of contributing to artistic events or engaging in familiar social activities, they could be at home watching football, drinking beer and popping anti-depressants all alone. Frankly, I just can’t see why anyone would want to relocated people from a close-knit, friendly community like the Downtown Eastside to some other part of the city, where they have no friends, no familiar networks of support, and no pathways of community participation; and where the lives of others around them, despite material affluence, might be rife with loneliness, addictions of various kinds, and vacuous rituals of consumption.
Moreover, I wonder if it would be very beneficial to Downtown Eastsiders’ self-esteem to be forced to move from a close-knit, supportive and friendly community into a neighbourhood where vitriolic NIMBY sentiments toward social housing projects create a constant awareness of being despised and unwanted, and where unequal economic resources restrict or prohibit shared experiences with others on the block.
It is disturbing to hear you call for the forced displacement of people from their community against their will. Not only does it resonate with the historic discourse of brutal and devastating colonial strategies of displacement and assimilation imposed on indigenous people, it also goes against the grain of what DTES residents themselves say about their own neighbourhood. The community vision that emerged after hundreds of interviews with DTES residents by CCAP showed that 90% of the participants wanted to stay in the community, describing it as a place of acceptance, creativity and support not as a ghetto, slum, hellhole or violent open-air drug market (your terms). It seems you don’t know the community very well at all; you haven’t been listening to the people you want to displace very carefully,
A couple of other points. In one paragraph you state: “Two years ago, the province embarked on a project to create 600 units of “supportive” housing for low-income people with issues such as addiction, disability and mental illness. More than half these units were slated for the Downtown Eastside.” I’m not actually clear about the project you are referring to here. Are you thinking of the SRO purchases in the area? These are, of course, not new housing, there are more than 600 units, and most of them were in the DTES. Of course SROs, no matter how much paint is applied to the walls or what renovations are implemented, are not adequate housing. They are not self-contained units and were only intended for temporary and transitional use. We might think of them as sites of transitional homelessness.
On the other hand, you might be referring to the new 14 sites of supportive housing that the City and the Province are developing. In this case, however, only 5 are technically in the DTES (so less than half), and 3 of these are located on the outer edge of the neighbourhood, surrounded by condo towers and upscale amenities (so barely within the boundaries of the DTES). In any case, your statement is ambiguous and not altogether accurate, though I guess it works well for your argument.
In another paragraph you assert: “It’s also a community rife with violence, where the disadvantaged, traumatized and mentally ill are targeted by drug dealers and transformed into addicts with no hope for a better life.” This does seem to be an overly simplistic stereotype of the neighbourhood, and its sound-byte quality fails to offer any meaningful understanding of it. But then, you do not want people to understand the community; you want people to support its destruction.
It is arguable that the primary causes of whatever violence there is in the area are poverty and prohibition, and the legal and legislative frameworks that establish and police them. The pressures and strains that attend the deprivation of basic necessities, the humiliation of being poor amid the surrounding wealth of the city, the desperation to survive on income well below the poverty line, may well burst forth on occasion as personal violence or property loss, but that only masks the systemic violence of state policies that force people into such circumstances.
The most obvious source of violence in the neighbourhood is the regime of prohibition that renders some substances illegal and others legally regulated. Rather than setting all drugs within a public health framework of regulation, the production, distribution and use of some drugs have been criminalized, which means they have been put into the hands of organized crime to manage. There is no recourse within a prohibitionist criminal code to monitor the composition, sale or safe use of illicit substances, and no mechanism of appeal when transactions go bad. Add to this the astounding profits of an illegal market within a culture that idolizes wealth, and the conditions are set for violence to escalate. Again, larger structural forces are at work in determining the presence of violence in this community, and these same forces contribute to violence in many other communities as well. Displacing people from their neighbourhood is no solution at all. Drug addiction is rife throughout our city; it is just more visible in the DTES. So moving people out into other neighbourhoods would not solve anything; it just might make them more vulnerable to social stigma and police harassment. Hope for a better life (however that might be defined) would seem to lie within a supportive and caring community, not outside it.
So I can only think that the DTES upsets your aesthetic sensibilities, and you would like to see it destroyed and then transformed to look more like Yaletown. Ship everyone out whose material poverty is visible and whose life escapes the norms of a civil city. That seems to be your solution, but it just doesn’t make sense to me. Why not find ways to strengthen and solidify the wonderful attributes of the community, and support in new and bold ways the lives of those who call the DTES home? Why not amplify the positive assets of the community instead of destroy them?
What you have written is threatening and dangerous to a community already under great strain from urban planners and condo developers. We don’t need journalists adding fuel to the fire.