Gentrification in “My Brooklyn” and the Downtown Eastside

Carnegie Community Centre Association president Gena Thompson with "My Brooklyn" director Kelly Anderson and producer Allison Lirish Dean
Carnegie Community Centre Association president Gena Thompson with “My Brooklyn” director Kelly Anderson and producer Allison Lirish Dean

By Gena Thompson

On Monday May 6, Carnegie Community Centre Association president Gena Thompson spoke following the screening of a new documentary, “My Brooklyn” at the Doxa documentary film festival. “My Brooklyn” shows how a planning process and major rezoning gentrified downtown Brooklyn in ways that are eerily similar to the processes currently underway in the Downtown Eastside. For more on My Brooklyn see and keep a eye out for a screening at Carnegie in the near future.

I would like to tell you all about a hidden and secret part of Vancouver: the Downtown Eastside.

It’s hidden and secret in a paradoxical sort of way, because of course everyone knows about it. Everyone knows what the Downtown Eastside is like, what sort of people are there, what those people do, and what should be done with them. Everyone knows how it feels to drive or take the bus through the DTES. Everyone knows you are allowed to laugh at the people you see there. Everyone has the answers.

The fact that everyone already knows all this stuff means they have been, on the whole, rather resistant to hearing another version of the story from the people who live in the DTES. And I don’t mean “live there” in the sense that you moved into a 8th storey condo a few years ago, your car is safely parked underground, and you love your community because the restaurants are so cool. I mean “live there” in the sense that your entire support network of friends, food and services is within walking distance; and in the sense that you may not feel safe or welcome anywhere else in this city.

We all know how important it is to feel safe, welcome, and at home. Those of us fortunate enough to have been born with race and class privilege value those feelings so much that we demand to feel safe and welcome everywhere. If a person or place makes us feel unsafe, why, we can call 911 and have it made safe for us. And we take it even farther than that: not only does every space need to be made safe for us, but it also needs to be made accessible, welcoming, and pleasing to our aesthetic sense. We demand these things without giving a thought to whether or not those spaces and people feel safe and welcome around us. And the problem is… they don’t.

Everyone knows change needs to happen in the DTES. Despite what you read in the comments sections of news articles about what is almost inevitably labelled “Vancouver’s notorious” DTES, no-one is crazy enough to fight for the neighbourhood to stay the same. We need housing. Without secure, stable housing affordable at the welfare rate, all of the other benefits being added to the community will be for someone else, for the people who come after the people who are here now.

The DTES has an interesting zoning quirk: no market housing may be built in the DEOD (an area composed of Hastings Street from Carrall to Princess and north to Alexander St) unless it contains 20% social housing. This zoning is the reason why DTES has remained a low-income enclave for so long. But now, with the Woodwards development and other upscale places blocks away, land value has increased to the point that market development  can be profitable in the DEOD despite the inclusionary zoning. And now the changes will be coming faster and faster, and it will be harder and harder to secure housing affordable at the welfare rate in the last remaining sliver of the DTES where it has so far been protected.

Never mind food. Food is everywhere in DTES. You can eat for free 3x a day, every day, and all it will cost you is several hours of walking from place to place and standing in line.  Stable housing is literally the foundation of a better life. No person, no matter how well fed, will be able to heal their wounds, recover from addiction, take care of their own physical and mental health, or get a job without first having a home. So why is securing new housing such a polarizing struggle, while throwing a bunch more food onto the pile is a celebrated move? The difference here is the difference between justice and charity. It is the state’s job to provide housing and services to marginalized and vulnerable people, even those who are unable to sweep sidewalks for a few bucks. Even those who are unable to behave properly. Even those who will never recover from the damage that’s been done to them. What are governments for if they don’t provide these things?

Charity, on the other hand, merely tries to plug an ever-widening hole. The legacy of charity in the DTES is closely linked to colonialism. You may recall that for over 100 years, Native children were offered free educations by churches and governments. Ten to 15% of the present population of the DTES has direct lived experience of this charity. Charity can also be selective; there are many stories of poor Chinese seniors being ejected from food lines amid racist taunts, because the myth is that they have more money than they admit. There is a myth about charity, too: that it flows out of respect for the less fortunate. Charity is almost always a better deal for the donor than it is for the recipient.

The movie pointed out that what is happening in the DTES, in Brooklyn, and in cities all over the world is not the consequence of people making emotional decisions about where they would most like to live, shop and play, but is rather a product of zoning and public/private partnerships quite explicitly planning to divvy up and parcel out neighbourhoods in such a way as to maximize profit for developers.  This is a planned process, not an organic one, as some business-oriented people would like us to believe. If the destruction of the low-income, working class, Chinese and First Nations DTES is planned, then its preservation can also be planned. Carnegie has a subcommittee called the Community Action Project, and after their years of research to show that low-income people are losing ground in the heart of their own community, they have arrived at this conclusion: zoning must be used as a tool to keep down land value and guarantee affordable housing. CCAP is now calling for 100% social housing in the heart of the community, 70% in other areas without existing plans, and 30% in the rest of the community and city wide.