UBC and the Downtown Eastside: not so different

On the surface, the Downtown Eastside and the University of British Columbia seem very different. But in both environments, there are shared rituals and common expectations of daily life. There is a diversity of daily rhythms and routines in the Downtown Eastside that is analogous to the differences in the rhythms of students, faculty, and staff at UBC. In both environments, some people keep to a disciplined routine; others go with the flow. Some feel at home; some do not.

Rhythms and routines

The UBC campus is populated mostly by young, healthy students who are oriented towards what they assume will be a bright future. UBC is a place where people’s behaviour appears orderly and geared towards the achievement of specific goals: classes to attend; papers to write; books to read; and grants to apply for. But, as in any community, there are those who are drifting, not sure where they are headed or why.

The Downtown Eastside has historically been populated by older, low-income people. Many are unwell; many do not have much to look forward to. The behaviour of low-income residents can appear to be disorganized. Other than the regular monthly distribution of welfare cheques, schedules do not seem to have much weight. But there are daily rhythms. Drug users are driven by the need to get a steady supply of drugs; their days are goal-oriented and busy. People who rely on social agencies for food have a regular routine; e.g., First United Church for breakfast, the Sally Ann for lunch, and the Union Gospel Mission for dinner. This routine involves a lot of time standing and waiting in line, often in the cold and rain. Many people are committed to volunteer work, artistic endeavours, or activist projects and focus their days on these interests. But others who do not have volunteer or paid jobs or do not have family commitments can drift through the day if they want to.


When I started working for UBC in the Downtown Eastside in 1999, I could see that the university was a wealthy environment while the Downtown Eastside was not. But by 2011 when I left the Learning Exchange, the contrast was not as striking. Gentrification had advanced in the Downtown Eastside; signs of prosperity were evident. Indeed, in the 2010s, this was one of the curious similarities between the two environments. New building construction was booming in both areas despite global economic problems. Both environments were attracting new residents who would likely bring change to both areas.

Other similarities can be revealed if you scratch beneath the surface. The economic and social infrastructure in both the university and the Downtown Eastside depend on government funds for their continuation. The institutional elements of each area (whether it is the bureaucracy at UBC or the government agencies and large non-profit organizations in the Downtown Eastside) are financed primarily by the state. The individuals who work in these institutions and many in the Downtown Eastside who are served by them also are dependent on the state. Angus Reid, the well-known pollster who was a professor for a time, pointed to the kinship between professors and poor people when he famously said that the life of the academic constitutes “welfare with dignity.”

The social ecosystem

Another similarity is that mental illness is a factor in both areas. Students tend to suffer from anxiety and depression whereas the mental illnesses found in the Downtown Eastside also include schizophrenia, personality disorders and post-traumatic stress. Substance abuse, too, is common in both places, although the reasons for alcohol and drug use and the patterns of use may be different.

UBC campusBoth environments also have hierarchical social structures that share similar features. The university social system consists of several categories of people with defined, distinctive roles. At the top of the pyramid are the President, executive, Board of Governors and Senate—entities which govern the institution and, in the case of UBC, the immediate surrounding residential area as well, which is not part of the city of Vancouver or the Metro region. Deans and Department Heads oversee faculties and academic units. Individual faculty members have the autonomy to decide what they teach and how as well as what they do research about and how. At the bottom of the pyramid are staff members who perform a myriad of tasks that keep the institutional infrastructure going: processing student applications, serving food, managing budgets and IT systems, organizing co-curricular activities for students, and so on. Passing through this infrastructure is a steady stream of undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and other transient participants in the system. As transients, they have little real or lasting influence on the way the system works.

The Downtown Eastside is not one bureaucratic institution, but its social ecosystem has categories of people arranged in hierarchical layers. Although the boundaries around each layer, the channels through which they interact, and their respective positions are not as clear as at UBC, the hierarchy exists. The system in the Downtown Eastside is more informal, more fluid, more contested, and more affected by outside influences than UBC’s. In fact, gentrification is changing the power dynamics in the neighbourhood in ways that are hard to define because so much is in flux.

An admittedly simplistic description of the Downtown Eastside social system includes the following categories of key players:

  • high-level government bureaucrats and policy-makers (e.g., urban planners, public health officials, politicians from all three levels of government);
  • front-line representatives of government bodies (e.g., police, social workers, street nurses, community centre staff);
  • professionals who work in the non-profit health and social service agencies in the area;
  • property owners, including local business owners;
  • low-income residents who work, some at more than one job, but who receive subsistence wages only, many of them struggling to support their children;
  • long-term Chinese residents, including many seniors;
  • low-income residents who are not drug addicts, most of whom receive welfare or disability payments,
  • low-income newcomers to the area, including recent immigrants;
  • drug addicts; and
  • people connected to organized crime.

As at UBC, there are large numbers of people who pass through this social ecosystem without having much influence on how it works.

Two points need to be made about the list of key players in the Downtown Eastside. First, it is difficult to say which category or layer is more or less powerful than another because this determination depends on your vantage point. For example, a mainstream professional viewing the system through the lens of conventional assumptions about what power is (e.g., the ability to make social policy, influence public discourse, and provide or withhold goods and services such as health care, food or shelter) would say that professionals have more power than poor residents. However, some low income residents see the hierarchy differently because they understand power differently. Some marginalized people believe their exclusion from society gives them more freedom and power than those who are entrenched in the mainstream.

In addition, people establish social boundaries in different ways. Some Downtown Eastside residents respect homeless or mentally ill people but they believe drug addicts are not worthy of respect. Others put women at the bottom of the social pyramid. Others put different racial groups at the bottom. The main point here is not which groups are located in which positions, but that the social system is very hierarchical. Insiders in the Downtown Eastside make subtle distinctions about who is located where in the pecking order. These status distinctions undermine romantic illusions about the solidarity of the poor. But if there is a perceived need to unite against a common enemy, status differentials can be put aside, albeit temporarily.

The second point to make about the list of key players is that organized crime is one of the most powerful forces in the Downtown Eastside. Everyone in the Downtown Eastside knows this. It is common knowledge that people who are particularly vulnerable (e.g., those who are young, mentally ill, and/or new to the neighbourhood) are intentionally recruited into the drug scene. There is a lot of money being made from the drug and sex trades. But, despite its visible presence and acknowledged power, the role of organized crime in the Downtown Eastside seems to be a taboo topic. It is rarely discussed in the media or by policy makers.


There are obvious differences between the formal, stable institutionalized bureaucracy of the university and the informal social ecosystem of the Downtown Eastside. My purpose in presenting this brief outline of the two social systems is to introduce the idea that they also have important similarities, including that they are both profoundly hierarchical and hence, power over or dominating power is the most visible way that power is exercised in both contexts. For example, in the university, the governing bodies make budgetary and policy decisions that everyone else has to comply with. Professors make decisions about student grades. Professors also make decisions about whether their peers get tenure.

In the Downtown Eastside, governments make budgetary and policy decisions that can seriously affect professionals and residents: jobs or homes can be lost. Professionals can deny services to residents for a number of reasons, including not meeting eligibility criteria for benefits or past unacceptable behaviour. Business owners can harass and stigmatize low-income residents. Residents can harass and stigmatize each other. Organized crime can intimidate and inflict physical harm on people.

In both environments, power is usually seen as a zero-sum game. There are limits to the benefits that are available whether these are research funds and scholarships or free meals and shelter beds. As a result, both environments are highly competitive. There might be instances of cooperation designed to maximize the chances of winning the prize, whether this means groups of faculty applying for interdisciplinary research funding or poor people holding a place in the mission food line for their friends. But the predominant assumption in both contexts is that you have to look out for your own interests because if you don’t, someone else will get ahead of you. The experience of rejection is not uncommon: students are not accepted in the school or program of their choice; professors do not get the research grant they need to keep a project going; drug users cannot get into a detox program when they are ready to quit; or poor people cannot get funds for the medications or supportive aids they need to keep them functioning.

The competitive nature of both environments tends to make them both insular. The image of the ivory tower, perhaps surrounded by a moat, is well-known. Some believe the university should be separate from society in order to preserve the sanctity of the pure pursuit of knowledge. UBC is one of those universities whose physical location, in this case on a peninsula distant from the commercial and cultural centre of the city, contributes to its isolation. Even without this geographical separation, UBC, like most universities, is inward-focused. It has a clear societal mandate and strong, internally-driven traditions and norms about how to fulfill this mandate. Academics are resistant to critiques from outsiders that are often seen as threats to academic freedom or unacceptable attempts to corporatize the university.

The Downtown Eastside, too, has historically been insular, resistant to incursions from outside forces, especially mainstream institutions that believe the neighbourhood needs to be “cleaned up” or “fixed” or “revitalized.” Efforts by low-income residents and activists to resist the development of more market housing in the area are driven by fears that what has been valuable about the neighbourhood—its sense of community and inclusion of people and behaviours that are not welcome in other areas—will be lost. So both the Downtown Eastside and the university fear the loss of what they value most as a result of outsiders breaching the boundaries of their territories.

The haves and have-nots

The university and the Downtown Eastside have more in common than a casual glance would suggest, especially if the focus of your gaze is the lived experience of the individuals who are inside each social ecosystem. But if the focus is the question of social, economic and cultural status and power, the conclusion that these two environments are different is inescapable. Both UBC and the Downtown Eastside have enormous symbolic power. But each represents the opposite pole on the mainstream spectrum of social value. To put it simplistically, UBC is home to the haves; the Downtown Eastside is home to the have-nots. If the Downtown Eastside is where the under-privileged live; UBC is where the over-privileged reside.

The media and cultural stereotypes portray the university as the place where the best and brightest are found: noble scientists dedicate their lives to the pursuit of knowledge; every day medical discoveries are made that will cure diseases and extend life; science and technology will solve the world’s most pressing problems, including climate change, pollution, and natural resource depletion. Universities are the launching pad for the leaders of tomorrow. Universities train and bestow legitimacy on the professionals whose expertise keeps societal institutions running: teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, planners, social workers, and engineers. The academy is society’s arbiter of what constitutes legitimate knowledge. The hype about “the knowledge-based economy” places universities at the leading edge of the push towards the future.

In contrast, the media and cultural stereotypes portray the Downtown Eastside as the landing place for the down and out. As one professional in the area put it during the consultation that led to the creation of the Learning Exchange, “The Downtown Eastside is like society’s black hole. All the issues society doesn’t want to look at end up here— poverty, mental illness, alcohol and drug use, prostitution, and violence.”  Although the image may be changing as gentrification progresses, for decades the Downtown Eastside has represented the worst of urban decay. Its well-known brand is “Canada’s poorest postal code.” Countless media stories, public forums, and meetings of bureaucrats and professionals have focused on the question of what to do about the Downtown Eastside. The primary foundational assumption is that it is a neighbourhood that is not acceptable as it is. The secondary foundational assumption is that the current residents are incapable of solving the problems in the area on their own and therefore outside intervention is required. The Downtown Eastside is not master of its own destiny.

(For more on the Downtown Eastside, go to Getting to know the Downtown EastsideMoving in from the margins, and Being on the outside.)