UBC and the Downtown Eastside: worlds apart

The Downtown Eastside

If you take public transit to the Downtown Eastside from UBC it will take about an hour to get there. As you get closer to your destination, you pass through the downtown commercial district where, during the day, the sidewalks are full of people dressed for a variety of roles. Many wear business suits and carry briefcases, talking animatedly on cell phones while they walk. Some are more casually dressed, perhaps shoppers or tourists or service workers. Occasionally you see a street person looking disheveled, maybe pushing a shopping cart or carrying garbage bags full of cans that will be returned for the deposit.

Gradually, the street scene changes. Instead of large stores, office towers, and the signs of mainstream commerce, you see vacant, boarded-up storefronts. The men and women in suits are gone, replaced by people with long, unkempt hair and mismatched clothes. But many of them, too, are talking on cell phones while they hurry along the sidewalk. Beside the boarded up storefronts are construction sites where the hoarding advertises new condo developments with upbeat names offering the latest elements in the urban lifestyle for what in Vancouver’s inflated real estate market passes for an affordable price. Coffee shops bearing familiar franchise names, high-end restaurants, and boutiques sit uneasily beside nondescript convenience stores and bars with signage that only the initiated would recognize.

If you get off the bus at the intersection of Main and Hastings streets, you are immediately struck by the contrasts to the UBC campus. The air is thicker, more polluted, noisier. The streets are vibrating with life. The six lanes of traffic on both Hastings and Main carry a steady flow of cars, trucks, and buses. Chances are you will hear the siren of at least one emergency vehicle. Instead of orderly streams of people moving purposefully, there is chaos. Some people move quickly, apparently with a clear goal in mind. Others walk slowly or change direction without warning. Still others are just standing, watching. They don’t seem to necessarily be waiting for anything in particular, they are just there.

It takes a while but you start to see some patterns in the mass of people moving around you. There are Chinese seniors laden down with bags or hand carts overflowing with obscure vegetables and animal products. There are more Aboriginals than you see in most neighbourhoods in Vancouver. Of the women, some are thin and have a haunted look. There are an unusual number of people using wheelchairs to get around or walking with difficulty, perhaps with the aid of canes or crutches. You will see a few well-groomed people, casually but neatly dressed. They are likely to be professionals who work in the many social service and health agencies in the area. These are increasingly hard to differentiate from the new residents in the area, the mostly young urbanites who have been attracted to the condo developments.

But even with the growing gentrification of the area, the predominant demographic is still white, male, and over 30. Many of these men are former loggers, fishers, construction workers, and miners, a category of resident that has been the mainstay of the population in the Downtown Eastside for decades. Many suffer from work-related disabilities complicated by alcohol and drug use. Most of these men are poor, surviving on disability or welfare payments or old age pensions, if they manage to reach their 60s.

You will see some people displaying behaviours that you tend not to see in other neighbourhoods. Some people talk, shout, or swear at no one in particular. Others dart out into the six lanes of traffic apparently unaware of any danger. Someone might approach you to engage in a conversation that usually includes a request for money, often embedded in an elaborate tale of misfortune with the promise of redemption if only he or she can pull together a specific amount of money.

Or the unusual behaviour may be its striking absence: people lie or sit slumped on the sidewalk, oblivious to the scene around them. These may be people with mental illnesses who took refuge in the area’s cheap hotels in the 1970s and 1980s when the province’s mental hospitals released patients without providing suitable community supports. Some are younger people with mental illnesses who have never been institutionalized who gravitate to the area because the housing is cheap, the health and social services are accessible, and the local community is tolerant of what would be considered deviant behaviour elsewhere. Many of the people with mental illnesses have become dependent on alcohol and drugs and have joined the ranks of what the health professionals call the dually-diagnosed, a status and a lived reality that is almost impossible to shake.

If you stay outside the Carnegie Community Centre at Main and Hastings long enough to let the scene absorb you, you will start the see the drug deals that no one really tries to hide. There are young men in dark clothes, some with hoodies over their heads, whose eyes dart back and forth, on alert. These men engage other people, but none of them linger. Depending on what you look like, you may be asked if you want to buy. If you are female and alone, a man might approach and ask if you are working. You start to realize that this is a centre of commerce, but not the kind that is studied in economics classes.

Carnegie CentreIf you venture into the Carnegie Centre, you find yourself in what is acknowledged to be the heart of the Downtown Eastside, its living room. Just like the Ike Barber Learning Centre at UBC, the Carnegie has a library, classrooms, meeting rooms, computer stations, a cafeteria, places to sit and chat, and an auditorium. But unlike the new Ike Barber Centre, the Carnegie is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It is the site of the original public library. It has a marble spiral staircase adjacent to a three-storey high stained glass window portraying the grand old men of Western thought. The steps are so worn down by generations of feet going up and down that you have to hang onto the handrail to avoid getting vertigo.

Like the Ike Barber Centre, the Carnegie is always full of people. But most of them, like the building, seem weathered and worn. Unlike the students at UBC who seem to shine with good health, most of the poor residents in the Downtown Eastside have health problems, some as life-threatening as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and tuberculosis. Many are visibly unwell, especially those with the gaunt, grey faces of habitual drug users.

But if you take the time to notice, you will discover a social atmosphere in the Carnegie that does not exist at the Ike Barber Centre. At UBC, students are on their own, or with one or two other students or a small group. Many of the groups seem insular, speaking in languages other than English. You see a collection of isolated small units of humanity, each doing similar things but acting independently of each other.

playing cardsIn contrast, at the Carnegie, it seems everyone knows everyone else. The history of the building provides the container for the histories of the interactions among the residents of what is, in fact, a very stable community. People move often in the Downtown Eastside because their housing situations are so precarious, but they tend to stay in the neighbourhood. The Chinese seniors playing mah-jong may look like they do not have much in common with the younger guys with their long hair tied back in ponytails playing cards but they greet each other by name and share jokes in passing.

Obviously, UBC and the Downtown Eastside are very different environments. But once you get to know them, you see some surprising similarities.