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Encounters with Vancouver (#2)…

May 18, 2016

IMG_4292Flying into Vancouver – it was a beautiful sunny morning – and out the window we looked north – looking down at snow-covered mountains that went as far as the eye could see, and we ooed-and-awed at their splendour and at our fortunate economic circumstances that allowed us to be flying into Vancouver early on a sunny morning.

We had our AirB&B in Kitsilano – near, but not close to the beach – at 13th and Dunbar – on one of those beautifully treed streets that remind you of South Halifax, or the back streets in the Annex or Riverdale in Toronto.

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13th Street at Dunbar, Vancouver

A post World War II neighbourhood with 150 year-old trees that canopy the street, a park at the end of 13th, an old Chinese lady teaching tai chi in the mornings as I walked by on my way to one of the neighbourhood cafes that bake their own pastries and roast their own coffee.

It’s late spring, unusually warm, everything is in bloom, the air is tremendously fragrant, the joggers jog, the cyclists bike, the dogs run and play, my café muffin is full of antioxidants and organic berries, and my baristas are tattooed and named Stephanie and Eric.

IMG_4334The thing you notice about Vancouver – Kitsilano, North Van, UBC, Granville Island, is that the whole city seems to have been put through a giant carwash. Everything is so clean and sparkly and white.

My sister-in-law takes us to the Vancouver Art Gallery (the VAG) on our first Tuesday night, as it’s ‘pay-what-you-can’. Everyone is dressed up in tremendous peacock costumes of urban hipsterness, post-modern irony, vintage dresses, awesome cleavage, manbuns, etc., – the VAG is, afterall, doing their largest exhibit yet, a feast to Modernism and mash-up culture – taking us from the early 20th century modernists through to DUB music, vidding, and contemporary art in consumer culture.

The exhibit is exhaustingly large, at times informative, with lots of “the Emperor has no clothes” contemporary stylings on the definitions of modern art (as far as I am concerned.)

After which my sister-in-law’s hipster friends take us to a new and hip restaurant/craft beer house – on a street that is gentrifying and now ever so cool – again reminding me of what is happening in the poorer districts of North Halifax, Queen Street West in Parkdale, or what we saw in Brooklyn a couple of years ago.

There’s only one catch. We are standing on East Hastings. We are in that part of Vancouver where all the broken people from all over the province (and beyond) have come to live and die on the streets.

heroin-alley-vancouver.jpgEast Hastings. Where, when you get off the bus the stench of urine smacks you in the face like a janitor’s 10-year-old unwashed rag from the bus station.

East Hastings. Where you step off the bus and immediately watch a man shoot smack right there in front of you, lying on the sidewalk with his equally wasted girlfriend.

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East Hastings. The urban war zone. Where, if you need to dream a post-apocalyptic nightmare of homelessness, despair, addictions, violence, rape; watching as the cop cars cruise down the street like sharks; where you look up at rotting roach-infested slum hotels; where alleyway blowjobs are proffered for a quick fix; where, you realize, a great river of pain flows straight down from the mountains and valleys to this delta of sadness and sorrow.

To allow, to accept East Hastings, is to say that the rest of the clean-and-shiny-and-hip-and-middle-class that Vancouver so desperately wants to be is a fraud. A massive and ugly fraud.

Nor is it a new fraud. I first came to Vancouver in the early ‘80’s and East Hastings existed then.

Now gentrification is coming to the neighbourhood. Push the street people further east, bring in the condos, and the craft breweries, the hipster furniture stores, the whole grain yoga studios, the glutton-free bakeries. Fuck the poor!

The overwhelming lack of political will to address the reality of East Hastings is the great shame of Vancouver. How we treat the poor is the great shame of all Canadian cities – but here, it is most shameful. It is so bad at Hastings and Main that the United Nations has condemned the city and the province for this human rights violation.

To suggest that there is not enough “wealth” to solve the problem is an insult to the notion of wealth. Vancouver is one of the wealthiest cities in the world; it consistently ranks as a top-five city in which to live.

No, a lack of wealth is not the problem.

Old Testament notions of crime and punishment, libertarian self-righteousness, overt racism (40% of the homeless here are Aboriginal), an almost complete (wilful) lack of understanding of the impact of mental health – a collective psychosis really – are the problems.

Vancouver’s middle-class is obsessed with the idea of the clean-and-shiny, but at its heart the city is Dickensian in its dealings with the poor and the dispossessed. The city consistently ignores report after report that highlights the extremes of the problem and the expert suggestions on how to begin to resolve the problem.

East Hastings is an insult to any set of professed ethics this town’s elders claim to live by.

It is disgusting. And it is shameful.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Suzanne permalink
    May 19, 2016 3:56 pm

    The way the real estate market is going in Vancouver, you can say goodbye to the middle class too. Vancouver could very well become a city of empty homes and streets full of homeless people. Mayor Robertson rode in on a platform to end homelessness two terms ago. Look what Vancouver’s turned into – all on his and Premiere Clark’s watch. The mayor aims to run the City on total green energy within just a few years – with his track record, he’ll be burning coal by then.

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