V6A 1A1: Love Your Ghetto. Can you be a tourist in the Dowtown Eastside? Or are you just slumming?

22 Feb

When Vancouver concierges draw directions onto tourist maps, they draw a little red box around a certain part of the Downtown Eastside and say: “don’t go here.” The city was under immense pressure to sweep this area under the rug that was the 2010 Winter Olympics. The question: why hide the most compelling neighbourhood not just in Vancouver but the entire country? 


There’s no way to begin other than the checklist. You only get one first shot so don’t blow it circling in a cab with the doors locked like I did. Tell the driver to drop you off at Main and Hastings. Late in the afternoon. The southeast corner. The Carnegie Centre corner. Hastings rises east up the hill, and declines west. Chinatown is half a block south. The mountains are north—and don’t underestimate the thing those peaks do to this corner. Easy and ominous—like the physical downwardness of this strip of Hastings. But you’re just standing right now. On the corner. Making mental checkmarks.

The procession passes in a kind of Kim Mitchell cadence. Walking isn’t the easiest thing for this procession. It limps, staggers, sometimes falls, but flies forward, also, in rapid bursts. The feeling, when you’re in the middle of it is a kind of flying. (A book you see a lot of people reading in Vancouver has the words “Hungry Ghosts” in the title.) If you’ve never been on a street like this—and where would you have?—your heart begins beating at a funny pace. There’s fixing (check), tweaking (check), crashing (check)—all at the same time. One traffic light passes. Then another. This tweaking crashing limp gets inside you a little bit. It feels like dizziness and nausea. Your legs buckle slightly. You have no business whatsoever being here.

TAKE A BREATH: This isn’t supposed to be some feat of machismo. There’s nobody secretly evaluating the way you’re walking. The fact that the misery of others upsets you is an indication that you are human. And if you need a moment to process that, you’re always half a block from Chinatown (walk south). You can pop into Radio Station Coffee for a latte or one of several art galleries (although they have odd hours). I don’t say this with any trace of sarcasm. Because it took me a couple of attempts to make it all the way down the street the first time myself. It’s a tragedy to take ever take it for granted.

Deep breaths. Focus on the mountains. The reticulated #3 bus passing up Main Street. The traffic. The pocked sidewalk. Feet. Ankles. Walk. You’re going to want to rush. Get it over with. But you’re going slowly. Trampled work orders and warrants swirl on the ground. Development applications are pasted over boarded up windows. Look up. Eye contact is totally allowed here. Sincere nods. Just don’t gawk. (Gawking’s rude.) Unless you veer down one of the alleys with an intent to buy a ten dollar rock of crack, you’re completely safe. Tomorrow you’ll realize just how safe—how overstated the initial shock of it was—which is little consolation right now in the maniacal cackling, the choking stench of urine on top of fresh vomit, as someone with scabs on their face tries to sell you a maqnequin’s head near Pigeon Park (check), and a fifteen-year-old girl, who looks a little bit like your sister did at fifteen, uses the parking sign like a stripper pole. Check. No idea where she is. Panties at her ankles. Knees pushed together like she needs to pee. Face awash in this alarming bliss. People whispering “up” and “down” as you pretend not to watch. Up is crack. Down heroin, and you worry about stepping on a syringe and getting HIV. Which is preposterous. But nothing in this neighbourhood is out of the question. And the soles of your shoes are so thin.

And as slow as you’re walking—as I hope you’re walking, there’s no way to take in even a fraction of it. Was that Insite? CHECK! Save On Meats? Where they sold pork from the Pickton farm? CHECK! Are you limping now too, legs numb with the images? Almost a hundred women disappeared from this neighbourhood in the last twenty years. Damn straight you’re limping. Do you remember the trial, the phrase dildo on the end of a revolver? (Check.)

“If this place is an isolated ghetto,” the essay that accompanies the famous Stan Douglas photo goes, “it must be the most accessible and well-known in history.”

And then it stops. You’re at Abbott Street, where the 100 Block of West Hastings, the famous Stan Douglas abandonment photo begins. If it’s dusk, you’ll look up and see the scattered murder of crows migrating east. It happens every night at dusk. There’s no special meaning to it. Like the mysterious chalk “tourists stay away drug infested area”cursive that turns up at different arteries off Hastings, it’s just one of those inexplicable East Van things. And just like that you’re at Victory Park and the historic Dominion Building. The finish line. Across the street is the Amsterdam, which is the kind of café you think it is. But also nothing like you think. Grab a cup of tea here. Steady your nerves. Or go to Gastown and take a photo of the steam clock. As the spinning subsides, you’ll relive this flash of images you swear you saw out of the corner of your eye. At the worst stretch—the abandoned lot right beside the depot where there were like fifty stinking carts of bottles lined up and someone tried to give you an About Schmidt video and an F cup bra—were those potatoes growing? In the abandoned lot? (Check.)

It’s that image I’d like you to sleep on.

When you come back in the morning, you’re going to see something entirely different.

And maybe you’ll see someone reading Dr. Gabor Mate’s “In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” Mate has been the staff physician of the Portland Hotel for ten years. He treats life-threatening drug addictions, mental illness, Heptatis C or HIV—often all four in one patient. Mate’s book is a field guide for understanding this. “The Buddhist Wheel of Life revolves through six realms,” he writes. “The inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost realm are depicted as creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs and large, bloated, empty bellies. This is the domain of addiction.”


Dawn.  Same corner. (Yah yah, “Pain and Wastings.”) Likely it’s grey. The drizzle is cold. If you’re lucky this will be the Wednesday the cheques are cut. Pension, disability, welfare and a bunch of other ones you didn’t know existed. Magic day.

It’s still quiet at dawn, though. You have this place that doesn’t belong to you almost entirely to yourself, and in the quiet you begin to notice the small town of brick inside the growing metropolis of glassy highrise condos. A couple blocks east from Main on Hastings, the Ovaltine’s going to be open. This is where the gritty detectives literally drink gritty coffee on the gritty detective shows. To the horror of location scouts, the owner once tried to update the menus to some 21st century typeface. The old menus were quickly rescued from the garbage. The coffee tastes better than it looks on TV.

THERE’S SOMETHING DIFFERENT THAN FACEBOOK HERE. At Carnegie, look at the daily and weekly events board. From film series to gallery openings to “big tree” walks to festivals to workshops. There’s a good DIY walking tour, which corresponds to sidewalk mosaics and historical plaques.

Today will be difficult for a different reason. Yesterday was your mulligan. Yesterday you did nothing but stand and walk and gawk. Today is participating. Which means that you the reader and me the writer have to do more than writers and readers do at this moment in the story.

I say this because I think that corner you’re going back to is the trickiest single spot in Canada to be a tourist. (Which is to say nothing, obviously, for living there.) At the same time, though, this corner—the whole DTES—is one of four essential trips a trouist can make if they plan to travel in Canada and acknowledge the year is 2012.

You go, as a tourist to the places you do, for two reasons. You go because (1) that place is so amazing your eyes almost pop out of your head, and (2) the place is evidence of the way the world ticks.

When I mentioned this premise to people who had any kind of affiliation with the DTES, I’d get a dubious scowl. Nobody wants tourists here. At the same time, though, they complain about the way the media depicts the neighbourhood. How nobody really understands. And so when I asked these people where I should send visitors to Vancouver—where they sent their friends—I’d get the same kind of acquiescent shrug, and a “b-b-but—“ Like Fort McMurray, like Indian Reservations, like the disappearing prairie farmland, this is modern Canada.

“So you’re going to send tourists into like Pigeon Park?”

“Well….it is public space,” I’d reply. “And more than that, the people there…they’ll say actually say hello to you. I can’t think of many other places where strangers are so thoroughly welcomed.” When I’d say that, even the most territorial DTESer would smile. Because there is so much magic and wonder here. And I’d ask, “so what’s the secret tour you give your friends?”

ANOTHER WAY TO START. Ask the cab driver to drop you off at The Police Museum (240 East Cordova Street), which does a historical walking tour called “Sins Of The City,” which is really the history of Vancouver, and arguably the most amazing walking tour in Canada. The museum itself is a gem that most Vancouverites don’t even know exists. Located in the old morgue, the highlight isn’t the preserved fetuses and body parts. There’s a whole wall of weapons confiscated by the VPD. Homemade spiked fist rings, body armour made of drill bits, leather and screws. Cross bows. Blow darts. Baseball bats with nails coming out. Cleavers. Homemade morning stars. Motorcycle chain brass knuckles. Your knees feel weak imaginging these Road Warrior weapons is use. On the other side of the room, you’ll find confiscated opium pips and vials, coke spoons, crystallized cocaine, syringes, capsules and a bottle of methodone. The museum is across the street from the prison—if you’re wondering about the grey sweats some people wear in the neighbourhood—and kitty corner from St. James Anglican Church, which holds will welcome you to its Sunday services.

The Xs and Os of that tour, as I’m sure you already realize, are incidental. It’s the method that’s important. There’s this kind of downtown hobo chic, for instance where rich kids from the North Shore will spend a Friday night panhandling. Suburban moms will volunteer at a soup kitchen during Christmas. For a $400 donation, you can do a four-day street retreat through the Shambhala Centre. (The catch is that you must raise the donation by begging friends and family for the money, which covers the social services you’ll engage while residing for three nights on the street.) Most residents are tourists when they arrive—it’s the last affordable neighbourhood in Vancouver. (Although at $400+/month for rooms that go 50 to 100 sq ft—with rats and roaches and bed bugs and toilet down the hall—it’s actually some of the most expensive rental property in the country.) Hundreds of retired men live in these old brick hotels. They actually live in these hotels for years and years. And if you’re willing to drink some beer in the bars beneath the rooms, you will hear Jack Londonesque life stories with very little goading. London himself spent time in the bars along Hastings Street, when “skid road” was a reference to the process of literally skidding logs down the brick roads.

There’s such a prescience to the brick right now.

Two hundred disposable cameras were handed out in the DTES earlier this year and given a theme. What I value In My Community. Each camera has 26 exposures and uses 800 speed film. There’s $500 for the best photo. The contest began seven years ago, in part to mitigate the sort of drive-by poverty porn photography by media, arts students and tourists who happened to be slumming in the neighbourhood.

I asked the project’s curator if she had noticed any special pattern to the most recent photos. She thought or a while, then said, “more buildings and structures than before.” Then we both thought for a while about what this meant. And I blurted out what was so obvious: they’re scared it’s going to disappear.

ONE OF THE NOT FACEBOOK BOARDS AT CARNEGIE is just posters with missing people and entreaties like: “pleas to call home, your family loves and misses you so much.” In the cafeteria, there’s a poem called “The Hood” written in blue on peach paper: “we are told we are the poorest neighbourhood in Canada/Yah, sure they once said that of Greenwich Village/Poverty is relevant.”

The two most photographed structures in the contest were The Hastings Folk Garden and The Carnegie Community Centre. Calling Carnegie a “community centre” is like calling Gretzky a hockey player. The Carnegie is the DTES.  It’s Chinese dudes huddled around tables playing Xiangqi in the basement, it’s old timers shooting pool. It’s lectures and concerts and readings and exhibitions. It’s the library. It’s the patio. It’s a very intricate communication system of announcement boards, personal message boards. It’s where you go to find out what’s going on. If it’s noon, and you’re still standing on that fricking corner, it’s where you’re now going for the best dollar-for-dollar lunch you can buy in Vancouver—and Vancouver’s crammed with cheap amazing lunches.  If you’re lucky, it’ll be Ethiopian spiced fava beans with marinated cheese curd and a salad so fresh it had to have come out of that garden you caught from the corner of your eye yesterday. You’ll climb the steep spiral staircase—and this is the best part—the marble steps are so worn from use, there’s actually a divot. Probably someone’s strumming a guitar at the top. It’s not until you go into the Carnegie that you get a sense of the neighbourhood that exists beyond the dozen block stretch of sketch on Hastings. And you begin talking to people. And it’s not that you realize that she’s exactly like my niece or that could be my grandfather, it’s not that you realize that the world eventually breaks everybody, you realize that there are still places in this world where we are all in it together. You begin to realize why you’ve travelled here. You have come learn what grows out of the broken places.


When you come back the next day, instead of Main and Hastings, go back to the steam clock. There’s something unsatisfying about this fricking clock. Cruise ship tourists surround it like arms on the clock itself. Camera flashes overshadow the steam effect. Nobody can quite hide their dissatisfiction. What are you doing here? It’s a tourist stop only because someone labeled it as such.

One thing you notice when you walk around Vancouver—English Bay, Kits, the whole east end, even downtown—is second hand bookstores and thrift shops. I’ve never seen a North American city with more used book and clothing stores. You can chalk that up to a lot of things. Hippy values. Chinese frugality.  Hipster sensibility. And while I’m skeptical about a lot of the so-called Vancouver achievements, there is something very deep here that says you don’t give up on used up things.

Sunrise Market Powell

As Vancouver edges ever closer to glorified resort town, discussions about the neibourhood inevitably become symbolic of bigger things. The Olympics sped up the gentrification of an area that was already under extraordinary economic pressure. Sure as crystal meth’s replacing heroin, the brick is becoming glass too. And bringing with it the glassier people.

And as you walk now from the steam clock back to your corner, I’ll tell you what you’re doing here. Because despite what the people trying to protect this neighbourhood say—and maybe be I’m wrong—but I think it’s something you canactually start to get in two or three days. If nothing else you know that whatever you thought you knew know about this place is wrong. You know that when the federal government talks about this neighbourhood they’re totally wrong—inarticulately so and destructively so. When  you come here, you learn, for instance, that the VPD officially favours harm reducation and that Chinatown Bussiness Association flipped almost immediately from opposing to embracing Insite. On top of that, the international and national media have framed its DTES discussion incorrectly—stupidly and destructively. Because they begin with the premise—and there’s this palpable glee when they begin—that Vancouver should be ashamed of the community. But it’s not Vancouverites bobbing around like zombies on East Hastings. It’s mentally retarded children from Toronto. It’s Edmonton girls who have been raped by their dad and made to have sex with the family dog in front of his friends. Aboriginal people fleeing the well-documented hell that is the modern Canadian reservation. The people here are from every city and town in Canada that had no place for them. When they finally reach this neighbourhood, they find every kind of doctor, counselor, food, a bed, medicine, friends—they find the only community in the country that can help them.

And when that disappears—and it will eventually disappear—not because mental illness, addiction and homelessness will be solved, but by the sheer relentless real estate speculation machinery, there will be no place left to go.

Want to know why you’re here? You’re here to see the last worthwhile neighbourhood in Canada that won’t go down without a fight.



6 Responses to “V6A 1A1: Love Your Ghetto. Can you be a tourist in the Dowtown Eastside? Or are you just slumming?”

  1. ward February 20, 2013 at 6:07 am #

    Taking a tour through other people’s misery is not merely “looking around” and getting over your discomfort; it is itself an act of aggression, on the same level as the SFU ‘art’ students who take exploitative photos of people in their vulnerable and private moments without their permission. Oh, and their camera, your silly-ass phone, and your shoes could feed and house three of us for two months. You’ll never understand what makes this community great and strong. To put it simply, we love each other; we belong here because he rest of Canada can’t deal with their dirty secrets and secret crimes. We’ll resist every inch, and you will never understand what it means to be part of a real community

    • veryethnic February 20, 2013 at 10:18 am #

      Thanks for your thoughts, Ward. These are very difficult questions. I think it’s dangerous to presume that anyone who wants to visit this neighbourhood has bad intentions. We all want the neighourhood to be understood, valued and protected—but if people don’t go down and see for themselves, they’re left with a narrative of junkies and criminals that our federal government spins so effectively. Unfortunately, I don’t think this misrepresentation can be corrected by remaining insular.

  2. phatso (@phatso2) March 20, 2012 at 8:39 am #


    The Servants of Hope is a non profit charity that has been helping the people of Vancouver’s downtown east side for the past 6 years. Alongside hot meals and warm coats they serve up a sense of hope and a chance at a new life. Below is a video link from Christmas 2012 over one hundred people came together to feed the homeless and do outreach we served over one thousand people that night The majority of the people involved with helping this cause had a history of substance abuse and a high percentage of those people came from the Downtown East side

  3. CheapEventsVancouver March 7, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    As a near-resident, and frequent visitor, I found this an amazingly powerful post. You touched on so many points, but another one that people often seem to forget is that the DTES is a place where out-of-area people come to engage in vice of one sort or another before departing with them, bringing no end of problems with them and leaving them there. So in more than one way, the area is dehumanized and stigmatized and seen as “less-than”.

    • veryethnic February 20, 2013 at 10:21 am #

      This is a great point. It’s amazing to see how the dynamic of these streets change as kids pile in to party on a Friday and Saturday night.


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