Thursday, October 14, 2010

art & poverty

one of the many charming, artistic details in an otherwise desperatelly impovershed neighborhood.
Photo by Michelle Bruton

A couple weeks ago now, I took a tour of the Downtown East Side. My friend Sarah had come across an ad on Craigslist by a guy who was offering “An information tour of Vancouver's and Canada's most known and least understood neighbourhoods”. Craigslist ad? Downtown East Side? Hmm.

Despite the supposed risks I signed up with a group of friends for a 10am spot on a Saturday morning; the tour would last approximately three hours and would take us through a variety of DTES locations. I wanted to learn more about this neighbourhood from a non-media standpoint, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. What would I see if I went there myself?

Our tour guide was David Beattie, a 51 year old journalist “who has lived in six countries on four continents, and [has] reported on social issues in Metro Vancouver, BC and abroad for 30 years.” Originally from South Africa, David has settled here out of fascination with the DTES. He is doing what he can to study, communicate with, and advocate for the Downtown East Side residents and culture.

David’s knowledge of the history, politics and people of the DTES was extensive and fascinating. He isn’t a na├»ve reporter, repeating what he was told to say; he is a man who has lived and breathed the air with these residents for some time now. He has taken the time to read, to listen, and to learn; he is a walking encyclopaedia of DTES information, with dates, names, and stories told with detail and in the right order. You could see his heart as he spoke; unbending, yet unbiased by popular opinion. If you told David that the DTES should be cleaned up and promptly closed out, he could tell you very easily all the reasons you are wrong. He so easily convinced me that I had been mislead about the truths of the DTES – because I had been. Once you are there in amongst the people, listening to the stories and learning the history, you too might begin to feel pain instead of fear, like I did.

What I learned from David and from the tour is hard to narrow down into a paragraph or sentence, because there was much to learn and much to grapple with. And the things I saw and heard are still percolating, as if I’ve barely started to understand them (in fact, I’ve considered taking another tour already). But, I will do my best to bring out the most prominent threads; the pieces of information that kept coming up on the street around us and in our conversations throughout the morning.

If I could sum up the Downtown East Side into one word, that word would be: Community.

Shocking, isn’t it? Previously, I believed that the summary word for this area should be a lot less forgiving than Community. Regardless, and because of the tour, that is the word I’ve chosen. From the minute we stepped in to the borders of the DTES, we saw people everywhere – and this was the subject of our commentary on more than one occasion. They were all over the sidewalks, laughing and talking and figuring out their world together. The sharp contrast between this neighbourhood and my own began with this observation: everyone talks to everyone else. Of course there are reasons for this continual outdoor communion, one of which is the housing situation. Low income housing is far from affordable and even further from liveable; after seeing just the outsides of these “apartments” myself, I decided that I too would rather sleep on a frozen sidewalk than inside that.

If I could sum up the people of the Downtown East Side into one phrase, that phrase would be: just like me.

More shock, I’m sure. But the humiliating recognition of my own arrogance kept swatting at me as I walked. How could I deem any person as less capable than I am? I have been given the tools since birth: support, love, health, education, identity. To place my worth higher than someone else, simply because I was born to opportunity, is arrogant. I have always been told that I could do anything I want and my gifts and talents were celebrated; I have known because I was taught that I am valuable and worth the investment. These are a people who have been told otherwise. And that right there is our only difference.

I should comment here, as I expect there are a few who think I should, on the prevalent drug use in the DTES. Here is my thought on that:

We all have addictions, vices, and compulsions; some are just more visible than others. The consequences are different, but the choice is the same: your coping mechanism may not cost you your job or be visible enough to lose the respect of your community, but it’s still your coping mechanism. “Well at least I don’t…” is a poor excuse for a caste system, whichever way you look at it. When you are 100% faultless, you can judge someone with an addiction. But since you aren’t, you can’t.

If I could describe the tour experience in one word, it would be: de-mystifying.

I have so often heard reports about the DTES, but I have never before heard reports from the DTES. The difference between the two is actually quite remarkable. Yes, there are so many things going on there that are heartbreaking, unsafe, and even dangerous. But the most painful thing about all of it was the absolute, unmistakeable reality of the fight it will take to defend the people who live there. There is an entire world against them, save a few.

So to David, I say thank you. Your dedication to educating people is respected and necessary, and I am certain that through your efforts, much will change.

for more pictures of our time on the East Side, visit

Here is the original craigslist ad, complete with David's contact information. At the end of our tour I asked him if I could pass this information on to others who might be interested and he agreed it would be okay. Please remember to be respectful in your comments.

DOWNTOWN EASTSIDE - get to know it! (Downtown Eastside)

WHAT? An information tour of Vancouver's and one of Canada's most known and least understood neighbourhoods.

WHY? Fear and misunderstanding lead most Vancouverites and nearly all tourists to avoid the DTES. This is a pity as understanding and knowledge of the forces at work in the area will lead to tolerance and compassion, and thus more enlightened public policy for rehabilitation and recovery of those DTES residents who want and need it.
WHEN? Any time you choose, between 10am and 8pm seven days a week. I need THREE HOURS notice before starting any tour.
WHO? My name is David Beattie, I'm a 51-year-old journalist who has lived in six countries on four continents, and have reported on social issues in Metro Vancouver, BC and abroad for 30 years.
HOW MUCH? By donation - half of which goes to PACE - "Providing Alternatives, Counselling and Education" to survival sex workers.
HOW LONG? One to three hours. If you are able, we walk for between 3 and 6 kms. If too much for you, bring a car or we can take a bus part of the way. CONTACT: email


1. Insite - North America's only safe injection site for drug users. Highly controversial, you will learn all about the case for and against.

2. Carnegie Centre - called the "Living Room of the DTES" this building is not only an architectural and historical curiousity, it's become a unique sort of "poverty plaza" housing an array of intriguing services, events and disparate groups.

3. First United Church and other shelters: We visit this famous landmark, where up to 300 of the most marginalized people in the entire nation are fed and housed for free 365 days a year. Truly, if there is a ground zero for the biblical injunction to treat "the least among us" this is it.

4. VANDU - the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users: an enlightened service where drug users find a welcoming place to gather in a drug-free, safe environment, access counselling or just relax and watch a movie etc.

5. Oppenheimer Park: newly renovated, this park is the green heart of the neighbourhood, complete with a community centre that offers recreational activities and a unique set of programs, much of it aimed at the high proportion of First Nations residents in the area.

6. Quest - a unique supermarket that sells the overflow products and produce of regular supermarkets, for a tiny fraction of the price.

7. Health services - such as the free dental clinic, optometrist etc.

8. Free food services - The Dugout, Union Gospel Mission, Harbourlight complex and the Evelyn Saller Centre.

9. Arts and culture venues - the DTES is becoming a magnet for live music, the home by default for hardcore rock and punk.

10. Vendor zones - informal markets where residents recycle a fascinating array of goods they rescue from bins and dumpsters throughout the city, selling them on for next to nothing.

11. Bottom of the ghetto - this is what I call the back alleys where addicts go to shoot up and smoke crack etc. We don't do anything unsafe or inappropriate - this is not voyeurism, but it is important for a full understanding to the area to experience the full squalor that's the result of outdated policies such as drug criminalization and turning the mentally ill out of institutions without adequate follow up.

12. Ghetto housing. See 45-square-foot rooms in buildings that would not be out of place in Bangladesh slums or Depression-era USA, which rent for the $375 maximum that BC welfare recipients get for housing.1. Insite - North America's only safe injection site for drug users. Highly controversial, you will learn all about the case for and against.


afterthoughtcomposer said...

Update! Got an email back from David, this will be a good FYI for those interested in taking the tour:

Hi Ashley,

...Yes please do put the word out anywhere and everywhere. I do want to emphasize that donations should be small - between $5 and $10 per person at most. It is also important to note that if someone cannot afford that, and many people cannot, then I am more than happy to do it for nothing.

You are more than welcome to come again.

Bye for now


Dave said...

Great way of sharing a perspective Ash.

I was taken into the first block or so of DTES on skateboard when I was over there years ago. I was shocked at the sheer volume of people lining the streets.

We ventured in purely for an inquisitive look and were very quickly feeling like the outsiders in a stronghold community.

My one biggest memory was that there were so many people 'just hanging out' on the sidewalk, that we actually could not ride our skateboards in fear of running over someones legs.

Thanks for sharing :)

Dave H

Anonymous said...

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We are the Creators, Producers, Videographers, and the Editors, all materials belongs to us, and we have made it "Public Domain" mainly for educational purposes. Feel free to use any of this for Public Service.

Vancouver's Drug Nightmare
Drugs flowing in the street


the Harsh Reality of Drug Addiction

East Vancouver Darkness - Lisa

methadone heroin interviews

Mama said...

I added a comment earlier and it's not here...well here it is again. If you do decide to go again sometime I would love for Dad & I to go with you. Thank you for posting this and I love the picture!

afterthoughtcomposer said...

thanks for reading & responding to this post everyone!