East Side Story


For many, it’s ironic to think of the Downtown Eastside — Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood — as the city’s last hope. Just the thought of East Hastings conjures images of addiction, AIDS, prostitution and death. On top of this, recent gentrification attempts have been met with violent protests that have generally been more destructive than productive.

Since most attempts to improve the neighbourhood have been met with criticism, it is hard to see how the black hole of the DTES can provide the thriving metropolis of Vancouver with any benefits.

In the recent decade, Vancouver has seen rapid population growth. In 2012 Statistics Canada reported Vancouver as the fastest-growing Canadian city, with growth rates well above the national average. Not only is Vancouver growing faster than a weed, it is also reported as Canada’s densest city, with 5249.1 people per square kilometer.

Herein lies the source of Vancouver’s exorbitant living costs. With an increasing number of people in the city and limited space to accommodate them, housing prices rise. In the last two decades, housing prices and rents have soared. Landowners have made millions, resulting in another claim to fame: Vancouver, Canada’s most expensive place to live.

For middle and low-income individuals seeking homes, however, this is bad news. Many are forced to move outside of the city — and away from their jobs — as rent becomes too expensive. This also makes life hard for individuals seeking jobs upon graduation. Many opportunities are found in the city, but for most, living downtown is out of the question. By default, business and housing development has expanded to some of the only affordable land in the city, the downtown Eastside.

However, as the region averaging the lowest income in Vancouver, the services that are moving in do not cater to the community. With gentrification efforts increasing, the area is becoming less and less welcoming to its lower-income population. What Vancouver has effectively become is an inequitable city colonized by the rich. Only the lucky few who can afford it have the privilege of living downtown.

Mark Townsend is the executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, a non-profit working on affordable social housing projects. He ultimately believes that Vancouver is in this state because the city has no development plan. The city has alluded that they have a plan for more equitable development, but, as Mark puts it, “it’s kind of like a wild, wild west thing.” We have let the city grow in whatever direction it chooses with no plan on how we are going to make Vancouver an affordable city.

Townsend compares the development of Vancouver to that of early London or New York City, both of which have imposed rent controls and designated spaces for subsidized housing, two things Vancouver has failed to implement.

What Vancouver has effectively become is an inequitable city colonized by the rich.

However, there is still hope for Vancouver to repave its path down a more equitable road to development. Mark Townsend offers solutions: “How are we going to make our city more affordable? Some of those things people won’t like — rent controls, zoning things that are going to remain for low-income, and catering to who’s already here. So, to me, there needs to be a moratorium or a sober second thought to how we are going to move forward.”

Ultimately, these solutions that Mark isreferring to are subsidized housing, zoning and rent controls. This is where the Downtown Eastside comes in. Amid its dirty, druggy stigma, it is the only Vancouver region that has encouraged inclusive, equitable metropolis development. Subsidized housing and zoning have been observed in the Downtown Eastside for the last decade.

Non-profit organizations such as the Portland Hotel Society have purchased hotels in the Downtown Eastside and turned them into single room occupancies for lower-income individuals. The rate is set at $375 a month — the welfare allowance for housing. Housing priority is given to low-income individuals working in the city who have no home.

The provincial government has also hopped on this project, purchasing more hotels, and renovating them to accommodate as many people as possible. Not only does this project allow individuals to live in the city who could otherwise not afford it, but it also helps people get off the street.

The Downtown Eastside makes a remarkable effort to cater to the individuals living there. A prime example of this is InSite, the only legal drug injection site in North America. Just last week, InSite celebrated its 10-year anniversary.

The advent of a legal injection site has produced much federal and provincial controversy; however, in just the decade that InSite has existed, the life expectancy in the Downtown Eastside has risen. Between 2006 and 2011, the disparity between life expectancy in the DTES and the rest of British Columbia fell from 5.2 years to 2.3 years.


Working with the Portland Hotel Society on East Hastings for 22 years, Mark Townsend states: “When I first started, 20 years ago, people were dying of AIDS, dying of overdoses; that’s why we came to be involved with an injection site, because so many people were dying. Healthcare has become more relevant and more attuned to the population that it is dealing with. In the old days you had to go to them, now they come to you, and they try and come to you in an appropriate, cultural way.”

However, health care opportunities in the Downtown Eastside haven’t always been so accessible. “In the old days, it was hard to get services,” Mark says. “We’d send people to services and they’d tell a woman with buzz cut hair that she needed to grow her hair long and wear lipstick. She would be ‘better’ if she did things a lady should. But that wasn’t the issue at all. Now people are being met much more where they are.”

The Downtown Eastside stands alone as Vancouver’s last hope at becoming an inclusive, metropolitan city.

Beyond the stigmatized, overtly negative portrayal of the Downtown Eastside, there exists a population of artists, teachers, entrepreneurs and more, living a middle-class lifestyle. Generally speaking, facilities such as InSite do not cater to their needs; however, local businesses and organizations have made a valiant effort to cater to everyone.

Take, for example, the Radio Station Café, the perfect place to enjoy a latte and catch up on some reading. From the vintage woodwork that lines the floor, to the vibrant fresh flowers that line the windowsills and entryway, to the friendly baristas and vast panini selection, the café wouldn’t be out of place in the Granville or Main Street area.

What distinguishes the Radio Station Café from other gentrification attempts in the East Side community is its inclusivity. While the café is attractive to middle-class residents in the community, it also encourages lower-income individuals to utilize its services.

The Radio Station Café is a non-profit operation that provides a cheap place to enjoy a coffee and a safe place to lounge for the afternoon. With its affordable prices and warm atmosphere, the Radio Station Café  attempts to support all members of the Downtown Eastside community.

Save On Meats, another Downtown Eastside staple, began a meal token program in order to help the community’s less fortunate population. Customers are able to purchase $2.25 tokens that can be redeemed for breakfast sandwiches. Many have taken to handing out these tokens in lieu of cash to the area’s homeless population, in order to ensure that their money is spent on a nutritious hot meal.

On the other hand, young entrepreneurs are, by and large, opening businesses in the Downtown Eastside which only cater to the middle- and upper-class members of the neighbourhood, ostracizing the lower-income percentile. This type of gentrification encourages development by pushing out one class of people, not building an inclusive sense of community. Hence why recent gentrification attempts have been met with ardent protests.

Although the Downtown Eastside has not seen the same industrial, metropolitan expansion as other regions in Vancouver have, it has seen a different, more equitable development. The Downtown Eastside creates an affordable, inclusive community integrating various social classes. It is the only area in Vancouver that has promoted affordable living, making space for lower-income individuals to remain in the city. So maybe there is more to learn from the Downtown Eastside than we think.

On top of this, the development of Gastown, Yaletown, and other such ventures have left Vancouver with very little unindustrialized space. At this point in time, the only affordable living space is in the Downtown Eastside. The municipality or provincial government must take control of this land and distinguish it as an area that welcomes individuals of all incomes.

The Downtown Eastside stands alone as Vancouver’s last hope at becoming an inclusive, metropolitan hub, rather than an inequitable city for the rich and fortunate. With already-imposed subsidies on housing, zoning controls, and the inherent effort to integrate various groups of Vancouver residents, we have a lot to learn from the community.

So the next time you drive along East Hastings, don’t turn your nose up at the drug use and homelessness — consider the inspiring things that the community has achieved, and consider the role the Downtown Eastside will play in the future of Vancouver.