Vancouver gleams, it purrs, it radiates and it’s got the 2010 Winter Olympics to thank for some spanking new roads, a gorgeously designed sleek new Convention Centre and five star hotels. But the underbelly of this most fashionable of modern west coast north American cities is literally only a stone’s throw from the boutiques, bars and restaurants where the fast money spends, even in the middle of an economic recession.
If the 17th century social critic and artist William Hogarth wanted to find an appropriate and accurate setting for a 21st century version of his famous Gin Lane engraving — a portrait of a London living on a sea of gin — then he might stop in East Hastings Street, anytime of night or day.
A short visit at 5pm on Tuesday this week by this writer to the Eastside left one feeling angry, shocked and confused. It is like Kings Cross and the back streets of St Kilda all rolled into small patch of ground. There are drug deals going on left right and centre — in full view of the passing traffic. Almost as though it is a drugs bazaar. Down laneways s-x acts take place, the participants oblivious to the fact that they have no privacy. Two men suddenly appear and run between the cars — the police begin a futile chase.
But what is most heart rendering is the sheer number of people, many Indigenous Canadians, carrying plastic bags, or hauling shopping trolleys with all their worldly possessions, along the streets of the Eastside. Homeless, destitute and frightened.
It is not as though Vancouver’s Eastside is a secret — the city is acutely conscious of the bad press it is getting around the world about this area, and the appallingly high crime rate that bedevils it. But what is being done about it? Where is there a sense that this city cares about its most vulnerable?
There isn’t one, well not at least as far as the eye can see. One of the last places in Eastside where people could sleep with a roof over their head — an old hotel cum boarding house, is now simply a memory. The space is waiting the bulldozers and cranes, and a developer is building high rise luxury condos.
With the Olympics will come the world’s media, and this has led to Vancouver’s great and good and its media beginning to at last ask if something can be done to better the lives of the 15,000 people who live in this neighbourhood. Or, as Frances Bula, a Vancouver blogger puts it, “Yikes, the world is going to be here in exactly a year and this is going to be so embarrassing to explain. Let’s get some action.”
But unfortunately, the view of many Vancouverites is that the authorities will simply lock up, move on and keep out, those people who live on the Eastside’s streets. The Vancouver Police Department has already spelt out its approach. Arrest more individuals, for even the most petty offences. And already the Olympics are forcing people out of their bed sits and rooming houses as these buildings get knocked down for new hotel developments to be opened in time for the 2010 games.
Vancouver is a city that has rightly won praise for building public housing in down town areas and mixing it with private residential areas. But its Eastside is its blind spot, and it is hurting not only this city, but a nation that is built on respect for fundamental human rights.
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