Misery Road: Vancouver’s Third World
Pictures and text: ©Austin Andrews / ZUMA Press
Vancouver, to many people, is paradise found. An oasis of snow and sand set in Canada’s most comfortable climate, it boasts a calibre of natural splendour and rugged good looks matched by few other major cities in the world. With the 2010 Olympics just around the corner, its streets are alive with excitement, the civic pride palpable. A diverse economy fuels a growth rate more than twice the national average. This year, as in the five before it, The Economist ranked Vancouver the world’s most livable city.
But with one wrong turn Vancouver reveals a set of gnashing teeth unlike any seen elsewhere in Canada or, indeed, the western world. For ten blocks east of Cambie Street, paradise decays into an open air drug market and catwalk parade of lives battered, broken and lost, with each block revealing stories and scars more tragic than the one before it. Novelist Douglas Coupland put it best when he advised outsiders visiting the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood to “bring sturdy footwear and an open mind”, and he ain’t kidding.
The Downtown Eastside goes beyond the traditional definition of working class to dip into a level of abject poverty typically reserved for outside judgements on the developing world. It’s Canada’s poorest postal code, sure. But at an estimated 40%, the HIV rate among its 10,000-odd residents is the highest in the industrialised world, a vestige of decades of needle sharing and free market prostitution. The United Nations recently declared it a crisis zone, with UN spokesperson Patricia Leidl saying, “It’s one of the worst areas of urban blight that I’ve ever seen and I’ve travelled all over the world.”
But it would be doing the neighbourhood a tragic disservice to dwell on the tabloid sensationalism of drug abuse and poverty at the expense of its unique sense of community. A visit to the Only Seafood Cafe on East Hastings –a restaurant so named because it was the city’s first place for a meal of fish and chips when it opened a hundred years ago– reveals a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in an early Martin Scorsese film, with elderly pensioners and retired dockworkers eating alongside booths of cops working the beat and the occasional contingent of brave office workers who wander down from anonymous glass-and-steel skyscrapers of Vancouver’s financial sector. One man tells me it’s the “last true community where everyone knows each other.”
Creeping gentrification threatens to change that. In a race to tidy up the neighbourhood before the world comes knocking in 2010, the provincial government has snapped up many of the neighbourhood’s slum hotels and social housing with an eye toward developing a loft apartments and hip cafés. Pawn shops and XXX outlets today, the heritage buildings of the Downtown Eastside have a very different future awaiting them. The rest of the city hopes its residents do too.
Street art adorns the side of a condemned building along East Hastings Street. Two days later the portrait — and the wall — were both gone.
For their efforts, the demolition crew share $225 for every palette of bricks recovered from the site.
Pedestrian crossing at a roadblock on East Hastings at Main Street. Towering across the street, the Ford Building, constructed in 1912, was recently converted into low-income, single room apartments for neighbourhood residents.
Dave’s hobby is women’s fashion, and he often takes local prostitutes to Model Express to buy them lingerie or a new pair of shoes in exchange for their services. At an estimated 40%, the HIV infection rate in the Downtown Eastside is the highest in the industrialised world, on par with the impoverished African nation of Botswana.
Dave is addicted to cocaine. He spent ten years clean but the allure of the drug drew him back to the Downtown Eastside, which he dubs in a rare moment of clear expression “an open-air drug market where everyone buys, even the sellers”.
Squad cars on an alleyway drug raid. The Vancouver Police Department has a high-profile branch half a block from the dangerous crossroads of Hastings and Main but residents are split as to whether increased police presence has made their neighbourhood — long Canada’s poorest — any safer.
Passerbys and police look out over the intersection of Hastings and Cambie. This corner marks the boundary between the trendy Gastown district and the Downtown Eastside, Canada’s poorest postal code and tonight the scene of two unrelated shootings.
Police tape blocks access to one of the Downtown Eastside’s infamous alleyways. Behind me, a drug dealer explains the situation to an associate on the phone, muttering “this isn’t good for business, this isn’t good at all.”
Phil left a crumbling family life in Montreal five years ago for a fresh start in Vancouver. Instead, he ended up in the Downtown Eastside. “They’re all my choices, but it starts to feel after awhile that it isn’t a choice anymore, if you know what I mean.”
Dope sick and broke, Phil “gets better” in the alley behind Insite, the government-funded supervised injection site. He doesn’t like shooting in the alleys, where police take a harder stance, but would rather take the chance than queue for a spot inside. “Ten minutes is a long time to wait when you’ve got heroin in your hands.” The high is gone in another ten.
The spoils from a morning’s panhandling buy two rocks of crack cocaine at Pigeon Park.
Cracked paint mars the facade to the Balmoral, one of the neighbourhood’s grand heritage hotels built in the years before the First World War when East Hastings was still the address of choice for visiting elite. Today these two dozen or so “slum hotels”, owned by overseas landlords and overrun by drug lords, shelter an estimated 3000 people on a month-by-month basis.
Dormant neon marks the entrance to The Ovaltine Cafe, a WWII-era Vancouver landmark. Once a dining hotspot, the district still clings to a few restaurants from its glory days…
…while others have vanished under mounting layers of boards and bills.
A monk disappears through the barred doors of a monastery. The district borders Vancouver’s Chinatown and despite its large ethnic population racial tensions often boil over into violence.
Every Valentine’s Day, the residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood band together to remember the women who have been targeted and picked off their streets by serial killers and rapists. This year’s march took on particular significance as it coincided with a court date in the trial of Robert Pickton, a Vancouver pig farmer accused of killing as many as 49 neighbourhood prostitutes and drug users.
Organisers discuss the route. The march began in Gastown and steadily grew in numbers on the way to its destination at the Vancouver Eastside Police HQ.
A rose in the crowd.
Mike’s life story is echoed by many in the Downtown Eastside. Orphaned to a neighbourhood soup kitchen aged eleven, his adolescence was lost chasing heroin’s fleeting euphoria. It began when “somebody stuck in a needle in my arm” as a joke in the night at an age when most kids are leaving primary school.
To finance his addiction, Mike resorts to breaking into cars and stealing whatever he finds. Now 28, he recently entered a methadone program to curtail his $200-a-day habit but worries he won’t be able to stay clean.
A client enters Insite, North America’s first government-funded safe injection site for drug addicts. The facility has drawn the ire of many, being derided by the Bush administration as “state-assisted suicide” and repeatedly being threatened with closure by Canadian PM Stephen Harper. With five years’ operation behind it, Insite has seen no fatalities.
A longtime user, Kenny dreams of cleaning up and becoming a high school drug counsellor.
Kenny picks at itchy skin lesions with a rusting crack pipe. He hadn’t taken his shoes off for a full week before this photo was taken. His parting words: “God be with you, kid.”