Misery Road: Vancouver’s Third World

Written by Austin Andrews  //  April 6, 2008  //  North America, Photo Essays  //  25 Comments

burningeye_sml.jpg

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.

climbingbricks_sml.jpg
Street art adorns the side of a condemned building along East Hastings Street. Two days later the portrait — and the wall — were both gone.

labourer_sml.jpg
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.

womensshoes_sml.jpg
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.

preparingneedle_sml.jpg
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”.

shootingupstairwell_sml.jpg

mopup_sml.jpg

squadcars_sml.jpg
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.

cautionshelter_sml.jpg

intersectionwide_sml1.jpg
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.

alleypolicetape_sml.jpg
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.”

dooropen_sml.jpg
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.”

alleyfix_sml.jpg
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.

rocks_sml.jpg
The spoils from a morning’s panhandling buy two rocks of crack cocaine at Pigeon Park.


Octogenarian Vancouver mayoral candidate Betty Krawczyk addresses fired-up protestors at a rally for Native rights.

characterface_sml1.jpg
One-buttoned.

balmorallookdown_sml.jpg
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.

ovaltine_sml.jpg
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…

posters_sml.jpg
…while others have vanished under mounting layers of boards and bills.

saveoncoffee_sml.jpg

monastery_sml.jpg
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.

minimartmarch_sml.jpg
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.

streetdirection_sml.jpg
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.

policebar_sml.jpg

spottedrose_sml.jpg
A rose in the crowd.

trolleyhands_sml.jpg

trolleysmoke_sml.jpg
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.

baggyhands_sml.jpg
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.


Protest smear at a street festival in support of Insite.


Stilt pirouette.

mannequins_sml.jpg
Billboard dreams.

kennydoubledover_sml.jpg
A longtime user, Kenny dreams of cleaning up and becoming a high school drug counsellor.

crackpipescrape_sml.jpg
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.”


Tungsten alley.

Related posts:

  1. Missing Persons March
  2. A Police Scene on Hastings
  3. “You Say Justice, We Say Now!”
  4. International Village
  5. ‘Anonymous’ Activists Raid Vancouver Scientology HQ

About the Author

Austin Andrews

Austin Andrews is a Vancouver-based photojournalist and occasional filmmaker with a penchant for finding the fantastic in the everyday. Contact him at austin [at] sequential-one [dot] com

View all posts by Austin Andrews

25 Comments on "Misery Road: Vancouver’s Third World"

  1. hexakali April 6, 2008 at 10:57 pm ·

    This juxtaposition of hard-luck-Eastside Vancouver shots with cute red pandas is strongly reminiscent of the simmering-unrest-in-Burma shots with the kitty cats. It’s this balance that makes me realize that god is indeed with you, kid.

  2. carla April 19, 2008 at 4:36 am ·

    Wow… did any of those people say how it would be possible to help them? What do they need to get them out of there and on their feet again?

  3. Austin Andrews
    Austin April 20, 2008 at 5:04 am ·

    Tough call. As much as most of them revile the place and the lifestyle, few have the initiative to seek help as long as there’s no one waiting for them on the other side. They’d like to clean up and ship out but wouldn’t know where to go, and for many it’s that familiarity that’s keeping them in that world. There are exceptions, of course, and the support strata exists for those willing to take the plunge and find it. But that’s a whole ‘nother photo series!

  4. Jessica Ann MacLeod May 14, 2008 at 1:31 am ·

    I am a Mother who lost her only son to a drug overdose on the Downtown East Side of Vancouver. I came to Vancouver to help my son Danny but, to no avail. I have taken early retirement as a Registered Nurse to write a book about Danny’s life and to speak at Schools and Churches. The memories of coming to Vancouver from Toronto to search for Danny are still fresh in my mind. I pray every day for the unfortunate people addicted and living on the Downtown East Side. Also I pray to have my book published in the hope that it will help another Mother and her Son. Thank-you.

  5. Jim Ryder May 16, 2008 at 10:44 am ·

    Sir, Have you no shame?

  6. Jen May 21, 2008 at 3:34 pm ·

    wow, this post really affected me.. i haven’t seen a photo blog like this in awhile, keep it up.

  7. Rita June 2, 2008 at 11:37 pm ·

    Beautiful photos of a harsh place. Thanks for making the people real.

  8. TarotByArwen June 22, 2008 at 2:49 am ·

    Photos are hard to look away from when they present the hard, cold truth of life. I hope those that are trying to get away from their addictions are successful.

  9. Chanah June 25, 2008 at 6:54 am ·

    Hey Arwen -

    Hepe is gone for a song like old Hong Kong in the DTES. I mostly write about fortune telling, but once in a while I talk about what it’s like here. I think the average lifespan is down to 36 years (we’re nearly equal to Kinshasa on that scale; it doesn’t get much worse), and if there are support systems that help people out of this hell – they’re failing left, right, and centre from everything I’ve observed – and experienced.

    We’re not all drug addicts (though sometimes I wonder, since I seem to be the only person who can’t join in on those conversations), but if you have the misfortune to end up in the Downtown East Side for whatever reason, you no longer count as a person – that I do know from first-hand experience, and from watching so many people die of neglect, starvation, exposure. How the hell anyone would get off drugs in a place like this is beyond me.

    Not that anybody cares. As Kafka so perceptively wrote: When it’s you against the world, bet on the world. If you want to see what happens after people have been crushed under that particular wheel, take a stroll through my neighbourhood. Though I don’t really recommend it.

    Brilliant photo essay. I only hope and pray that we somehow survive the Olympics, and get sane again. But meanwhile – it has to be documented. Has to. File it under ‘civilisation; one of the most affluent countries in the world’.

  10. cindy December 16, 2008 at 12:30 pm ·

    Remember that this is the warmest place in Canada and a lot of people from other provinces and countires come here. So, as long as we view this as a Vancouver problem it will not be fixed. This is a Canadian problem and the federal government and other provinces need to also take responsablilty. As well, many people in the east side have mental health issues and since all the mental health institutions are closed they will not get help. Also, most mental health doctors will not commit or force treatment. The Court do not consider these people crimminal, they are viewed as victims of circumstance and not posing a risk to society. The Court are not willing to get involved and Crown is reluctant to prosecute. If they do prosecute it is for drug traficking and drug traficking only results in probation regardless of the past criminal history or quantity. Hence, you are looking at a perfect storm of a Country not caring.

  11. Clarence Neault December 27, 2008 at 11:20 am ·

    During my last visit to this area in 2003 I found a lot of gentrification in the West End. I had watched this happen to the Robson Sreet area in the ’70′s. I do not think that this area can be gentrified. Hastings and Main has been Canada’s drop off point for too many decades. The temptation will be to give it a paint job and hide the sins of the city; brush them under the rug and nudge them into an even darker corner. Perhaps the city in partnership with the rest of Canada might do better and treat the sicknesses in this community. Give treatment to the citizens who choose to live there. They are Canadians, too. The area has become an addictions and mental health institution without standards or walls or caregivers. Throughout my itinerant citizenship in West End Vancouver over three decades, I always saw people who were eccentric or had a mental illness or a drug illness. They were tolerated or cared for, but never feared. We have come a long ways backwards. We have an opportunity to treat the sick and bring back this community of transience. We can return it to all Canadians; those who choose to use it, and those who have few other ready options. Hastings and Main is an inland port for Canadians: Canadians on a budget escaping from a life that is not working or looking for adventure or just a change. They are still Canadians. They could be us, or someone close to us … they are us. We can judge ourselves by how we treat our fellow Canadians.

  12. Camille McOuat October 7, 2009 at 2:09 pm ·

    Informative. I am doing a photoessay on United We Can (the binning depot on Hastings near Carrall) right now and I am having difficulty finding good information on the development of the downtown eastside’s drug problems. Ken Lyotier, who started UWC, cites the closure of Riverview in the 80′s and the introduction of the needle exchange program as factors that strongly exacerbated existing poverty and addiction in the dtes. Did you find in your research that the needle exchange program resulted in more hard drug use in people who previously used softer drugs ? Also, I am confused as to why a drug dealer would agree to have their photo and name made public. Is the court system so soft that they do not care, or do you pay people to take their photos ?

  13. old_nobody October 8, 2009 at 3:12 am ·

    Public domain stuff about the DTES in Vancouver Canada:

    http://picasaweb.google.com/vancouver.pix

    http://www.youtube.com/urbansociopathology

    http://www.youtube.com/publicdomainarts

    Feel free to help yourselves. Thnx.

  14. Austin Andrews
    Austin October 17, 2009 at 4:56 am ·

    Thanks for the comments, I’m glad to see this topic strike a nerve and provoke a bit of a discussion.

    No one I spoke with in the DTES seemed the think that needle distribution actually *encouraged* hard drug use — if people are curious to try they’ll try — although I’m sure you could find studies that would tell you otherwise.

    As for the concerns about identity, I always used pseudonyms for people whenever there was anything questionable going on in the photograph. I never paid anyone but I bought some meals (at the venerable Save On Meats!) and did guy one guy change to “catch a bus”, whatever that means.

  15. lulz November 16, 2009 at 8:40 am ·

    I live in the DTES. It’s always been a shithole down here. If you read the ‘Vancouver history’ book, E. Hastings was the original Skid Row, because they skidded logs up to a mill and the streets were full of derelict bars even 100 years ago.

    As for hard drugs that came with the chinese immigrant labourers who brought opium with them. The needle exchange has nothing to do with increased injection use, it merely stops aids from exploding from junkies sharing needles.

    If you want to clean up the DTES do the following:

    1) reopen Riverview, or a large mental health asylum. most addicts and drunks down here are insane.

    2) change the criminal code of canada to stop ‘non returnable warrants’. basically if you get arrested in Ontario or Winnipeg or anywhere, you can flee to BC’s downtown eastside to avoid prosecution in that province.

    3) Expand Insite. They need crack smoking rooms, rooms for any drug you want to do to get these people off the street and beside a counsellor/nurse that can help them.

    4) Continue the ‘free heroin’ trial. For 2 years a society handed out free heroin to the worst addicts who were written off by hospitals and detox centres. They found that 95% of them started to lead normal lives and stopped crime completely.

    5) Stop the police from thuggishly exploiting the area to their amusement, putting junkies in jail only results in increased prison crime. You can buy any drug in prison, the hacks/guards ensure nobody detox’s.

  16. rodger ward September 5, 2010 at 7:21 am ·

    I lived on east Hastings for for years,I came to be there from Hamilton Ont,addicted to crack and eventually heron,Hastings is unlike anything you have ever seen,unless you lived there,so many people addicted to crack,heron, and mentally ill.it was hard to make out of there. But I did I went to treatment and got cleaned up.now I live in a very nice place on the sunshine coast with my very pretty wife and were extremely happy.If you are trapped and you wont to get clean there are people who will help you do it, but you have to want it, I live a good life now, and you can to.

  17. The Blackbird September 11, 2010 at 12:46 am ·

    I’m a freelance photographer/photojournalist living in the Downtown Eastside. This is an excellent documentary account of the difficulties the neighbourhood faces. I’m glad you included the photos of the Women’s Memorial March. A few other protest shots would have been cool because, in the three years leading up to the Games, they were an almost weekly occurrence. A couple of photos of some of the places beauty can still be found in the area, like the garden at CRAB Park at Portside, maybe some birds. Eagles soar overhead more frequently than most people realize. I know you’re focus is on the dark side which does predominate in mainstream and alternative media coverage but there’s more to this place than that and it is often overlooked.

    Thanks for the gripping essay. Good work.

  18. KPl. April 17, 2011 at 9:17 pm ·

    Vancouver should be ashamed to host a celebration of the worlds best physical skills and most dedicated athletes with this kind of crap in it’s backalleys.
    We need a drug which completely denies the high of shooting up.
    Using dope should be a one way ticket to a 6 month felony sentence. Three such crimes and you’re last needle has Potassium Chloride in it to stop your heart.
    Selling drugs should be an automatic death sentence.
    And nobody who isn’t a citizen of Canada should own _ANY_ of it’s property.
    These people will never amount to much. But three hots and a cot in trade for keeping a studio apartment clean and drug free should be something you give serious thought to. It’s too late to save them but it’s not too late to house them as more than animals living in alleyways.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. Where I Live « Confessions of a Freaky Fortune Teller
  2. Joanna, CKO » Blog Archive » Vancouverism
  3. Cityspk Blog » Blog Archive » Vancouver - Downtown Eastside
  4. Mannkind Charity » Photo-Experience of the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver BC
  5. PDS on the Rhetoric of Blogging: Ideas and Advice « The Well Wrought Urn
  6. Mannkind Charity » Photo-Experience of the Downtown Eastside Vancouver, BC
  7. The Rhetoric of Blogging 2.0: Anticipating “Curriculum Next” « The Well Wrought Urn

Leave a Comment

comm comm comm