I’ve lived in Vancouver for thirteen years, in SROs for seven, I was homeless for about eight months, and now I live in supportive housing at Woodward’s. I’m an artist, and I live with a mental illness. I’m on the Local Area Planning Process committee that works with the City of Vancouver to create new planning policy for the Downtown Eastside. On the committee, I represent Gallery Gachet.
One of the key ideas that appeals to planners these days is “social mix.” It sounds like a neutral term, but what it means is that you can mix higher-class populations into a low-income community. In theory, it’s supposed to embody the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats”: that people bringing more money into a neighbourhood will create jobs, a better life for all, and impose middle-class values on a low-income community. In practice, however, we can look to Woodward’s to see the real effects. There, the rising tide has led to higher property values, the closure and displacement of low-income housing stock, the closing of several studio spaces, and a ring of surrounding high-end retail that excludes low-income people by implication and more directly by private security guards (in case you weren’t certain if you were welcome or not).
125 social housing units were built at Woodward’s, but these residents are effectively excluded in their own surroundings. I know, I live there, and I’ve experienced exclusion for a very long time. My friends, my neighbours complain about being followed around by security guards in Nester’s, not being able to find a coffee under $2, being treated as less-than-acceptable in this development, in their own home, as soon as you exit the front door.
And what about our neighbours? I’d love to tell you what the people in the market towers think of this situation, but I can’t. I’ve lived at Woodward’s since 2010 and I’ve yet to meet one. This isn’t social mix.
These new residents aren’t interested in our already-existing communities; they’re interested in remaking their new land into a weird designer-baby store, $5 latte, a super-trendy restaurant and fancy cheese wonderland, insulating themselves from us, making sure with their money that they-and-us are as distinct and as separate as possible. They are interested in parking their beamers, crossing their skywalk, and entering their condos without even having their $130 shoes touch the pavement. And they impose their values; they expect to impose their values – why would they encounter resistance? They are quite used to getting what they want. They expect that their values will win. And their values are greed, narcissism, and arrogance.
Meanwhile the low-income folks become invisible in their own homes, not at home in their own backyard. This is another kind of NIMBYism: I don’t have a backyard but if I did I wouldn’t want higher-income people in it. It’s a sick feeling to realize that your neighbours probably spend more than your entire social assistance check on food for their designer dog. I do agree that, to quote some graffiti (public art) on the wall in front of the Pantages site at 138 East Hastings, “my civilization sucks,” but you don’t have to rub it in.
The Carnegie Community Action Project made a map of the zones of exclusion around Woodward’s; I would update it today: the zones of exclusion have radiated outwards over time until the entire area has been gentrified. Thus the conqueror conquers again– under the banner, remember, of “social mix”. Actually, the mix goes one way, unless we stop the tide now.
Right now, the city has created a local area planning committee to create an overarching plan for our neighbourhood and the future of our community for years to come. It’s a way – at least in theory – that low-income people and the organizations we represent can have a substantial impact on our own futures, and the future of our community as a whole. New higher class projects are being proposed, and between these many rising tides, we drown.
Right now, as I’m writing this, I’m listening to two children playing outside, playing with joy and laughter. Happiness isn’t about money or property, it’s finding that basic human emotion: joy, strength, beauty. Now, not to foment class war, despite that quest for joy, no people are more equal than others. In our society, money has instead been equated with joy, to our great, profound loss. This is the situation that the Downtown Eastside resists, and has resisted – since the world began.
For me, the possibilities of the local planning process is first of all the sharing of information, experiences, and ideas from really diverse members of our community. What we want has become very clear: housing, adequate social assistance, opportunities for all kinds of work within and for our community, and ways we can actually build our own community, rather than having it built for us. And that applies both to developers and bureaucratic agencies run by ‘experts’ to serve the people.
But we have something else: We have the power and knowledge to shape our own lives and our community, to create something different, a different way of being and doing that puts people before profit, the common good instead of common greed.