Appeared in the North Shore News – December 19, 2014
Dressed – in sports jacket and tie, a disappearing theatre uniform – for a ballet matinee sold out at my price point, I took an unscheduled stroll to the Downtown Eastside.
Perhaps “stroll” can be misunderstood in this context. A walk.
The Lotus Hotel marks a fair border crossing. Half a century ago at this Chinese restaurant a new Vancouver Sun recruit hosted some mates from the nearby Sun Tower to a cheap lunch marking Shakespeare’s birthday – April 23, 1564, forget to send a card? Now repurposed, attractive, featuring a gay/lesbian bar. The striking Pennsylvania Hotel nearby would be a heritage treasure elsewhere in town. Here it’s handsomely propped up with taxpayer money as (mantra ahead!) low-cost housing.
In the mid-1960s the area was flatly still called Skid Road. “Downtown Eastside” was and remains mainly an ashamed city’s real-estate euphemism – with admirable audacity (or sagacity?), the office of uber-real estate broker Bob Rennie is at 51 East Pender, the gentrifying end.
The old Woodward’s on Hastings is the Ghost of Vancouver Past. Wraith-like words below each storey announce “Wallpaper … Dry Goods,” the down-to-earth things that made the store hugely popular with ordinary people – and destroyed it, as it did Eaton’s, when the up-selling New Affluence struck.
Character, and characters, abound. A dusty bearded man holds a cane and a fabric grocery bag, contents peeking from the holey bottom, in one hand, and in the other a leash attached to a Labrador-cross dog solemnly gripping a green tennis ball. A women’s centre is festooned with signs offering all manner of support. The Downtown Eastside anomaly: Nowhere will you find so many dumped meals and half-eaten sandwiches, careless waste of free food.
The New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton played the Regent Hotel in this area nearly a century ago. Would
Morton be astounded that his music was evoked in a graduate course at UBC this autumn? Maybe not. Vain, he knew his greatness.
The striking block is Hastings Street near Columbia. A block of street vendors, so achingly poor it punishes the heart. Old everything. Old clothes, electronic bits, stray car parts, CDs, suspect food – one salesman holds a coffee concentrate, cries “Makes seven cups of coffee!” It’s merchandising’s subsub-basement floor, pure cowboy capitalism: No rent, no rules, no regulations, no HST, no PST, no questions. A book offers a title innocent of irony: 10,000 Ways to Be Happy.
The Carnegie Community Centre at Hastings and Main is Downtown Eastside’s unchallenged capital. Finished in 1903, it was one of magnate Andrew Carnegie’s thousands of worldwide libraries. It sits like a deposed queen. Its stairs are gorgeous white marble. Shakespeare, Milton, Scott stare down from stained-glass windows on passing humanity.
A sign at the men’s washroom reads: Transgendered Welcome. Up the circular stairway a dining room charges meals at prices of decades ago: Breakfast $2, lunch $2.25. A UBC poster for Humanities 101 offers free tuition, transit, meals, even child care. “Ordinary” students can only gasp.
Another poster notes a woman’s death. Someone has written under the name: “Ted’s friend.” A falling-apart community yet so fiercely close-knit. It’s reported that almost $1 million a day is spent to help 6,500 Downtown
Eastside residents. Also that a couple of helpers helped themselves to society funds they used for high living. Not so unlike “mainstream” society after all.
Obviously in no immediate need of food or help, I stand out, but am invisible. Wary glances, maybe. Except one middleclass woman, One Of Us, likely Carnegie staff or volunteer. Her eyes are messages. Like a bonding.
Outside, just over my shoulder, a passing woman’s voice (aimed at my ear?) says almost like a secret: “Anybody want 10 off?” Off what, for what, I didn’t ask.
But segue into this: A really edgy and historically noteworthy production of a play, imaginatively staged too, occurred this year at the well-worn Rickshaw Theatre, steps from Hastings and Main. It was George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession – so anger-generating that it had only two nervous London performances in 1902 and wasn’t staged again until 1925.
The audacity was putting it on in this of all Vancouver locales. Story: A highly privileged young woman discovers with horror that she’s living off the avails of prostitution – that the mother living abroad who pays for her expensive ways owns a string of brothels. I admit to examining some colourful fellow playgoers intently.
Some Downtown Eastside residents are as heroic as battlefield soldiers in their struggle to get out of the place. “Drowning,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is not so pitiful/As the attempt to rise.” On the bus back to Fat City from this land of a perpetual dateless calendar it hit me – I’d seen no sign of Christmas. Enjoy yours. It’s almost a duty of the fortunate, you know.
© Trevor Lautens, 2014