Monday, January 25, 2010

This morning I received yet another email from a foreign journalist hoping to chat about Vancouver and the Olympics. I am almost always open to such conversations, and generally reply with a bit of context. For the New York Times, I gave them this:

The Olympics is Vancouver's second mega-project in 25 years, the first being Expo '86, a "world class" "B" Exposition (B-rated, as these things go) organized by the then Social Credit provincial government (Thatcher-driven in ideology) to assist in the reconfiguration of the province's economic base from resources (forestry, fishing, mining) to service (light industry, "hi-tech", film and video production). As with China's attempt to shift the flow of its rivers, there were consequences, namely to the city's downtown eastside, where our city's temperature has traditionally been taken.

The downtown eastside is where our city began, and, until Expo '86, a place where many of our province's working men and woman lived when not logging, fishing and mining. When Expo '86 was confirmed, hotel owners began evicting residents so that they might charge by the day what seasonal workers had paid by the month. Coupled with that, our provincial government shifted federal transfer payment revenues from health and education (where they had traditionally been spent) to transportation infrastructure in order to make our province and our city more amenable to visitors -- one result being the closure of health institutions (something the Reagan Administration was infamous for), which led to the downtown eastside filling up with former mental patients, many of whom are homeless.

I'm sure in your research you've heard stories about the downtown eastside. More than anything, these stories provide insight into how to read our city. On the one hand, there are those who feel the downtown eastside is a Mogadishu, a blight standing in the way of progress, decency; on the other, a long-standing and diverse community, a muddy flower that has earned the right to grow as its gardener advocates see fit. At the moment, the downtown eastside is experiencing both gentrification, most recently in the form of the Woodward's Building (an architectural collage of market housing, two kinds of social housing, a drugstore, a foodstore, a National Film Board office, the community-based Portland Hotel Society and Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts), and criticism, lead by independent scholars, social activists, certain social service agencies, etc.

I give you all this as a context, towards a further conversation. I'd love to chat, if you're still willing.

Finally, let me add that Vancouver is where I was born and raised -- yet unlike New York City and Paris, it is not people like myself that define the Vancouverite, it is those who come here with an idea in mind, only to discover that that which they thought they would hate (Nature, the oppressor) provides comfort, while that which they thought they would love (a new beginning) brings disappointment. The Vancouverite, to my mind, is someone who struggles with that contradiction, only to discover in it something meaningful, leading to declarations like: "Vancouver: love it, hate it, love what I hate about it." I think we can say that about all west coast cities, how they are based not on what has happened, or is happening, but on what is going to happen (gold, fish, trees, market speculation, real estate…). Vancouver has always been haunted by the future.

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