Only a mixed community can save the Downtown Eastside

Post by Mike Klassen in


My Vancouver includes the DTES
Our Vancouver includes the DTES. Flickr photo: M-J Milloy

The following is my weekly column from 24 Hours...

We’ve created this sad little borough known as the Downtown Eastside by ignoring it, and by listening to the advice of the poverty industry that seeks to maintain the status quo.

A friend from my neighbourhood is a serial entrepreneur with a taste for offbeat music, culture and art. He’s the perfect individual to lead a revitalization of those desperate streets. Among **David Duprey’s accomplishments are two restored storefronts on East Hastings near Main Street currently leased out to other businesses. He’s also refurbished and re-opened a live music venue he dubbed the Rickshaw Theatre.

When David first arrived in the neighbourhood he almost walked away due to the red tape city bureaucrats heaped upon him. Thankfully for that community he persevered.

Last week the Vision Vancouver city council appeared to take the Downtown Eastside two steps back by blocking a discussion about modest building height increases in that neighbourhood. The poverty industry was in full swing – they created an absurd and shameful campaign labeled ‘Fight the Height,’ which featured a poster full of human silhouettes swinging from nooses off the tops of buildings.

If anyone is the reason for death and decay on the mean streets of the Downtown Eastside, it is the leaders of the poverty industry itself.

The process of increasing height in the DTES began almost four years ago. It’s shocking to think that city hall has taken this long to deliberate on this topic. But when eighty members of the public arrived at city hall to debate it with the Vision/COPE majority, council blinked big time. Vision Councillor Raymond Louie moved a motion to defer further discussion, leaving those 80 members of the public standing stunned outside the council chamber.

Among the people who weighed in at the eleventh hour were a group of academics who co-signed a letter decrying any change to the built form in a place many refer to as a ghetto. None of these professors had any expertise in planning or architecture, but that didn’t stop Vision Coun. Kerry Jang from praising “the learned people” from joining the debate.

Even former mayor, premier and Kerrisdale resident Mike Harcourt got into the act, saying he wanted more study. But more study means more delay and more decay. If there were an earthquake tomorrow, take a guess how many of these beloved ‘heritage’ structures might be left standing?

Our politicians – current and former – who want to preserve the Downtown Eastside as is are consigning it to more years of misery.

Opponents wrongly claim that the only way to preserve “affordability” is to restrict any market housing. That is precisely how we keep the DTES as the city’s shame – keep only poor people here.

It’s time for a mix of incomes to return, along with small businesspeople like my friend David. That’s the only way out of DTES despair.

- post by Mike. As it happens the Vancouver Sun published a similar comment on the same day. There are several who have expressed their frustration at the latest delays in bringing new development into the DTES. Also worth reading is Allen Garr's account of what happened last week.

**While we salute the work of people like David Duprey in the DTES, he had no involvement in this article and was used as a subject without his knowledge.


Interesting piece Mike. While I agree that there needs to be revitalization in the area, the challenge is how we obtain the best results which bring re-newel and yet doesn't displace the long-standing residents of this venerable neighborhood.

Bringing together people and the various interests to develop a long-term plan for the community seems the way to go.

There is no magic fix for the area but we need to address the drug problems in the DTES. Once we eliminate the parasites who prey on vulnerable and sick people and treat the drug addicted from a health perspective, things will improve.

It is important to bring back service based jobs so people have economic capacity.

I'm not sure what your friend is doing will ensure revitalization?

From what I've read he has leased properties and then sub-leased to artist groups which I must question whether these store-fronts will bring economic vitality to the area?

Gosh we all know that artists struggle financially and whether they will last operating as non-profits will be interesting to watch. I've seen so many galleries come and go in this area.

I have also seen others coming from outside the area thinking they will become the saviors of the neighborhood and their pipe dreams never seem to make a difference. I suspect this is because they refrain from working collaboratively and instead seem to think they know what is best.

It will be interesting to see how the high towers recommended for the historic area of the City unfolds.

Jamie Lee, your points are well taken. Reclaiming otherwise boarded up shops and occupying them with people – sober people – working & shopping in the neighbourhood is preferable to abandoning those streets to the dealers and thugs. I know you would agree with that goal.

The spectre of "towers" is overstated. There are few who would look at Woodward's and not consider it to be a significant change to that community. The proposed increase in height is nowhere near that of Woodward's, yet none of these same activists would dare to object to that project, with its school, arts co-op, social housing and grocery store.

The fact is that all neighbourhoods must welcome newcomers. Artists are almost always the vanguard. New housing will contribute to, and not take away from, the quantity of residences.

Turning against those who would invest in the DTES without even beginning a dialogue is what perpetuates the despair on those streets. It's a vicious cycle that the next city government will have to break.

The land base in the DTE is far too valuable for it be be arbitrarily selected by one group of people as their land and not subject to market forces.

This is socialist/progressive politics trying to exercise power on the backs of poor people it claims to represent but in reality just draws its financial sustenance from.

The DTE will be gentrified and the current residents that blight what was once, only a few decades ago, a valuable and stable family neighbourhood, will go back where they came from.

The DTE has been a giant magnet for criminals, drug addicts, socialist whackos, narrow minded progressives and other rent seekers for far too long. It sucks in the flotsam of our society and makes it far too easy for these people to be preyed upon by the drug peddling criminals and rent seeking do-gooders with a lip-lock on the public teat.

So the sooner this valuable land, so close to the CBD, is gentrified, the better off Vancouver will be.

@Fred; I couldn't have said it better myself.


Can you clarify your comments regarding earthquakes? Out of which taxpayers' pocket (muni, prov, fed) do you see paying for earthquake remediation of these buildings? Or are you suggesting private money or?


you said, "The DTE will be gentrified and the current residents that blight what was once, only a few decades ago, a valuable and stable family neighbourhood, will go back where they came from."

But according to my knowledge of Vancouver history, the Downtown Eastside has always been home to a large population of people with substance, financial, and other issues. It may have been confined to a few blocks, but has spread as the city as grown. SROs have been a part of the neighbourhood since we first carved Vancouver out of the forest. In fact, despite your assertion that it's progressives and socialists that have led to the DTES's problems, it is in fact private enterprise that made the area what it is, from the drug dealers to the logging barons.

Pick up a copy of 'Woodsmen of the West' (Good luck with that, damned hard to find, but you might have some luck at the VPL) or Ken Drushka's excellent "Working in the Woods' (a history of logging in BC) for a clearer picture of the history of that part of Vancouver, originally known as Skid Road.

@Chris. Those who own the property must make sure they are safe.

Mixed use. Why yes of course. But the elephant in the room question is "who is in the mix?' The Main and Hastings area has for many years been a place where the poor, the visiting loggers, the on the beach fishermen, and yes the drunks all co existed. But then the people who apparently have severe mental problems, the drug addicts and the pimps and prostitutes and petty thieves moved in. Do you want them in the "mix"? If you want to legislate that these people be encouraged to remain in the DTES then you will be hard pressed to find many "normal" people who want to invest in a home there. And if they don't come, what kind of businesses will locate there? Who will they serve?
Mike would you bring your wife and family downtown to live at Main and Hastings right now with no change to existing conditions?

I have operated a business in the downtown eastside and have many friends of all income ranges who live in the area. I would certainly locate their again and we did not have any particular problems while there. We saw some unpleasent scenes but had many good conversations. I agree with Mike that the DTES will be a healthier community with more income diversity, but it is also important that the existing community be suported and I would like to hear ideas on how this can be done.

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