Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Spring Cleaning in Vancouver's DTES
Recently, a lot of media attention has been given to the question of how to end homelessness and address the problems in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In an excellent series of articles in the Vancouver Province, called 'Operation Phoenix' (http://www.theprovince.com/news/operation-phoenix/more-top-stories.html) a number of people, myself included, offered thoughts on what needs to be done. I was particularly interested in the answer offered by former city councillor Jim Green when asked to name two actions to drastically improve the housing situation in the DTES.
"It's very simple. The first is to build affordable housing. The second is to employ local low-income residents in the construction trades."
I wish it was so simple! From my observations over the past 18 months, I have come to realize that the problem is really quite complex. Yes, we must build more affordable housing, and yes, we must help people find jobs. But given the level of drug addiction and mental illness amongst those in the community, and the general urban fabric, much more needs to be done.
For one thing, we need to come up with a means to coordinate all of the different organizations and various levels of government that are active in the area, spending millions of dollars every week. I personally favour a form of 'Community Development Corporation or Trust' that could bring together the key players in a concerted effort to work together. Sadly, I do not believe this is happening at the moment.
I would also like to see a demographic shift within the neighbourhood. I am not arguing in favour of a complete 'gentrification' that would replace the existing lower income residents. However, I do want to see a broadening of the socio-economic profile, with more middle income renters and homeowners, and new businesses moving into the community.
I would also like to see the area 'cleaned up'. Now I realize that this is a very politically incorrect thing to say. However, by starting to remove litter, power washing facades and replacing awnings, painting storefronts and generally improving the appearance of the neighbourhood, I believe this would provide the employment suggested by Green, and hopefully offer local residents a greater sense of pride. It might also alter the attitudes of many of us from outside the neighbourhood, who are often disgusted with what we see now.
Some have suggested that even if we did undertake a 'spring cleaning', it would not take long for the area to return to its current condition. To address this concern, I would propose an 'adopt a block' program, whereby community organizations and neighbourhood residents would work together to keep their block tidy. They might even decide to plant some flowers.
With its stock of heritage buildings, and proximity to the downtown, this could be a truly wonderful neighbourhood. Yes, I have been convinced it should remain a predominantly low income community; but it needs a broader income mix to become more a more 'normal' and sustainable neighbourhood. I believe the opening of the Woodwards development is going to be a positive step towards this end. But there will need to be a lot more market housing, retail development and institutional uses to make this happen. And a good spring cleaning could be a good start!
Now I'm off to UBC to listen to Gary Mason, Jim Green and others at a Globe and Mail/BCTV sponsored panel to hear what they propose as the solutions.