Thursday, August 13, 2009

From Frances Bula's Blog...

I don't have many addictions, but one is Frances Bula's blog. You can find it at Here I find some amazing discussions on a variety of urban issues, and a handful of characters...almost all anonymous...who debate the issues.

Recently, there was a discussion on the impact of the Olympics on provincial and city services, and I posted some of my thoughts about the potential physical legacies that might come. This morning I came upon a response from 'gmgw' (who is one of the most articulate people on the blog) to which I had to respond.

While his comments were personally disturbing, they certainly forced me to think about how best to respond. So here is what he wrote, and what I wrote:

  • gmgw // Aug 12, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    Michael Geller inquired:
    “Out of interest how many of you who oppose the Olympics also opposed Expo. And in hindsight, do you feel it too was a mistake?”

    I strongly opposed Expo up until it opened, feeling, as with the Olympics, that it was a massive waste of money and resources that would be far better spent on alleviating our far more urgent social needs; then I completely sold out, got a job there, and worked there for the fair’s entire run. I’d love to be able to say that the experience converted me to the Expo cause like Saul on the road to Tarsus, but I merely felt like a massive hypocrite. What can I say? As my partner was frequently reminding me at the time, I needed a job.

    I’d also like to be able to say that the experience changed my life for the better, but…nah. It was a gig. I did experience moments of fleeting glory, however; I got to shake Jim Pattison’s hand (impresive, huh?), as well as stand within four feet of both Princess Diana and George H. W. Bush; and I saw the astounding Urban Sax troupe (from France) perform in the Plaza of Nations; it was undoubtedly the most impressive work of performance art/theatre I’ve ever seen in my life. I was also well-situated to readily discern the rot behind the Expo tinsel, so to speak.

    What particularly bemuses me about the Olympics hype is its eerie familiarity: “It’s going to put Vancouver on the map! It’s Vancouver’s chance to shine on the world stage!” and so on. Exactly the same phrases were used to tout Expo 86. I mean, what happened? Did that mythical table shift some time in the past 23 years? Did we roll off it like a pencil, plunging back into (horrors!) obscurity? Did we emerge grandly onto the world stage, only to take a clumsy pratfall before the august assemblage of all those Really Important People, who apparently expressed their contempt by getting up and leaving en masse, carrying the tale of our ignominy and unworthiness to the World we’d so hoped to impress?

    I mean, what happened to that glorious Expo legacy we were promised, if we now need a massive booster shot? Will we be told in 20 years that we need another one, and will the same rhetoric be used to sell it?

    Michael, with all due respect, I think your position re the Olympics, their projected “legacy”, and that of Expo 86, is a classic illustration of Miles’ Law: “Where you stand depends on where you sit”. I can understand how, considering the circles you move in, you can look at the north shore of False Creek, 23 years on, and see that forest of towers as a positive outgrowth of Expo 86. Why wouldn’t you? You hang with the development crowd. I should think a good many people of your acquaintance have made a considerable amount of money from the post-Expo boom(s), (though none more than the Li family). Supply-siders to the last, you hope that lightning will strike once again in 2010, and you once again present arguments that it will benefit us all. Somehow. Eventually. (I’m sure I’ve quoted this line before, but it’s too good a refutation of the trickle-down theory to not repeat– it was voiced by a housing activist in San Francisco a decade or so ago: “A rising tide may lift all boats, but if you haven’t got a boat, you’re f**ked”.) Was Expo a mistake, you ask? Not for you, bubeleh. Not for you.

    Frankly, Michael, I don’t think you have any subjective understanding of what it is to be poor, whether unemployed or working poor. There are a great many people in and around this city who received little or no direct benefit from Expo, and even fewer who will directly benefit from the Olympics. Skating rinks don’t put food on the table or put roofs over heads, unless you happen to work in one. Most of us will simply go on living our “lives of quiet desperation” while you and your friends enjoy your big party. Among my own circles, I know of no one that’s been invited. I guess we’re supposed to be hoping that there’ll be a few table scraps left over when you’ve finished. And then we can look forward to paying the bill(s), for god knows how long.

    Looking at your blog, I came upon this phrase under “about us”:

    “Much of this blog is devoted to an around-the-world sabbatical my wife and I took in 2007. It was written to inspire others to arrange a sabbatical or quit their jobs, pack their bags, and take a trip around the world.”

    Well, obviously your blog is not meant for the likes of me and mine. Frankly, Michael, I don’t think that anyone who could write those words with a straight face has a hope in hell of understanding those of us out here who can’t afford to attend your party, and oppose the entire event as obscenely wasteful. It’s all very Marie Antoinette of you, to be sure, that intro. If only more of us could live in a comfortable world like yours, just for a while.

    For now though, we must continue to demand: “Bread, not circuses!”

    One final note; You want to know what, for me, is the most meaningful, significant legacy of Expo 86? Here it is, via a link to an article that appeared at the time in (oh, the shame of it) a Major Newspaper In A Big Important American City (how annoyed the Expo godlings must have been!). Note that the article is four pages long.

    Some of us still remember him. I wonder if Jim Green does?


  • 23 michael geller // Aug 13, 2009 at 6:57 am

    GMGW, you are right. While your comments are somewhat hurtful, I do agree that I don’t fully comprehend what it is like to be poor, whether unemployed or working poor. Although I do get some insights from one of my daughters who works with street kids and sometimes behind the bar in a DTES pub. She’s currently looking for work to pay the rent, and regularly reminds me of what it is like for many others who are unemployed or living with minimum wage jobs.

    I’m the first to admit that I have had a very fortunate life (as an aside, I was not born into a wealthy family…I delivered the Globe and Mail form the age of 10 to 13 early each morning…in Toronto…where’s is cold and snowy!), but do want to pick up on the story you referenced about Olaf Solheim, the 88 year old gentleman who died in the DTES as a result of the disruption to his life caused by EXPO 86.

    I remember that story well, and as I wrote with some sadness on my blog, one failing of both EXPO 86 and the forthcoming Olympics is that neither has had the desired benefit on the quality of life for those in the DTES.

    This is particularly disturbing vis a vis the Olympics since it was a high profile topic on the table. Larry Campbell and Jim Green were both very upfront about their desire to ensure that the negative consequences of EXPO 86 on the DTES community didn’t happen again.

    And in many respects, they haven’t. This is a two week event, not a half year event, and we have not seen evictions from SRO’s to accommodate visitors. Indeed, legislation was put in place to ensure this didn’t happen.

    But for me, one of the greatest tragedies of these Olympics is that they have not fulfilled the promise of a lot more housing in the DTES, jobs for the residents, and an improvement in the physical infrastructure and quality of life.

    As some of you know, when I returned from my sabbatical, I started to devote a lot of time to working with Michael Clague, Milton Wong, Gerry Zipursky, Mike Harcourt, Joe Wai and others in trying to improve living conditions in the area. One of the first things that I did was prepare a paper which highlighted all the housing promises associated with the Olympics. While some progress has been made (I believe the Woodwards Project and the purchase and renovation of the older SRO hotels by the Province was directly attributable to this promise) and to some degree, the creation of StreetoHome was another response, I just cannot believe that we haven’t made more progress in the past few years.

    I walked along Hastings Street earlier this week, looking at ugly, graffiti covered boarded up buildings and could not help but wonder whether there is going to be a last minute effort to improve the appearance of this neighbourhood. Now some will immediately respond the ‘appearance’ of the neighbourhood is not the issue…it’s the poor quality of life for the residents and those on the streets….I know, I know.

    But as an architect, I could not help but also focus on the look of the streets, especially since that is something that we could have done something about. And I am a believer in the ‘broken windows’ theory.

    For 18 months I tried to get local organizations interested in trying to improve the appearance of the place. I thought that we could create jobs for people, power washing and painting and cleaning up garbage. I met with Ann Livingstone of VANDU since she thought there was merit in the idea…I spoke with Wendy Pedersen and others at the Carnegie Centre, and so on…I even ran for City Council in part on a homelessness platform, (the Mayor did a better job of publicizing his motivations) but in the end, I had to quit.

    I found the whole process so upsetting. Because the Olympics ARE A PERFECT OPPORTUNITY to help make some more small improvements in the neighbourhood, and it’s simply not happening.

    So yes gmgw, I may not have a subjective understanding of what it is to be poor, but I thought I had the skills to help improve the lives of many poor people, using the Olympics as a catalyst.

    I proposed relocatable modular housing…which could have been built in time…but it did not proceed because some thought it was too expensive, and the Province couldn’t find the subsidy funding SO QUICKLY!

    I would still love to see a community clean-up project…with local residents paid to help improve their streets…but I will leave it to others if they think it is a good idea. A lot can be done in 6 months when billions of people will be looking at what you have done!

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