Debbie Krull, “The Woodward’s Occupation & Woodsquat: Then”

2010/11/09 - One Response

A talk for the “Woodward’s: Then & Now” panel at the Right to the City conference organized by Vancouver Action and Streams of Justice on 6 November 2010.

I have been asked to describe the Woodward’s Occupation & Woodsquat and how it affected me personally. The only way I could possibly attempt to honor the Occupation & Woodsquat is to use the Medicine Wheel as a framework. My name is Debbie Strong Woman Krull. I am Cree & Belgian, fostered in German, African & English families & adopted into a Irish, English, Ukrainian, Scottish & Dutch family. I have also been adopted by Gitxsan & Nisga’a families. In Sept 2002 I was an active steering committee member of the Anti Poverty Committee (APC), which I co founded as a momsonthedrive member. Myself and Ivan Drury were the voted APC delegates to attend Jim Leyden’s organizing meeting for a proposed 9 day occupation of the Woodward’s Building for homeless action week.

I had absolutely no relationship with my cultural identity or the aboriginal community until the Woodward’s action. This was one of the many gifts & teachings I received at the Woodward’s Occupation and Woodsquat.

The East – The Physical Teachings of the Woodward’s Occupation & Woodsquat

This action took place on within the traditional unceded territory of the Coast Salish People in the DTES, spearheaded by one of their support & outreach workers who worked in the community for over 10 years (Jim Leyden). He had done a call out within his network in the DTES community & the established network of social justice based organizers & organizations who had been organizing to resist the BC Liberal cutbacks within their respected entities steadfast for a year… and in the spirit of solidarity had been brought together on a 24/7 accessible listserve & in some cases listserves. We were basically Facebook before Facebook even existed. Calls to actions & support demos were routine.

The South – The Spiritual Teachings

I’m aware many people have different spiritual languages so I will be as neutral as I can be.

We were brought together by something that was greater than our physical selves and something greater than our emotional & mental selves kept us together: OUR SPIRIT. I can share that I’m still affected by the spiritual relationship we had and have at Woodward’s.

Our sprit grew strength as discussions of the occupation vision & demands formed within the circle within the occupation. Our spirit transitioned from being separate persons & organizations with a common goal to being a community with a common goal that established relationships with the international community consciousness.

The West – The Emotional Teachings

Each and every person that attended or supported the occupation & squat has a strong relationship with their emotions—this cannot be taken for granted. Remember many of the people at large are silenced by their own emotions and stay at home and do nothing and call it apathy & apolitical. We worked side by side with people who listen to their emotions and take ACTION on them—passionately refusing to be silenced or oppressed. This was real rewarding & challenging dynamic to work & learn in.

When people feel safe… which we felt in the beginning—they can begin to feel other emotions and we witnessed and experienced many emotions: Solidarity, relief, happiness, fear, love, infactuation, anger, frustration, sadness, hunger, contentment, security, silliness, protective & militancy. Each emotion carries deep meaningful teachings from direct experience for each individual: Self esteem and self confidence were gained once the silence was broken in the space we created: we were extremely blessed to have people within our circle that had the gifts of listening, documenting & advocating building unity, love & trust. Our Unity was the biggest threat to the City, the Province & the Olympic bid process. The unity blew apart the original 9 day action & the evictions the injunctions. It was our internationally witnessed confidence & determination made them collaborate & strategizes a plan that entertained discussions about our demands. Because of our unity the city bought the building after they learnt that we had no intention of backing down to negotiate with the developer in fact we told them we’ll buy the building.

The brutal tactics used were definitely intended to instil fear—it didn’t work on some but it worked on me. I was definitely afraid of having Wren apprehended. One of our supporters did have his child apprehended and one of the reasons was attending a homeless demonstration. He requested our support so I went to his family court case and addressed the poor bashing. But the experience was definitely enough to reduce my involvement and change my tactics.

The North – Intellectual Gifts of Woodward’s

I’m going to list “tags” of the social language that was used and shared daily and was imprinted into my mind for life: Home, Community, Safety, Social Housing, Addiction, Harm Reduction, Homelessness, Cop watch, Deportation, Police Brutality, Affidavits, Legal Defense, Injunctions, Colonization, De Colonization, Gentrification, De Gentrification, Imperialism, Class War, General Strike, Neo Liberalism, Capitalism, Unceded Territory, Status, Non Status, Anti Oppression, Anti Homophobic, Anti Transphobic, Solidarity, Living Wage, Squatting, Self determination, Poor-bashing & Feminism.

The Woodward’s Occupation, the Woodsquat & Woodward’s 54 represented more than squatting—they were our front line warriors that put their lives in our hands.

* Photograph by Marwan Marwan.

For Our Comrades Kasper, Tom, Bruce and Taum

2010/07/25 - Leave a Response

Woodwards Squat Info Night - for our comrades Timothy Learn, Tom Vanderbaaren, Bruce Gongola and Taum Danberger

WOODWARDS SQUAT INFO NIGHT WITH VIDEO & AUDIO

FOR OUR COMRADES KASPER, TOM, BRUCE & TAUM

@ 12TH & CLARK, 1284 E. 12TH

7:00 PM, SUNDAY, JULY 25TH, 2010

http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/events/4289

http://12thandclark.wordpress.com/

Kasper Learn, “In the Courts or in the Streets”

2010/05/28 - Leave a Response

Kasper Learn, “In the Courts or in the Streets”, Woodsquat (2004): 38.

The freezing of the social housing budget is only one example of the sweeping cuts to public infrastructure implemented by the BC Liberal government. With the coming winter, the struggle for social housing, in particular, has become a life or death struggle. Behind the rhetoric of a balanced budget, the war of state and capital against the poor and working class has been escalated. Evictions of senior citizens from long-term care have taken place. Long welfare waits have been imposed. Health care and education have suffered. With the creation of these neo-liberal policies, the brutal nature of capitalist economics has been laid bare, and a movement of opposition has begun. The fight for social housing is also a fight for social justice. The squat in the Woodwards building is only one example of actions that will be taken to ensure and restore the integrity of public services like social housing BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. Nor should it be thought that we intend only to oppose the excesses of capitalism while leaving its daily, grinding brutality intact. With the state’s threat to end our non-violent occupation of an abandoned building, we are forced to examine the police and what consequences have resulted from the violent control of our communities. It would seem that they, too, have a role to play in the social forces that have led to this occupation. The struggle against police brutality, harassment and racism has also become central to the conflict between the powerful and the powerless. With the threat of police force, it is apparent that to demand social housing and to begin to take back our communities are one and the same. In closing, I would like to state that we are tired of begging for token concessions. The daily rule of capital over our lives must end. We will continue to fight the BC Liberal regime with whatever tools make themselves available, be it in the courts or in the streets. We will continue to do so until basic human rights have been established for all, until the spectres of exposure, scarcity and police brutality no longer haunt our streets. We are fighting to win. Thank you all for your time and support.

Interview with Kasper: http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/43025

Timothy Learn (November 20, 1984 – May 13, 2010)

LEARN, Timothy (Kasper) On May 13, 2010 Kasper of Edmonton passed away suddenly at the age of 25. He is lovingly remembered as a devoted husband and father by his wife Kaileigh and his daughter Dahlia, his parents Sheryl Douville (Christian) and Ross Learn (Corinne), his brothers Jason, Kyle, Bradley and Alex, and his sister Celine, his paternal grandfather William Ashby and his maternal grandmother Ann Colburn, grandparents Rachel & Pierre Douville as well numerous aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Kasper was predeceased by his grandparents Annie Ashby and Jeffrey Foley and his cousin Stephen Pulleyblank. A Memorial Service will be held on Friday, May 21, 2010 at 2:00 p.m. at Glenwood Funeral Home, south of Wye Road on Range Road 232, Sherwood Park. A interment a and reception will follow at Glenwood Memorial Gardens. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made directly to the family for the future care of Dahlia. To sign the book of condolences, please visit www.glenwoodmemorial.com GLENWOOD 780-467-3337 Funeral Home, Cemetery, Cremation Ctr. Serving Edmonton – Sherwood Park & Area

RIP Timothy Learn AKA Kasper: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=117107381662876

Charles Demers, from Vancouver Special (2009)

2010/02/12 - Leave a Response

Charles Demers, Vancouver Special. Photographs by Emmanuel Buenviaje. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009.

[…] The fight for interiors is also what made the Woodwards Squat of 2002 – also commemorated as Woodsquat – so revolutionary and transformative an experience.  All that fall, street people and activists occupied the massive, hulking Woodwards department store building, which had been vacant since 1993, and resisted the neo-liberal siege that was now literal, as well as metaphorical, for nearly 100 days.  The assertive beauty of the moment is fairly captured in this exchange between anti-poverty activist Reverend Davin and city housing manager Cameron Gray on December 12:

Cameron Gray: Hi.

Reverend Davin: Hi Cameron.

Cameron Gray: How are you?

Reverend Davin: I’m too stubborn to die.

Cameron Gray: [silence]

Reverend Davin: I’m one of the negotiators with the Woodwards Squat and the reason why I’m phoning you is because you’re the Housing Manager and I’m kind of wondering what it is you’re doing to get people housing.

For those of us who supported the action, it was our turn to be outside looking in, as we did during many support rallies in the street outside the building.  The action became iconic – the following July, as a birthday gift from a friend, I was given a print-out artist Murray Bush’s hilarious, and yet somehow also touching, rendering of Queen Elizabeth II’s face photoshopped onto that of a squatter seated in an old chair, enjoying a smoke underneath a poster that says “We Will Win” (the Queen had made a visit to the city that October, while the squat was in full swing – Murray’s poster reads “Social Issues may not be your cup of tea but homelessness need to be dealt with effectively.  Demand provincially-funded housing for the poor, disabled and elderly.”)

At one of the rallies for the squat, a huge ladder was leaned up against the side of the building, and those who cared to see inside were invited up.  Fat guys generally hate ladders, but as I negotiated it there were familiar faces, anti-poverty activists, at the top, and so I was able to persevere.  Inside, the building looked like an old hangar, cavernous and filthy and unwelcoming.  But the people inside were gathered in groups, large and small, some shooting the shit and making jokes, others taking votes and making decisions about the squat and its smaller, subsidiary actions.  In the same way as Michael Ignatieff recalls his revulsion at the British Coal Miners’ strike as the moment he realized firmly that he was a liberal and not a socialist, I remember that moment in the Woodsquat as precisely the opposite. […]

Roger Farr, “Anarchy in BC: Anti-Capitalist Struggle Outside the Union on Canada’s ‘Left Coast’”

2009/10/01 - Leave a Response

From a review of Direct Action, Reading the Riot Act, and Woodsquat published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory 11:1 (Fall 2007).

Link to full article.

The occupation of the Woodwards building, a prominent, if neglected, corporate landmark located on the cusp of Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, by an assortment of street people, punks, the working poor, activists, anarchists, students, adventurers, addicts, and people passing through town, began on September 14th, 2002, and lasted for exactly three months. Although the building had for decades been the focal point for housing struggles in the city, being passed back and forth between various provincial governments and developers until it was quietly left to the pigeons and rats by Gordon Campbell’s neo-liberal government in 2002, a full-scale occupation of the building was by all accounts not on the radar when the building was “popped” by three local residents. Once this group was inside, a small demo was held, during which ladders were raised to the second floor of the building (there were security dogs on the first floor), and people started to make their way inside. Some spent the night, and by the next day, local anti-poverty groups began referring to “the Woodwards squatters” and calling for support in the form of food, blankets, and mattresses.

Aaron Vidaver, the editor of this collection, is a trained archivist, and it shows. In addition to this expertise, he also produced during the squat a daily zine with news, statements, minutes from meetings, poems, safety tips, etc., unofficially assuming a role as the squat’s samizdat publisher. Thus, the material he includes in the collection reflects both his training and his position as a “witness-participant,” someone both inside and outside the occupation. In his collection, we find a multiplicity of competing perspectives on the occupation – those of local homeless people, of native squatters, of the activists who saw the squat primarily as a “tool,” the police who saw it as an affront to their clumsy “law and order” approach to the area’s problems, and, finally, of the municipal government who, tellingly, assigned the squat to their Sanitation Branch. These perspectives are documented in public statements and speeches by squatters and activists, individual testimony and interviews, photographs of the building and of support rallies, poems, flyers, comics, a wonderful series of portraits of the squatters taken by Vidaver, academic essays on gentrification and media coverage of the squat, and numerous documents obtained though freedom-of-information requests (some of which are censored), such as police surveillance reports, stills from police video footage taken during the first eviction, and internal memos prepared by city staff.

Taken together, these documents demonstrate better than any third-person analysis could the political composition of, and tensions within, the squat. Vidaver makes these tensions very clear by opening the collection with Theresa D. Gray’s piece “Canada is All Native Land: Non-Natives Are All Squatters: The Devil + Canada are One.” Indeed, the squat was never able to fully address the problem that it was, from a First Nations’ point of view, a kind of meta-occupation (an occupation of already occupied land), nor could it resolve the contradictions between its immediate use as “a self-managed poor people’s site of reclamation,” as Vidaver calls it in the introduction, and its more commodified or symbolic use as a bargaining chip in a campaign for state-controlled social housing.

For instance, in “Squatting as an Organizational Tool,” Lisa Wulwik describes squatting as an instrument deployed by renters and the poor in their struggle with the state over “effective rent controls” and “social housing.” “People squat,” she writes, “for various reasons: to live free of huge rent prices and overbearing slum lords, to live in occupant-controlled housing, to open community spaces and social centres, to publicize the need for social housing and to call attention to the number of vacant homes and buildings…[activists have] been very successful in using squatting as a political tool to demand social housing.” This perspective is echoed in another piece by Mike Krebs, titled “Demands.” Here, the author seems to be under the influence of Trotsky’s notion of “transitional demands” – short-term demands for concessions that can be achieved under capitalism, in the course of a long-term struggle for socialism – to explain why the Woodward’s squatters needed to “define the movement for housing.”

While this perspective – that the squat was primarily a means-to-an-ends, and that those ends were social housing – is very prominent in the collection (possibly because activists, due to the nature of their work and experience with the media, are often articulate and charismatic and good at securing air time), it frequently encounters challenges from other statements and perspectives that call for a break with the politics of demand. Lyn Tooley, for instance, in “We Need to be Left Alone,” describes how six months of homelessness – “of having to live [her] private life in public space” – amplified her need for “solitude” and “creativity.” Linking the Woodwards squat to autonomous movements in Europe and South America, Tooley argues that “we don’t need government interference to solve our problems. We need to be left alone, unmolested and unharassed be police brutality and government do-gooders….We are not asking the affluent sectors of society to give us charity…We are taking responsibility for our own needs using the only resources left available to us: waste spaces, garbage materials and our creativity.” T. Forsythe, also, suggests that the final neutralization of the squat was tied directly to its reification in the media as part of an activist “campaign” before it had a chance to develop autonomously: “[Leftists] seem to be attracted to media cameras like flies on shit. This phenomenon of self-policing leftists seems to be limited to North America…I remember one meeting where this womyn was telling people not to ‘spare change’ and not to use drugs because ‘it would look bad in the media.’ Come on, you don’t walk into the ghetto, straight out of the white middle class progressive leftist circus and start telling poor people they can’t use drugs or panhandle…it was people like this who sold out Woodwards in the end.”

Today, a “stylish and modern” 560 square foot condo in Woodwards – featuring “9 ft polished concrete ceilings, laminate floors, a Juliette balcony, customized doors, glass tiles & floor to ceiling windows” – starts for around $400,000, and local arts organizations are lining up to get their hands on some cheap office and gallery space.

Bruce Gongola: “Frances to Woody”

2009/09/24 - Comments Off

Bruce Gongola, “Frances to Woody”, Woodsquat (2004): 206-207.

Bruce Gongola

The first thing we did at the Frances Street Squats was tear down all the fences between the houses. The first thing I did at Woodsquat was climb the ladder. At Frances it was more individualized while at Woodsquat the lights never went off. Everybody was always doing something with somebody. Frances Street was more of a homey kind of thing while Woodsquat was more like bubbling, shitting revolution. It didn’t know where it was going or what it was about but 25 hours a day, 8 days a week. It just never ended. It was always happening. Somebody might go to bed but 40 people at least might be up. At Frances Street people were comfortable with the people they lived with. They knew who they were. They knew who they could trust. Woodsquatters didn’t have a fucking clue who they were with, who they could trust, or if they could even trust themselves. You know what I mean? I don’t want to call it anarchy. But it functioned as chaos. Frances Street was anarchy in action but Woodsquat was total chaos. Woodsquat was different from Frances in that it was a street scene with people who never had a place to live. People that never had a sense of political power or never had some sense of community love or organization. Woodsquat was like the gases in a solar system. Energy that takes a long time to come together, to form a planet. That energy was Woodsquat. The Frances Street Squats were like stars. Frances Street had a coalition. Woodsquat was the gases of the universe, spiraling and whirling around, not worried if it was gonna happen or not. Frances Street functioned politically while Woodsquat was manipulated. For all the manipulation I think people really enjoyed themselves and learned a lot. For all the manipulation that happened on all the levels, it didn’t make a goddamn bit of difference. If it wasn’t for Oka, Frances Street would kind of just have petered along. Oka gave it a hard definition. Woodsquat was primordial energy. It didn’t matter what happens. Something was happening. It was all new. It was all heavy, heavy, heavy power. Even though it had manipulation to it, on a political level, it didn’t even fuckin matter. Because it was the people and the energy that was pulsating. It was more people than politics. There was no spokesperson at Frances Street. We all had respect for each other. There was no Jimmy Leyden. There was no PHS in the background. There are some examples of squatters camps in Vancouver but this Woodsquat thing was unique. It was a page of history that stands on its own even though it was manipulated and used by Jim and Jim and Campbell and Campbell. That’s fine. As a people’s action the Woodsquat goes down in history on its own. It was not the electoral politics, the  PR, but the people who were living it. That’s what I was impressed with. I have no qualm with Larry Campbell. But I have no love for the other Campbell. He’ll get elected one more time. Then he’ll get unelected because they don’t want to pick up the pieces. They may knock that goddamn building down. Whatever happens, the struggle goes on. The struggle is about our land. It is not about a particular building or a particular way to live. It is about the changing nature of capitalism and poverty, so that people have a happy life and that everybody is well fed. We’ve got to make life more fun and be creative enough to not only survive but prosper and not get taken down in their power game. At the end of Frances, Ian woke up and they were taking his socks to the street. We took everything out of the houses to the barricade because we didn’t want a little sweet ending. Squeege rips her mask off and she starts crying. The movie is beautiful. At Woodsquat PHS hired some VANDU people and ex-squatter types to take it down. At 7:30am I woke up and they were there. It was a sweet and sour ending. The sauce was too thin. No substance. No meat on the bone. No bone. No dog. And at the end of both squats there were the same false statements issued in the press about weapons being there. After Frances some of us went into a shared house on Adanac Street then the Broadway Squats started. After Woodsquat some of us went into the Dominion Hotel and all of a sudden everything was behind closed doors. That was a drag. It broke people up even more. There were no kitchen facilities. For a while I talked about taking all the doors off. But I’ll save that story for another occasion.

Susan Pell: “Making Citizenship Public: Identities, Practices, and Rights at Woodsquat”

2009/09/23 - Comments Off

Published in Citizenship Studies 12:2 (April 2008): 143-156.

Link to article (pdf).

Summary: “The common conception of citizenship is that of belonging to a political community, with the ensuing rights and responsibilities of membership. This community tends to be naturalized as the nation-state. However, this location of citizenship needs to be decentred in order to investigate current modes of democratic participation. This paper investigates current sites and practices of citizenship through reflection on a tactical housing squat of an empty department store staged by an urban social movement in Vancouver in 2002, known as ‘Woodsquat’. It uses a social movement perspective to look at citizenship, emphasizing the identities, practices, and locations of democratic engagement over the collective question of how we will live together in these places. From this point of view Woodsquat shows current limits of national citizenship, conceptually and practically, and suggests alternative possibilities for future citizenship practices located in multiple identifications with (political) communities. Moving from this analysis of political participation at Woodsquat attention is brought to the importance of spaces of democratic communication for possibilities of citizenship, where there seems to be a reinforcing relationship between public spheres, social movements, and democracy. Ultimately, then, actions at Woodsquat are argued to be a form of citizenship that emerged within a democratic public.”

Olive Dempsey: “The Cost of Forgetting”

2009/09/22 - Leave a Response

Published in Canadian Dimension 38:5 (September-October 2004).

Link to article.

Excerpt: “The occupation of the building’s interior ended quickly, but the squat continued outside for three months, with an estimated 200 people camped around the perimeter. Squatters maintained political pressure through organization and mutual support. ‘We had our own infrastructure,’ says Jewel, one of the participants. ‘We had our own soup kitchens set up. We had volunteers ready to run it, control it, keep it working. We had our own security team running.’ No matter which questions I asked during our interview, almost everyone wanted to talk about the community they had at the squat, and about ways to get it back. As a result of the protest, the new city council, dominated by the Coalition of Progressive Electors, bought the building from the provincial government in March, 2003, with promises to use the space to support the interests of Downtown Eastside residents. […] COPE, composed in part by community advocates and activists, promised a radically different approach to the Canada’s most-talked-about neighbourhood. The COPE solution put the squatters into two Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels in the area. The notorious SROs are rooming houses with tiny units and shared bathrooms. Many involved with the Woodward’s squat believe this was an intentional move to disrupt the bonds and solidarity created during the protest. Intentional or not, that is what happened. Once a force powerful enough to wrest a vacant city block from the hands of the provincial government, those I spoke to say the community of the Woodward’s squat is scattered geographically and fragmented. Jewel wants to start a new squat, giving up the meagre housing she has, to resurrect the solidarity of the Woodward’s squat.”

Taum Danberger (28 August 1953 – 6 November 2003)

2006/07/08 - Leave a Response

Taum Danberger

No Weiners No Schnitzel

No Sharing No Pot Seed

No Personal Issues

No Bars No Jobs

No Diagnosis No College of Physicians or Surgeons

No Waste of Time No Crime No Home As

No ID No Entrance No Rights No Pepperspray

No Zapstraps No Tazers No Carbines No Surrender

No Life Not Now No Visitors After Eight

No Cmas No Death No Costs No Food No Heat

No Yelling Fuck Off No Roomzzzz

No Dogs Off Leash

* * On the Beach No Wading No Swimming

No Throwing Rocks at the Waves / Beach

No Fires No Walking Into Traffic No Caution

No Pay No Yellows Are Not Reds No Reds Are Not Whites

No Whites Are Not Blues

No Illumination No Thought Not One

No Not Scot Sewer Rock

No Buying or Selling No Code Names

No Seditious Treason No Lies No Love No Crying

No Comfort No Levity No Interrogatives No Controlzzzz

No Questions

No Shit No Bunk No Posting Bills No Gasoline

No Cans on the Ferry No Inflating Devices

No Ball Playing No Golf

No Married Men

No Shortages

(from I’m Completely Distracted Within The First Seven Seconds)

Jeff Sommers, “Beyond the Collar of Blight”

2005/01/01 - Leave a Response

Jeff Sommers, “Beyond the Collar of Blight”, Woodsquat (2004): 20-28.

Until the preeminence of the Coalition of Progressive Electors in the November 2002 civic elections, the received wisdom for most of Vancouver’s political establishment was that the root of the Downtown Eastside’s woes was a supposed concentration of social housing in the neighbourhood. The logic runs like this: social housing is for poor people; if you build it, they will come and, in the Downtown Eastside, they have arrived. A similar line of reasoning has been followed with regard to a perceived concentration of services in the area, which also “attract” poor people. In both cases, the poor are seen as a burden, a source of inconvenient problems like drug use and prostitution that they inflict on the rest of us if they are present in too great a number. The problems of the Downtown Eastside would be fixed, according to this argument, if its low income residents were dispersed, possibly by locating social housing and services in other parts of the city (the humane solution) or, if worst comes to worst, by wholesale redevelopment, i.e., gentrification (the practical solution).

The public proponents of this view included not only The Vancouver Sun’s sometime urban design critic, Trevor Boddy (who advocated it while waxing eloquently over the beauty of a recent social housing project on Cordova Street)[i], but two people who should know better, former Vancouver Mayors Mike Harcourt and Art Philips. Both had been involved with the area more than thirty years ago, long before it was a significant site for social housing. But neither chose to remember that even then the neighbourhood was the poorest in the city. Nor did they choose to remember that the rapid increase in social housing in the Downtown Eastside can be traced to two particular sources with which both should be familiar.[ii]

First, the market housing stock that dominated the Downtown Eastside for decades – single room occupancy (SRO) hotels – was probably the worst in the city and, by the late 1960s, had become a central object of housing reformers. Second, local advocacy groups and their allies across the city demanded that social housing be constructed in the neighbourhood for the people who lived there. Contrary to the claims of deliberate “ghettoization” of the marginalized that have been advanced by people from various parts of the political spectrum, the vast bulk of social housing in the Downtown Eastside was not placed there by government fiat, but as a result of local activism and organization.

Any controversy over the placement of social housing is of recent origin and is related to the gentrification of the area that began in the late 1980s. As the move-in rate of incoming middle class property owners accelerated in the early 1990s, the area became a site of conflict between this new group, often allied with local business organizations, and those representing the low income population. As is now well-known, the conflict, which simmered for most the decade, erupted into open and direct confrontation in 1998, as the gentrifiers and businesses sought to pressure the City to apply police force to deal with the drug situation. Yet, this was only a tactical move. For the better part of the 1990s the conflict had centred, not around drugs, but around issues of housing, services, and development. Because of the panic that ensued when health authorities declared that an HIV/AIDS epidemic was in progress among intravenous drug users, the drug issue provided a key vector for stigmatizing social housing and services for the poor by forging an near-indelible connection between poverty, drug use, and disease (Sommers & Blomley 2003).

It is not clear whether this link will indeed be permanent, given the defeat of the Downtown Eastside gentrifier and business groups, intimately tied to the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), in the civic election.[iii] But, whatever the outcome, such a development is something of an irony given the tortuous history of social housing in the Downtown Eastside, a story that begins with the proposed urban renewal in Strathcona more than 50 years ago.

In the late 1940s, the City commissioned Leonard Marsh, the founder of the UBC School of Social Work and influential member of the League for Social Reconstruction – which played a key role in the formation of the Canadian welfare state – to detail a vision for its plan to clear the “collar of blight” that surrounded the downtown peninsula. His proposal for the urban renewal of Vancouver’s East End district was published in the wake of a housing crisis in the city. Only two years before, returning veterans and their families had moved into newly built houses on Renfrew Heights from the old Hotel Vancouver building at Georgia and Granville, which they had occupied in 1946, demanding adequate housing (Wade 1994).

Marsh proffered an image of a modern, high-rise neighbourhood that would rise on the literal ruins of the old wooden buildings that were then seen as defective slum premises. Yet, when he wrote his report, entitled Rebuilding a Neighbourhood, in 1950 Marsh certainly wasn’t thinking that, half a century later, the houses in the neighbourhood that he had dubbed Strathcona would be selling for close to half a million dollars or that the area that he had envisioned as a paragon of progressive, modernist planning is one of Vancouver’s trendiest neighbourhoods. The still-standing houses that would have been leveled and replaced with concrete, brick, glass, and pavement are now among the most desired in the city and are fetching a fortune. The streets that surround them are green and leafy, lined with SUVs and beemers. The neighbourhood is considered to be a vital centre of Vancouver’s burgeoning arts scene. One Strathcona block was the city’s inaugural “most beautiful block.”

This “renaissance” was only made possible by the revolt against urban renewal that began in the late 1960s as Strathcona residents, most of whom were Chinese-Canadian, were joined by academics, students, community organizers, and westside heritage supporters to derail the City’s plans to level the neighbourhood and push a freeway through it (Ley 1994). Yet, by the very same token, it was this same combination of forces that promoted the vision of social housing and services for the poor (Sommers 2001).

The neighbourhood that is now called the Downtown Eastside, but was then widely known as the city’s skid road district, was also slated for demolition. By the mid-1960s, civic authorities saw urban renewal as a means of dispersing the skid road population, a move that was resisted by the mostly church-based agencies then offering services to residents.[iv] It was not until the area became a site for community organizing and countercultural activities, as well as an object of the burgeoning heritage preservation movement, that a serious challenge was mounted to the City’s plans.

But it was not only urban renewal that was at issue. Students and community organizers swarmed through the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona (as well as all the other inner city neighbourhoods)[v], helping residents set up public housing tenants associations, studying health issues, organizing legal clinics, daycares, and a range of other activities. In 1972 the newly-formed Vancouver Community Legal Assistance Society delivered a report to City Council detailing its investigation into conditions in the SRO hotels that housed the bulk of the district’s population.[vi] The primary reason these accommodations were so abysmal, the report claimed, was that City bylaws were not stringent enough and City building inspectors did not use the bylaws that were there. The City retorted that there was no point in either enforcing or strengthening its bylaws because the people who lived in the hotels were the real problem: if a landlord did repair a building, it would soon be wrecked by the carelessness and neglect of its tenants.

Such a challenge did not go unanswered and by the time the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association (DERA) was officially formed the following year, the condition of housing was perhaps the key organizing issue in the community. DERA made its name, and changed the public recognition of the neighbourhood, through vociferous activism aimed at slum landlords, shoddy business operators, and neglectful politicians and bureaucrats. When landlords let their buildings slide, DERA picketed the premises and drew media attention to the situation.

This local activism combined with the election of a moderate reform council at the city level in 1973, and a left-wing provincial government, elected the previous year, to put housing on the public agenda. The City began to work with the Central Mortgage and Housing Agency (now CMHC), the Federal government housing group, and BC Housing, to initiate a series of housing projects for senior citizens in the mixed residential-industrial area northeast of Main and Hastings. Changes to the National Housing Act had enabled non-profit organizations to receive Federal funding for housing and by the early 1980s, several groups, including DERA and the First United Church, were either already operating or planning housing projects for the area.

The involvement of non-profits in direct housing provision and management would have a number of implications for the community, not all of them positive. First, local management of housing meant that project operators were more responsive to the needs and interventions of the community itself. As social housing has proliferated in the community over the 1980s and 1990s, SRO tenants have had increasing access to a better quality, low-rent alternative. Second, it began to stabilize the housing situation by taking land off the property market and vesting it in public ownership. However, because most social and cooperative housing in the area sits on land that was either already owned or acquired by the City for housing construction, the community has gained no equity from this process. Third, as landlords, housing organizations are placed in the position of exercising authority over their tenants. Groups that once sought to represent and advocate on behalf of the community to the outside power structure were gradually resituated in the minds of many residents as the local face of that structure. Finally, the requirements of housing provision are such that organizations become more and more preoccupied with project management, effectively diverting their energy and resources from community advocacy.

The emergence of community-based housing organizations thus marked a shift in community institutions, away from activist interventions toward increasing cooperation and mediation with the local state (Ley and Hassan). This took place at precisely the same time that the entire City, but especially the Downtown peninsula and the inner city neighbourhoods that surround it, underwent a profound transformation that was the product, in part, of increasing investment in property development, spurred on by zoning changes.

Since 1970, the inner neighbourhoods of the city had been bleeding their once substantial stock of cheap single rooms. Once estimated at more than 20,000 in 1970, the stock now numbers less than 6,000 rooms (City of Vancouver Housing Centre 1995). The sweep of gentrification that began in the late 1970s in Kitsilano and moved eastward through Fairview Slopes and up to Main Street, in the decade following, decimated much of the stock outside the Central Business District. Meanwhile, fires and bylaw closures in the Downtown and West End during the 1970s and 1980s were soon accompanied by intensifying redevelopment pressure that began shortly before the Expo ’86 world’s fair. As redevelopment proceeded apace through the 1990s, property values skyrocketed, and as home-buyers began looking east for cheaper property, gentrification took root in the neighbourhoods like Strathcona and Grandview, where there had once been a plentiful supply of single and housekeeping rooms.

While it’s true, as civic leaders continue to point out, that since the late 1980s, the construction of social housing in the Downtown and Downtown Eastside has kept pace with the loss of SROs in those areas, it is also true that the situation is more complicated than a simple one-to-one swap. For one thing, there has never been a complete overlap between the tenants of each kind of housing. Some of the city’s early projects were designed for the so-called hard-to-house population – the same people that bylaw inspectors had once blamed for the deterioration of the hotels. However, for the most part, social housing has been constructed for the most stable elements of the low income population – not only in the Downtown Eastside but all over the city.

In the Downtown Eastside, much of the older, longer term population moved out of the hotels into the new social housing projects. A recent survey of the SRO population found that hotel residents were both younger and more unhealthy than had been the case 10 years earlier (Main and Hastings 2001). Many of the people who now live in the hotels require the kind of social and health support, along with decent accommodation, that is only provided in places like the New Portland Hotel and a few other projects.

This situation is made even more complex by three other intertwined elements. One, already noted, is the virtual redevelopment of much of the Downtown peninsula and the inflow of some 25,000 new residents, together with the mostly upscale services they demand. As in Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside, middle income homeowners and renters dwelling in shiny new high-rises and townhouses rub shoulders with the poor, many of whom now sleep in parking lots and doorways because the cheap rooms that once housed such people are no longer plentiful.

The second, related element, in this equation is the reorientation of the Downtown economy away from its old industrial base centre on the Burrard Inlet and False Creek waterfronts. This shift, which actually began post-World War II, was consolidated by the removal of the last vestiges of industrial activity from the north shore of False Creek in preparation for Expo ’86. It has been replaced, as in virtually every other North American city, by an economy based on producer and consumer services as well as tourism and niche sectors like design and software development. While there has been little research on the on the social effects of this service-based economy in Vancouver, some writers have argued that one of the key characteristics of service-based globalizing cities is a tendency toward labour market polarization between high wage professional, technical, and managerial sectors and lower wage workers (Sassen 2000 & 2001). Certainly there is evidence at the national level of increasing income inequality in Canada (Zyblock & Zhengxi 1997; Picot 1998).

The final element affecting housing in the Downtown Eastside is state restructuring at both Federal and Provincial levels. The withdrawal of the Federal government from new housing provision was mitigated for much of the 1990s by the continuing Provincial commitment. However, the provincial Liberal Party also has now abandoned new social housing construction. This is compounded by the ongoing, draconian income assistance regime (initiated under the same New Democratic Party government that kept building social housing, and intensified by the Liberals) that not only cuts rates while making it more difficult to obtain, but is now set time limits that will shortly (as of March 31, 2004) disconnect thousands of people from the social safety net. This has all taken place in the much broader context of the continuing high unemployment that resulted from the abandonment of full employment policies in the wake of the opening of national markets to international competition.

The results of the pressures exerted by all these forces, from gentrification, redevelopment, and the declining stock of SROs, to wider economic changes and welfare state retrenchment, have been visible on the street, not only of the Downtown Eastside, but all over the inner and core neighbourhoods of the city. Marginality is visibly on the increase, as the presence of homeless people, panhandlers, and an open drug market attests. Under such conditions, conflicts over both housing and the presence of marginalized groups on the streets, which have become more familiar over the past decade, will likely continue and perhaps intensify.

Leonard Marsh, the visionary of Strathcona urban renewal, would probably be surprised not only that the neighbourhood is still full of wooden houses but that only a short walk from this fashionable, renovated district are two encampments of homeless people at Strathcona and Creekside parks. Meanwhile, the proponents of the concentration thesis have been conspicuously silent about the Provincial departure from social housing provision. Of course, since there will no longer be any new social housing built, they don’t have to argue that it should be built outside the Downtown Eastside. Fifty years after the first attempt to address it, the housing question in this part of the city still escapes any resolution.

Works Cited

Boddy, Trevor. “Lore Krill Housing Coop Earns Highest Marks.” The Vancouver Sun (17 April 2003); B6.

City of Vancouver Housing Centre. Changes in the SRO Stock in Vancouver’s Downtown Core, 1971-1994. Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 1995.

City of Vancouver Planning Department. Downtown Eastside Community Monitoring Report. Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 2001.

City of Vancouver Social Planning Department (VSPD 1971). Report to the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare from the Director of Social Planning and Community Development, Nov. 18, 1971. City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver Social Planning Department, Series 178, 85-A-3, File 7. Skid Road, 1971-72.

Harcourt, Mike. “Harcourt offers plan to clean up inner city: A lethal cocktail of homelessness, crime, drug abuse and joblessness has to be counter-acted.” The Vancouver Sun (7 November 1998); A3.

Ley, David, “The Downtown Eastside: ‘One Hundred Years of Struggle’.” In David Ley and Shlomo Hassan, Neighbourhood Organizations and the Welfare State. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Main and Hastings Community Development Society. Downtown Core Housing Survey, 2001. Vancouver: Main and Hastings Community Development Society, 2001.

Marsh, Leonard. Rebuilding a Neighbourhood: Report on a Demonstration Slum-Clearance and Urban Rehabilitation Project in a Key Central Area in Vancouver. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia, 1950.

Phillips, Art. “Good intentions go bad: PAST LESSONS: Exclusive public housing projects will doom the Downtown Eastside to continued misery.” The Vancouver Sun (1 November 2000); A21.

Picot, Garnet. What is Happening to Earnings Inequality and Youth Wages in the 1990s. Ottawa: Statistics Canada Analytical Studies No. 116, 1998.

Sassen, Saskia. Cities in a World Economy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2000.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2001.

Sommers, Jeff. The Place of the Poor: Poverty, Space and the Politics of Representation in Downtown Vancouver, 1950-1997. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Burnaby: Simon Fraser University, 2001.

Sommers, Jeff and Nick Blomley. “The Worst Block in Vancouver?” In Reid Shier, ed., Stan Douglas: Every Building on 100 West Hastings. Arsenal Pulp Press and the Contemporary Art Gallery: Vancouver, 2003.

Vancouver Community Legal Assistance Society (VCLAS 1971). Skid Road Housing Conditions. City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver Social Service Department, Series 454, 107-A-7. Skid Road, 1962-1971, File 5, 1970-71.

Wade, Jill. Houses For All: The Struggle for Social Housing in Vancouver, 1919-1950. Vancouver:  UBC Press, 1994.

Zyblock, Myles and Zhengxi Lin. Trickling Down or Fizzling Out: Economic Performance, Transfers, Inequality, and Low Income. Ottawa: Statistics Canada Analytical Studies No. 110, 1997.


[i] (Boddy 2003). The Lore Krill Coop is located half a block from the Woodward’s building and was constructed with funds that were originally intended for social housing there. When the building’s then-owner, Fama Holdings, reneged on its deal with the Province, the funding was re-allocated to two housing coops in the area.

[ii] The Downtown Eastside has 23% of Vancouver’ social and cooperative housing stock but only 3.2% of its population (City of Vancouver Planning Department 2001).

[iii] Business and home-owner groups in Strathcona and the Gastown tourist district have developed close associations with the NPA. For example, a prominent, long-time member of the Gastown Business Improvement Association, J.P. Shason, was intimately involved with financing the party’s civic election campaigns while another, Grant Longhurst, a communications consultant, ran the campaigns. When the NPA lost the 2002 election, a member of the Strathcona BIA sat on the its Board of Directors, together with well-known Gastown homeowner and gentrification advocate, Lynn Bryson.

[iv] These groups were organized into the Downtown Clergy Committee, which was composed of groups like St. James Social Services, First United Church, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities.

[v] Vancouver’s inner city neighbourhoods include the districts surrounding False Creek starting with Kitsilano, on the west, Fairview, Mount Pleasant, Strathcona, and Grandview. The Downtown peninsula includes the Central Business District, Downtown Eastside, and the West End.

[vi] (VCLAS 1971). For the response of City staff see (VSPD 1971), known informally as “The Skid Road Report.”

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