I’m a proud resident of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I moved there a year ago when I was offered a suite in a housing cooperative. I was delighted; my parents, less so, particularly when I told them my address — two blocks from the notorious corner of Main and Hastings. An intersection that we used to drive through on childhood visits to Vancouver; where my mum would tell my brother and me to lock our car doors.
In my year living in the Downtown Eastside, I’ve seen — and heard, and smelled — some alarming, uncomfortable, and disturbing things. Drugs, domestic violence, the sex trade, mental illness: all up close. But I think the most disturbing thing I see regularly isn’t the behaviour of my neighbours, but that of people visiting. The degree to which people visiting this neighbourhood can treat its inhabitants with sneering disrespect — or disregard them completely — is what makes me saddest.
If, while rushing down that ‘sketchy’ block between their favourite boutique and the hippest new microbrewery, these interlopers were to look around a bit — to really look — they would see something remarkable. You can’t spend more than an hour in the Downtown Eastside with eyes and ears open without noticing what an obvious sense of community the neighbourhood has. It’s palpable. The people are friendly, and polite, and eager to connect. Everyone knows everyone — not just their names, but their stories. And oh, the stories that exist there. They’ll humble you and enlighten you and break your heart.
I don’t mean to diminish the significant suffering that exists in the Downtown Eastside, but rather to point out that with the bad comes the good. And to avert your eyes from the bad — the sad, the disturbing, the unsightly — means missing the good too.