March 12, 2011 Day 1 of Walking Home Projects Mapped Workshop

Review of Walking Home Projects’ Mapped: Youth Navigating DTES
Written by: Samantha Knopp

On Saturday March 12th, a dozen youth gathered at 221A Artist Run Centre for Walking Home Projects Mapped: Youth Navigating the DTES, Walking Home Projects’ first map-making workshop and first “for youth, by youth” event.  I had been given the opportunity to create and lead the event, but it was far from a singular effort as Walking Home Projects’ Director, Catherine Pulkinghorn, mentored me through the process of organizing and facilitating; Maia Rowan, a fellow student at Emily Carr, offered her youth-leadership expertise to help co-run the event on Saturday; and Laurie Dawson shared both her administrative and audio talents throughout the process.  When the youth finally began to trickle through the doors on Saturday, I was very excited as the months of collective effort and planning were finally set to pay off.

Walking Home Projects Mapped: Youth Navigating DTES participants sat in an open circle for introductions (Photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

After a round of introductions, we gathered in an open circle to share our impressions of the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown and mapping.  The plan for the day was to challenge these ideas by experiencing the neighbourhood anew.  I began this process by leading the group on a two-hour walk, and was both excited and nervous to share the content I had prepared, which was as much personal collage from my own experiences on walks with WHP as it was chronological tour.

Sam Knopp started the walk off with a description of the old-growth forest that once dominated the skyline (Photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

We began at the corner of Georgia Street and Main Street, and I began by recounting the genesis of the neighbourhood – and by extension, the City of Vancouver – with a description of the lush old-growth forest that that once dominated the skyline.  The west coast’s unique temporal rain forest bio-zone made this area one of the most resource-rich areas in the whole world, and the first people to take advantage were the Coast Salish, a people whose ancestry in the area goes back nearly 10,000 years, or as far back as the end of the last ice-age!  But the plentiful landscape couldn’t stay a secret forever, and when the first wave of European explorers arrived they knew instantly that a slice of this pie would be theirs.  And so it was that the Hastings Sawmill was built, and the first settlers in a continuous stream of non-Native American inhabitants to the area arrived.  Some would argue, however, that the thirst for lumber was not, in fact, the main catalyst for Vancouver’s burgeoning population, but instead that a more primitive thirst for alcohol and women was the driving force!  Gassy Jack’s Saloon – and the brothels and hotels that grew up alongside it – was the impetus for a real settlement that would later become our city.  Although we were quite far from the city’s nucleus in Gastown at Maple Tree Square, the boundaries of the early town-site are in fact the neighbourhoods of the Downtown Eastside, and one of the traces of these early hotels and drinking establishments was right in front of us, the London Hotel.  This early history is interesting to know because in it we can see the problems of substance abuse and prostitution that permeate the neighbourhood today already present in the city’s founding.

At the London Hotel, I began to talk about the layers of history that were present all around us, even if they were inconspicuous.  The hotel, which originally catered to Vancouver’s early Black Canadian population, offered an opportunity to discuss Vancouver’s early racial (Hogan’s Alley in particular) and gender (alcohol legislation mandated women and men could not drink together) divisions. Its turn of the century architecture also allowed me to share some of my own research into Vancouver’s history, by sharing about vault lights, as the hotel has an entire sidewalk of the purple gems!

Walking in the rain with Vancouver 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Games Commissioned Go! Umbrellas with printed map of Bright Lights Galleries (Photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

From here we didn’t have to move far to uncover more important details of Vancouver’s past.  The abrupt end to East Georgia Street marks the path that Project 200, an urban freeway proposal, would have taken.  Many were surprised to learn that it was neighbourhood activism that prevented the plan from going forward, and that the lack of an urban freeway is often considered instrumental in forcing the municipal government to plan Vancouver differently so that today it stands as one of the most liveable cities in the world.  This mega-freeway, which was to end with a multi-story parkade, was slated to run through Heritage neighbourhoods like Strathcona, Chinatown, and Gastown, and doubtless would have created a car-friendly culture, diminished the amount of green spaces in our city, and facilitated suburban sprawl.  Because the freeway never came to fruition, the city has been forced to condense and the difficulty of driving in the city (not a feature that’s universally appreciated!) has encouraged more green forms of transportation as well as more green spaces.

An incredible place to visit on Main Street - Tosi Foods (Photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

We next travelled north on Main Street, and I made sure to point out Tosi Foods, the last evidence of Vancouver’s original “Little Italy”, which reminded our participants that Main Street wasn’t part of Vancouver’s original Chinatown.  Instead, it was once the city’s main artery and included City Hall in addition to many other important public institutions and commercial businesses.  But Vancouver is a city that doesn’t like to be in stasis and thus our city centre, and therefore many of our major public institutions, have never remained in one place for too long.

When we finally reached the corner of Pender Street and Main Street it was apparent that we were at the real start of Vancouver’s Chinatown.  Pender Street was the first home to the Vancouver’s early Chinese community because it was on the outskirts of the early town-site, and the only place that Chinese Canadians were allowed to live because of the rampant racism.  It was perhaps surprising for some participants to learn that this was once the edge of town, but at that early time in Vancouver’s history False Creek hadn’t yet been filled in, so the waterline nearly reached the north side of the street.  As we made our way down Pender Street we were all struck by a burgeoning arts community (with BLIM, Shudder Gallery, Vancouver Film School and the Rennie Collection all situated along this strip).  This growing artistic demographic along with the desire to increase building heights in the area quickly turned our discussion to the topic of gentrification and to the paradoxical strength and fragility of the community.

Mapped Workshop Participants looking at Wing Sang Building on East Pender Street (Photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Our next turn was down a strange and narrow gap between two old brick walls where participants were treated to a very rare opportunity to visit one of Chinatown’s Family Societies and see the last remaining interior courtyard in Chinatown at the Yue Shan Society.  At this point, Catherine Pulkinghorn took the reins and explained the history of these family societies, some of the unique and sometimes handy architectural features of the building, and the secret of Market Alley.  This forgotten business strip was once actually two avenues: one ran through all the businesses along Pender Street and the other faced onto the gap between Pender Street and Hastings Street.  The interior part of Market Alley was particularly crucial to the early Chinese community as racist curfew laws made it illegal for Chinese Canadians to go out after sunset until the 1930’s.

Walking Home Projects Director Catherine Pulkinghorn sharing history about the last remaining interior courtyard in Chinatown at the Yue Shan Society (Photo credit: Maia Rowan)

The group next turned off of Pender Street and onto Carrall Street going north.  The focus suddenly shifted as we found ourselves on the most “dangerous” street in Canada.  The intersection of Hastings Street and Carrall Street was yet another of Vancouver’s many former city centres.  Although it may be difficult to believe now, East Hastings Street was once a vibrant entertainment district. The Interurban Railway – in operation until the 1950’s – brought nearly 30,000 people per day to the area, but when the Interurban closed, the local business community followed suit, and with the growing problems of addiction, which were caused in part by an over concentration of low-income housing from the SRO Hotels, the area has slowly moved into its current state.  Although I provided some context based on my own perspective, most of the learning about the street today came from each person’s experience as we walked down this infamous block. This was a highly significant experience for a few people in the group who were actually stepping foot on Hastings Street for the very first time.

Artist Sam Knopp sharing some history of Hastings street, pointing out the old Interurban Railway Station across the street which is now home to Centre A (Photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

As we walked we each shared our thoughts on the SRO’s, United We Can, and the fate of the Pantages Theatre.   When we reached the corner of Hastings Street and Main Street we found ourselves with a surprisingly warm greeting by the “living room of the DTES,” the Carnegie Community Centre.  The Centre was another fruit of the community activism of this neighbourhood, and an important reminder that, although this neighbourhood has more than its fair share of problems, there are also many beautiful success stories.  Once Vancouver’s main public library, the building almost became a parkade until residents of the area stepped in and demanded that it become a public facility.  Today, the Carnegie is Vancouver’s busiest community centre, and offers a wide array of programs that make a huge contribution to the quality of life for people in the area and for the city as a whole.

Sam Knopp pointing out Pantages Theatre to our group which is soon slotted for demolition by the City (Photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

At that point, it was time to return to 221A Artist Run Centre to warm-up, get some food, and give me a turn to listen and let some others do the talking!  A wonderful assortment of goodies were ready upon our return, thanks to donations from London Drugs, Nesters Food Market, JJBean, and Terra Breads, and after a reasonably long walk, people wasted no time compensating for the lost calories!  After filling our stomachs, the rest of the afternoon was spent filling our heads, engaging the questions from earlier in the day for a second time after experiencing the neighbourhood.  What is the Downtown Eastside? What is Chinatown?  What is Mapping?  Immersing ourselves in the area for the day awakened many personal stories from this and other previous experiences of the neighbourhood, and many participants were grateful to experience the neighbourhood themselves, and hear from so many of their peers.

Sam Knopp showing participants resources on mapping at 221a Artist Run Centre (Photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

As the discussion moved back towards mapping, participants were given a chance to see how maps have been and can be used.  Maia, Catherine, and I talked about different kinds of maps and what they mean; the walk had emphasized the constructed nature of the city and maps are representations of that construction.  Thus participants realized the possibility of maps to share information, thoughts, and even emotions through mapmaking.  Some even saw the importance of creating more maps, which address and embrace the subjective nature of experiencing this or any neighbourhood.  With the day quickly drawing to a close, it was amazing (and almost disconcerting) to see that so much effort was so short-lived.  But the rewards of the few hours were also apparent and we were all excited to see how the second half of the workshop would turn out!

Sam Knopp

March 12, 2011 – The  Map of  Where We Went:

Participants of Walking Home Projects’Mapped: Youth Navigating the Downtown Eastside (DTES) had the opportunity to engaged in a critical discussion about the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown. Everyone was eager to join in the conversation and thus a large range of perspectives and ideas were explored, both before and after our two hour guided walk through the area.

Below is documentation of some of these discussions about the neighbourhood, transcribed from notes taking during the Saturday March 12th, 2011, session.


What do we think about this neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside (DTES)?
-there is a strong sense of community
-but not the most healthy community
-the poorest area in Canada
-drug addictions
-the cliché story for any radio/journalist student, exploitive to use the DTES in a story
-activism (CRAB Park)
-stop the freeway
-people shooting up in Market Alley
-complex neighbourhood
-friendliest bus stop in Vancouver is right near Pigeon Park
-Laurie Dawson doesn’t feel afraid but sad
-artist studios because of the cheap ren
-Adam doesn’t come here much because there isn’t that much to do. He thinks that maybe if there was more to do with his friends in this area he would visit the neighbourhood more
-many just pass this area on the bus
-one individual feels sad every time they pass this neighbourhood and it makes them not want to come here
-assumptions, just like every city there are neighbourhoods which are oppressed
-release of people from mental hospitals in the 1950’s and the consequences of that decision
-Kristin explained that she was explicitly told to not get off the bus in this neighbourhood by another passenger and so she didn’t
-Neudis is from Venezuela and she was surprised when she arrived here that North America could have a problem like this
-the DTES is a concentration of many problems all in one small area, it’s not that other places don’t struggle with these issues but rather that they are more spread out
-in Grade 8 one individual came here three times a week for youth group
-Louis volunteered at a DTES soup kitchen and found it weird that some of the visitors had iPods and wore suits
-stereotypes that the people don’t care about themselves, that they are just all drug addicts, but they probably don’t want to be here in these situations
-thinking of the unkempt chaos of Hastings Street to its neighbouring Strathcona, where the homes appear very cared for
-amazing architecture
-interesting though that city’s history is in the control of the urban underclass, the city’s least powerful still have an effect
-there is a strange sudden divide along Hastings Street where you go from sketchy, dirty uncared for buildings and people to Gastown, which is all touristy and clean (this happens in one block!)
-police station right on Main Street and Hastings Street
-What are the conditions of the shelters? Is it better (cleaner, safer) to stay on the street?
-it is difficult to end addictions and to transition people out of addictions
-Maia suggests that there is a need to renovate the buildings and bring new buildings to the area, but the fear of gentrification inhibits this development, which she thinks would actually really help the people opposing it
-Yet it is a complicated issue, we need to find balance between helping vs. changing

What do we think of Chinatown?
-red, everything is painted red
-smells, weird smelling dried food
-smells, good smelling sticky buns
-open grocery stores
-changes where you think you are, doesn’t feel like Vancouver anymore but another country, China
-when you compare Chinatown to other neighbourhoods it feels very different (different city/place/country)
-it doesn’t have any high rises
-it feels more busy than Vancouver
-Participants feel safer in Chinatown than what they think of when someone says the Downtown Eastside
-one individual thinks Chinatown has more hardworking individuals compared to the Downtown Eastside
-Chinese people are hard working, they carry big bags
-the neighbourhood is very active, people are out on the streets and one person (from Europe) notes that it feels much more European than the rest of Vancouver
-more people are on the street
-Louis (who is from China) explains that if you removed the English signs, made the cars older and added more taxis and people to Vancouver’s Chinatown, it would be no different from mainland China
-Vancouver is decoration, while Chinatown is the real city
-Vancouver is very beautiful but it is a very North American city in that it lacks community. Chinatown is special in Vancouver because has this sense of community and this stands out


Reflections on the DTES and Chinatown
-found self looking at Chinatown from a totally different perspective
-the many stories of the neighbourhood make me want to come here
-not as dangerous as I thought
-admire how preserved the neighbourhood is
-many details learned
-had low expectations of the neighbourhood and what we would see but now I would actually come here
-enjoyed the dialogue today and everyone’s participation
-Sam notes that the people in this neighbourhood are very kind and generous and that while she did her research people were very eager to share their stories, they just wanted to be heard
-comfortable to ask people in the neighbourhood about the neighbourhood
-after today the whole area came to life, it is a new place
-didn’t know it was so lively here
-enjoyed the history of Chinatown because of my Chinese heritage
-enjoyed learning about all the moments and culture in the neighbourhood
-interesting to think of the immigrants who came here and adapted to this place
-the change of cultures
-as we walked I thought about mapping
-I noticed many minor details with Sam’s guidance
-Sam’s a good tour guide
-changed my perspective
-Interesting to see and learn about the remnants of Main Street’s Italian community
-got me thinking about cycles, how new waves of people come and how long communities are dominant
-edges and how boundaries change and shift, like the waterline of False Creek
-East Hastings was still scary and sketchy.
-there are creepy people there
-I felt out of place on East Hastings Street, like the people on the street were judging me (us)
-strange to be talking about history while people were doing drugs in the alley
-a man was looking at us strangely in the courtyard of the Yue Shan Society
-I liked the different heights of the buildings, learning about the jigsaw pattern
-It felt like some of the locals were looking at us as though we were looking at them, like a zoo but we weren’t
-the history of immigrants, the struggle and the poor backgrounds they come from
-the area didn’t become poor but actually always was
-activism and historic preservation
-realized the intrinsic value of architecture and community
-the walk brought the area to life for me
-the area is so culturally rich
-now I feel comfortable in the area and even enjoy it here
-it was good on the walk how we would stop and listen and look and consider
-it was interesting to understand that addiction has always been in the neighbourhood
-fun fact about opium, that it was a high class drug in middle eastern cultures
-the role of the city and its buildings/planning in shaping communities was really re-enforced
-interesting that these areas are often misunderstood by outsiders and not consulted with, like the Chinatown lampposts, with the dragons facing the wrong way
-It seems like there was no community consultation to gain an understanding of how to best do it
-representation of an area by those who don’t actually understand it (governance failure, weak representation, who is running the system and who puts in the money)
-raises the issue of “cleaning up” vs. Serving and caring for a community

After the walk: documenting discussion about questions like "What is mapping?" "What is the DTES or Chinatown?" (Photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Click below to hear youth Facilitator Maia Rowan, youth Facilitator Sam Knopp and youth participant Louis at Walking Home Projects Mapped Workshop: