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Designer babies, the Woodward’s Effect, and community outside capitalism

An interview with Karen Ward on gentrification in the Downtown Eastside

by Tyson Leonard

The Woodward's building is home to 536 market-priced condos and a number of high-end retail stores. Only 30 per cent of the building is social housing. Photo by Tyson Leonard.
The Woodward's building is home to 536 market-priced condos and a number of high-end retail stores. Only 30 per cent of the building is social housing. Photo by Tyson Leonard.

Also posted by Tyson Leonard:

This is the first in a series of conversations with Vancouver-based anti-gentrification activists. These conversations will culminate in an article with an in-depth look into the effects of gentrification on Vancouver communities and the strategies being proposed to resist and ultimately stop gentrification.

Karen Ward is a DTES resident at the Woodward’s building. She works with multiple Downtown Eastside (DTES) community groups including Gallery Gachet, the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), and the low-income caucus of the Local Area Planning Process. In this interview, she speaks on how gentrification is destroying the community of the DTES, and why affordable housing is the first step to stopping it.

 

In a speech to city council you talked about how the DTES is a non-mainstream community and you were proud of that fact. Can you describe a little more how you see the community of the DTES?

What makes it different is that in general the community doesn’t operate on capitalist belief systems. So that’s a huge standout from just about anywhere you could think of, especially in Vancouver where everything is about money and property.

There is also what the city calls service organizations, which is a very bland way of saying that there are community groups, coalitions of activists, and peer run groups that are looking out for each other to make life better for our community. So rather than having top-down organizations, things are built up from, I don’t want to say the bottom, but they’re built up from a grassroots level, specifically responding to resident needs. One of those needs is the feeling that we are under threat from gentrification.

So how does gentrification affect the DTES community?

There are several different ways, both direct and indirect. First, people are being displaced. Our community is built on people and the relationships between them, and when people get displaced it’s a significant loss to our community, and it’s a direct result of gentrification.

Then there is then the retail aspect of gentrification. There is a huge new development at Woodward’s with high end expensive housing, and what’s happened is what CCAP calls the Woodward’s effect. You can see the stretching tentacles of all these high-end businesses who explicitly don’t serve low end needs. There is a fancy dog shop, there’s a designer baby outlet, there’s Nester’s Market which is so expensive you can’t shop there. Very clearly, if you’re a low income person, you’re not wanted. You used to be able to get a breakfast for three bucks; now you can get one for $12.

At Gallery Gachet you work closely with members of the community who suffer from mental health issues. Has gentrification impacted them differently?

One of the things being done is called a scattered sight model. The government will, through the mental health system, subsidize your rent as long as you get out of the area. And this is supposed to improve your mental health despite the fact that all the services, including the few peer run services that we have, are all located in the Downtown Eastside. When you take someone away from their support system and throw them into a totally different situation, it’s not only jarring, but frankly for a lot of people it’s just downright traumatic.

Now on to solutions. What are some of the immediate things that need to happen in the DTES to either stop or at least resist gentrification?

Well, we can’t exactly boycott high-end restaurants. Keeping people in their homes is a very basic way to resist gentrification. But on a larger scale in the DTES, there aren’t enough decent homes. We’ve been pushing for thousands of social housing units. The city says we don’t have money, the province says we don’t have money, and the federal government says, “We don’t do housing.”

There needs to be a large campaign to resist gentrification. I’m looking forward to stretching out to allies across the city. I think that makes our case that much stronger. We do tend to be a little insular because we are running on all cylinders down here.

Is there any hope for gentrification to be stopped by anyone or any party at the municipal or provincial level?

Not provincial. I was appalled by the NDP’s lack of stand on this issue in the last election. And [municipal party] Vision [Vancouver] is basically just a party of developers who like to say the right things and wear nice suits. I haven’t kept up on everything COPE is doing. I know they talked about having a housing authority, which is something that has been brought up before that is needed.

The thing that’s frustrating about city politics to me is that most of the solutions I’ve mentioned wouldn’t break the bank and they would make life better for poor people. To me it’s a no brainer but to them it’s crazy radical opinions.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

People should just come down to the DTES. I’m proud of the fact that we’re different, I’m proud of the fact that we’ve made our own rules and that we’re a very open community. When people come down here they’ll begin to realize how much is at stake. Anybody who cares about the life and health of cities should be concerned about gentrification.

 

Tyson Leonard is a journalism student interested in adversarial journalism and is currently interning with the Vancouver Media Co-op.

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