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Low Track: A History of Vancouver's Failure

By SpokenWord     Jan 31, 2007 in Politics
Vancouver journalist, known on this website as SpokenWord, examines the history of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the notorious Low Track, offering insight into an area that has plagued the city for over 20 years.
Story by SpokenWord
We’ve all seen it.
Some of us have driven through recently, eyes straight forward with the windows rolled up, attempting to ignore the horrors outside. It is a 10-block wasteland where hallucinations run rampant, mixing into this urban landscape like nightmares and dreams. Those brave enough have wandered down an alleyway or two and witnessed an area littered with garbage, used condoms and discarded hypodermic needles. It is Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, the need-a-hit-strip, where rock-bottom drug users appear almost lifeless and skeletal in their addictions to heroin and crack cocaine.
It was not that long ago when holiday shoppers passed through this area on their way to Pacific Center Mall or Robson Street, watching crack heads celebrate the holidays, dancing erratically like they often do, some arms freshly pierced at a safe injection site, others behind dumpsters. I sometimes try to pick out the drug dealer, the one son of a bitch, with an evil smile amidst all this madness, placing crumpled up bills in his pockets.
Hastings and Main was not always this way. The Downtown Eastside did not always have a drug addict population of upwards of 10,000 people. The streets were not always run by motorcycle gangs, Asian cartels, drug dealers and pimps. It was not always the neighbourhood with the highest HIV infection rate in the western world; its heart not always bleak and cold.
The downtown Eastside is the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver and is wealthy with a vibrant history. This area was once the center of the city. Gastown’s sawmills helped to spawn a commercial zone along Hastings Street, which led to head offices, banks, theatres, hotels and department stores to set up in the neighbourhood. City hall, the courthouse and the Carnegie Library were all located here. Many people came here to be entertained or shop at Woodward’s department store.
Things changed in 1958 when streetcars stopped running in the area, which caused traffic to the neighbourhood to decrease by almost 10,000 people a day. Soon after, the library moved to the corner of Burrard and Robson, and many head offices followed the same path. Meanwhile, low-income housing was decreasing in other Vancouver neighbourhoods, forcing people to move to the more affordable Downtown Eastside. As the 1970s roared in, many psychiatric institutions lost funding and thousands of patients moved into this area because it was the only place they could afford.
The Eastside’s recent history is a saga of unremitting failure. In 1986, Vancouver ensnared wealthy tourists to the city by the thousands for Expo, while this so-called opportunity of easy money brought in a corresponding flood of poor people looking to better their lives; and you guessed it, most of them moved into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The drug situation was aggravated by this influx in population, giving drug dealers a whole new market to prey on. Desperate and disappointed people, many who came to the city in the hopes of a new life promised by Expo ’86, slowly hit rock bottom, causing more and more people to resort to theft and prostitution to pay for their addictions. This led to an increase in pawn shops that bought the stolen goods making it hard for legitimate businesses to compete with the cheap prices brought forth by drug-addicted thieves. Besides, even if businesses returned to the Eastside, it is too late, as most Vancouverites are too afraid to shop in this area anyways.
Today it is Vancouver’s bleakest and deadliest stroll, the so-called Low Track, home to adolescent runaways and streetwalkers who patrol these blocks where upwards of 60-plus sex trade workers have gone missing. We let this happen.
Things did not change over night. The Downtown Eastside did not magically turn from a business and entertainment community into skid row by the flash of some sadistic magic wand. Vancouverites simply ignored all the early symptoms of the virus. It is the past we failed to learn from and the present, it seems, we will never understand.
Today we know the violent deaths and the continual abuses that have resulted in the Downtown Eastside are a direct result of the social conditions laid out in front of it. Sure, I agree Canadian democracy guarantees equal opportunities, but not equal conditions.
According to a document by Statistics Canada, Low income in census metropolitan areas, in the 1990s, Vancouver’s low-income rate increased and the income gap between richer and poorer neighbourhoods rose. As well, people in low income who lived in urban areas received much less of their income from earnings, and more from government transfers than their counterparts two decades earlier. The document goes on to describe Vancouver’s poor community as a “single dominant cluster,” meaning, only one.
In another document by statistics Canada, Neighbourhood inequality in cities, across Canada between 1980 and 1995, employment earnings fell significantly with declines ranging from 11 per cent to 33 per cent. Meanwhile, in the richest neighbourhoods, average earnings rose by between 1 per cent and 16 per cent. Unemployment rates rose from 11.2 per cent to 18.9 per cent in the poorest neighbourhoods, while barely changing in the richer neighbourhoods, rising from 3.3 per cent to 4.4 per cent.
I imagine none of this information is much of surprise. It only takes a short drive down Vancouver’s “single dominant cluster” to see how the city’s low-income rate increased. But the question remains: During this 15-year-period, including the low-income increases in the 1990s, what was done to try to fix this problem? Regrettably, not nearly enough.
With the Olympics only three years away, nothing substantial has been done so far. Sure, all levels of the government signed an Inner-City Inclusive Commitment Statement to make sure the games do not negatively affect the homeless, but that’s about it. Meanwhile, our low-income housing has decreased rapidly while beautiful condos keep sprouting up in their place, which of course, only the rich can afford.
A biology professor once told me the mystery of British Columbia’s forest was solved by a scientist travelling on a plane to Vancouver. He looked out the window and saw our giant trees and answered a once sought after question: Why doesn’t B.C. have more plant species? The answer was simple - our trees were too big to allow for enough light to shine through to give other species an opportunity to survive.
Maybe in 2010 someone will look outside their cab window at Hastings and Main and think of a simple solution to fix a problem that has plagued this city for over 20 years. There must be a way to allow the light to shine in all of Vancouver’s darkest corners, giving the Downtown Eastside a chance to bloom again like it did in the 1950s.
Until then, let’s welcome the Olympic Games. “Welcome to Vancouver,” we’ll say. “And if you’re staying in North Vancouver, please take the Lions Gate Bridge when you head downtown.” After all, we have to try to hide our dirty little secret, don’t we?
Story by SpokenWord
More about Downtown Eastside, Sex trade workers, Drugs, Vancouver, Prostitution