I came across this great article in the National Post last week regarding the neighbourhood where we use to live, perhaps even in the same building that the author Mike Comrie currently lives.
When we found out that we were pregnant in 2009, we immediately thought of moving out of the Vancouves downtown eastside. Thinking back, we actually moved out more because of lack of space as we lived in a one bedroom, 570 Square foot, condo. We could not imagine having an infant, in such a small place; at that time, if we did not buy a place we were thinking of moving the baby into the one room, then turning the the condo into a studio suite.
We were lucky at that time as in 2009, the real estate took a bit of a breather, and were able to buy a townhome near VGH to call our new nest. We were also lucky to complete the renovations in about two months and move in two days before the baby was born! After renting out the condo for a few years, now my parents live there where they enjoy the downtown life. We bring the kids by all the time for a visit!
Reading this article, gives me insights of my life if we did not move. I can just imagine myself in the daily commute to the daycare along Hastings Street. Thank you Mike, its a great article!
Carrall and Hastings, just shy of Pigeon Park, in the heart of Vancouver’s grim Downtown Eastside. I’m walking home from Gastown with my two young boys, aged six and three. As we approach, a rough looking woman makes a clumsy attempt to hide her crack pipe.
“Kids on the street,” she yells up and down the block, “Kids on the street!”
A few of the other dodgy characters try to hide their drugs, too, or shuffle a few steps into the alley until we pass. I smile and thank her. She smiles back, dirty and toothless and old before her time, but it’s clear that she’s happy to see the children, and she tells me my kids are cute. My boys, as usual, fail to notice most of this: the drugs, the mental illness, the human wreckage all around them. This is probably for the best, growing up, as they are, next to the worst neighbourhood in Canada.
For the past six years, our family has lived just around the corner from the worst stretch of Vancouver’s notorious East Hastings Street, near dismal Pigeon Park. Curiously, we chose to move here while my wife was expecting, about nine years ago. We had found a condo that we could actually afford, so we purchased a unit pre-construction, gambling that the neighbourhood would improve significantly by the time our building was completed. It didn’t. We moved in anyway, hopeful that change was just around the corner. It wasn’t, although the area would improve, eventually. But first, we would spend a few years raising our children in what could generously be described as a disturbing new community.
Housing prices being what they are in Vancouver, I expect that more families will consider taking a chance on “improving” neighbourhoods, as we did. And they will find, as we did, that addicts don’t make the best neighbours. While every user’s personal story is surely tragic, it remains a fact that addiction does terrible things to people. Junkies steal, they prostitute themselves, they leave needles and feces in the streets. The Downtown Eastside may be home to my city’s least fortunate, but it is also, in many cases, home to my city’s least sanitary, least responsible, and least polite. Anybody who thinks drugs are glamorous should spend some time around here.
If it is true that a parent will always find something to worry about, then the nice thing about our neighbourhood is that one never has to look very far. Take intravenous drugs, for example. To this day, even though Vancouver’s much discussed safe injection site is just a block or two away, I regularly see carelessly discarded needles: in the alley behind our building, on the way to school, just outside the entrance to the local daycare centres. On more than one occasion, I have found rigs abandoned in playgrounds. One morning, at our local bus stop, there were literally dozens of unwrapped and apparently unused syringes left piled in a heap, like a particularly hazardous game of pick-up sticks. Fortunately, I was able to distract my boys and hustle them past (my children are, of course, extremely interested in needles, as they have always been told to avoid them).
Although the vast majority of Downtown Eastside residents are not violent, violence is always a concern: you know it’s rough out there when the dive bars and the flop houses are the legitimate businesses. A police officer drove this point home at a community meeting I attended when we first moved into the area. Addressing a group of new condo owners – many of us clearly having second thoughts – the officer warned against ever attempting to confront a street person: their lives are hard and therefore most carry a hidden weapon of some kind, even if it’s just a sharp piece of metal they found in an alley. Shortly thereafter, as if to illustrate, I watched a rather large woman discourage a would-be aggressor by somehow producing a full sized baseball bat from the inside of her sweatpants. More to the point, about three years ago, some psycho put a three-metre piece of rebar through another man’s head. This took place in broad daylight, just across from the local McDonald’s, where my kids get their Happy Meals.
Luckily, we skipped the McNuggets that day, although we haven’t always been able to avoid the ugly side of the neighbourhood. Fortunately, however, whenever we have stumbled into a potentially nasty situation, my boys never seem to notice it. For example, on one occasion, I was walking to Gastown with my eldest – he was about four years old at the time – and we found ourselves behind a pair of skid row toughs. One of these charmers, the apparent ringleader, glanced back over his shoulder and clearly saw that he was being followed by a small child. He then coaxed an unfortunate pigeon into a small alcove, cornered the poor bird, and proceeded to stomp it to death, directly in front of us. My boy? He was looking the other way, completely oblivious.
On another occasion, in Shanghai Alley with both of my children, we passed a drunk, sprawled across the pavement, penis hanging out, lying in a large and expanding pool of his own urine. I was wondering how I could explain this to the kids, at least until I realized that neither of them had actually seen it. Another morning, on our way to daycare, a man wandered out from behind the Chinatown gate and was immediately struck by a bus. Again, somehow, both boys missed it. They don’t, however, miss everything and, living where we do, they have surely seen more than their share of open drug use and untreated mental illness. Luckily, children are naive: they tend to assume that their parents are in control and that everything is as it should be, and they even can’t begin to imagine what a hooker is or why that group of people might want to huddle around that little glass pipe.
Our boys may be largely blind to our district’s shortcomings, but it is not so easy for mom and dad. When we first moved in, as if to emphasize the sheer crappiness of our new neighbourhood, the only child care we could find was located in upscale Coal Harbour. Each morning, my boys and I would commute from Pigeon Park to Stanley Park, from the country’s poorest postal code to one of its wealthiest. We’d catch the bus in front of Kitty’s Beauty Studio on Pender at Carrall, a very well-used bus shelter, but not, unfortunately, by bus patrons. At most any time of day, even surprisingly early in the morning, there would be an assortment of unsavoury characters holding court. Consequently, my kids and I would often wait for the bus some distance from the actual stop. This occurred frequently enough that one of the regular bus drivers, sympathetic to our plight, offered to start picking us up half way down the block. This worked well, for in truth, the bus shelter was best avoided even when it wasn’t occupied. Filthy items of clothing were left behind with surprising regularity. It was often used as a toilet.
Understandably, children were rare in these parts when we first moved in, and many of the long-time area residents were clearly surprised – and delighted – to see ours. So much so, in fact, that my wife and I had to quickly learn how to politely decline enthusiastic gifts of “recycled” stuffed animals offered by dumpster divers, and how to take it in stride when alarmingly filthy individuals, clearly intoxicated and probably insane, wanted to exchange baby talk with our little ones.
So why did we stay here? I suppose it helped, as middle class parents moving into a decidedly un-middle class neighbourhood, that our hopes were not high in the first place. Furthermore, we were encouraged by the fact that families had been raising children in nearby Chinatown and Strathcona, without obvious ill effect, for a very long time. But mainly, we were able to ride out the rough patches because we always knew that our time here was optional: either the area would improve or we would leave. Many will never have that choice.
Recently, parts of the neighbourhood have improved, and significantly. A couple of years back, the completion of several residential towers quite rapidly turned our formerly desolate block into an up-and-coming district, complete with overpriced French bulldogs. There are now coffee shops and grocery stores and dry cleaners and pizza places where, not long ago, there was nothing. For years, we were the only fools braving the local playground, dodging the winos and crack heads, checking beneath the monkey bars for needles and broken glass. Today, there are always kids around, there’s a beautiful new daycare just across the street, and funding has just been announced for an elementary school. Heck, these days, even the walk to Gastown isn’t quite as scary.
It took a while, but we bet on gentrification, and – knock on wood – it’s happening. Of course, when a toddler is taken hostage at a daycare, as happened about a year ago just a few blocks away, you do have reservations. And, to be sure, if anything serious had ever happened to a family member – or if my kids paid more attention to their surroundings – I might be telling a completely different story. But, with hindsight, this was a good move for us: we own an affordable home in downtown Vancouver, and I don’t think we could have pulled that off if we hadn’t been willing to take a chance on a dodgy neighbourhood. So, if any parents out there are considering a similar choice, it can be done, but you will need to stay alert, avoid the clearly problematic individuals and situations, and hope that your kids won’t be exposed to anything too extreme. And good luck, because the next wave of real estate refugees will be moving even closer to ground zero.