When Eilish Rodden moved to Commercial Drive and Frances St. in 2012, she was attracted to the cheap rent and the close proximity to school, work and downtown. She was familiar with the eclectic culture of The Drive, as locals know it, but that wasn’t a big reason she moved to the area. After two and half years of living in East Vancouver, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“People on Commercial Drive really want to have a cohesive community,” Rodden said. “I think it is much more harmonious here than elsewhere in the city.”
This cohesiveness is exemplified in the activist spirit among those that call East Vancouver home. The area is home to many people who are passionate about a wide range of issues, from anti-pipeline movements to rights for sex workers.
“The east side is super in terms of its activism,” said Adriane Carr, Vancouver city counsellor with the Green Party of Vancouver. “There’s a real sense of community spirit which is expressed in everything from concern around inclusivity and people who face poverty related issues to the environment. The green vote is typically high on the east side.”
Rodden has seen this activist spirit in full force living along Commercial Drive.
“This street is known particularly for marches, especially during the summer,” Rodden said. “Obviously Idle No More was a big one. There’s always something going on for equality or something, so that’s a good thing. They’re always marching down The Drive, blocking traffic and bringing the cops out.”
Historically, East Vancouver is a lower income area that has attracted new immigrants to the lower rent neighbourhoods. This has resulted in a diverse population with many different cultures represented. The area is home to many unique communities including Hispanics, South Asians, Asians, Africans, and many European backgrounds.
“The most time consuming issues deal with immigration matters,” said Libby Davies, Member of Parliament for the Vancouver East riding. “My staff deals inordinately with immigration cases.”
Davies said that Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s new Express Entry program, which began Jan. 1, will be a new issue in her riding for 2015. This program will not limit potential permanent resident immigrants to those with a particular occupation, allowing an easier immigration process.
“In some ways the changes are positive and in others, not so much,” Davies said.
Early Chinese immigrants settled in Chinatown, an area in East Vancouver, between 1890 and 1920. The area grew throughout the 20th century and developed its own unique culture.
Margaret Lau’s family has owned a business in Chinatown for over 20 years. She has seen many changes in the neighbourhood.
“Previously, Chinatown was populated with Chinese immigrants but after the Expo of 1986, the homeless had been centralized to East Hastings,” Lau said. “This was most likely the changing point when Chinese residents moved out of Chinatown to areas in the suburbs like Richmond. With the new residential buildings constructed in recent years, there have been more young hipster renters in the area.”
The issue of gentrification goes beyond Chinatown. Throughout East Vancouver, areas that were once lower income with cheaper housing have increased rent, forcing residents to find affordable living
“Old businesses are being pushed out and new ones are coming in,” Rodden said. “Same thing with the price of housing increasing, and families are being pushed further east and further south. People who have lived here for so long aren’t able to afford it anymore.”
It has been challenging for East Vancouver communities to retain their unique culture, while rising living costs have pushed out members of the community that once provided that uniqueness.
One response to this challenge has been the emergence of a citizen’s assembly for the Grandview-Woodland area that is attempting to plan the future development of their neighbourhood. The assembly was formed in response to a City of Vancouver plan, released in June 2013, to build large tower apartment buildings around the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station. The introduction of such dense housing would radically alter the area, which prompted push back from residents.
The Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly formed in September 2013 to assist in the planning process of the area. The Assembly’s recommendations, which will be finalized in June 2015, are not binding, so it will be interesting to see if the City takes these recommendations into consideration.
The Grandview-Woodland area in particular has a high population of aboriginal residents. According to a 2012 City of Vancouver community profile, 9.2 per cent of residents identify as aboriginal.
“On a service level, on real accommodation of aboriginal concerns and social opportunity, those are two things we’re not doing a particularly good job,” said Charles Campbell, a resident of East Vancouver since 1988 and a local journalist.
Aboriginal people can require unique services that they may not be receiving.
“The Britannia Community Services Centre… has a high proportion of aboriginals using those services and it’s just not on anyone’s radar in a useful way,” said Campbell.
Rodden, who lives blocks away from the Britannia Centre, said the aboriginal community is marginalized in her neighbourhood.
“Especially around here, there’s a lot of First Nations housing,” said Rodden. “It’s really interesting to see these people live near us and how marginalized they still are even though they are a block away from me and it’s still a different world, when really it should be the same.”
Affordable housing has been a big issue in East Vancouver for many years. Neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside are home to Vancouver’s poorest residents. A walk down E. Hastings and Main St. will show that many of these people do not have basic necessities like shelter. There are many social housing establishments that provide subsidized housing for the area’s poor, but despite their best efforts, many go without shelter.
“When you’re on lower income and you simply cant find affordable housing because there’s not enough of it and you don’t have many resources to give you any options it’s a pretty desperate situation for people,” said Carr.
Those that are able to get into social housing do not find a home, said Campbell.
“Housing down there is not good,” Campbell said. “We pat ourselves, ‘Oh look at all the housing we created for the homeless,’ but if you live in one of those places, if you have a visitor they have to surrender their I.D. at the front desk, they’re not allowed to stay past 10 p.m., you’re not allowed to visit the person next door to you. It’s like juvy, it’s not really home.
The Portland Hotel Society is one such organization that provides housing, services and advocacy for the homeless. It underwent massive changes back in March 2014, when the two founders, Mark Townsend and Liz Evans, along with two others were forced to resign due to audits that raised questions about their handling of finances.
“One big story is how is the Portland Hotel Society reconstituting itself,” said Campbell.
Another big issue in the Downtown Eastside and East Vancouver at large is that of addiction services. Many homeless in the area have severe drug addictions and they require support to get better. One organization that operates in the area is Insite, a supervised injection site that allows addicts to inject drugs in a safe, clean environment. In 2012, Insite had 376,149 visits by 9,259 unique individuals. While Insite is generally seen as a successful operation in the area, it does not solve the drug problem in East Vancouver. Other addiction programs in the city are less successful according to Campbell.
“Methadone services are in total disarray,” Campbell said. “Addiction treatment generally is really disorganized and not very effective.”
B.C. will vote on approving a 0.5 per cent increase on the provincial sales tax this spring, to increase funding for TransLink. This vote will be a big issue throughout the next few months, and both sides will campaign heavily. As East Vancouver is generally a lower income area, transit is well used within the neighbourhood. If the yes vote goes through, the $7.5 billion provided to TransLink will include the creation of a subway system down Broadway St., from Commercial Drive to Arbutus St.
“People at the lower income level rely on transit more, so good transit is absolutely essential,” said Carr. “We do need more transit.”
Some Things Stay the Same
Rodden’s mother also lived along Commercial Drive, back in the sixties. Rodden has heard her mom’s stories about The Drive back in the day, and how the area both has and hasn’t changed.
“Some things don’t change,” Rodden said. “The weird vibe along Commercial Drive hasn’t changed. It’s still like hippies in the park and people trying to be starving artists.
But Rodden still loves her neighbourhood, and all of its weirdness.
“I think there’s a lot of positive things happening here. Commercial Drive is very liberal,” she said. “I like it, the artsy and poor people.”