A walk around Vancouver’s most challenging neighbourhood
I am visiting Vancouver (actually my 9th visit) and a friend who lives here has suggested an unusual walking tour of the Downtown Eastside area. He promises to introduce me to the dark, dirty underbelly of the city and suggests that by the end of the trip I might even start to question its reputation as one of the most liveable places in the world.
Back in the early 1900s the Downtown Eastside was the main hub of the city. During the 20th century the centre shifted westwards and gradually left the old neighbourhood behind. The numbers on the map below refer to some of the stops on the walk. The letters refer to the bars visited.
We start out at the Waterfront (1) and we spend a few moments looking at a giant cruise ship that is docked and is awaiting its next trip up the coast to Alaska. We also admire a super yacht moored close by and try to work out where exactly where the port of registry is (with the help of Google – it is French Polynesia).
Then we move off in the Saturday morning sunshine and walk east along bustling streets full of tourists. We head first along Cordova Street and then dive down Water Street before pausing briefly to watch Chinese tourists taking selfies in front of the famous Gas Town Steam Clock (2). It actually only dates from 1977 but it looks a lot older.
We continue on past bustling boutiques, posh hair salons, swanky bistros and trendy pubs. Eventually the number of tourists starts to diminish and we are almost alone. The buildings here look slightly less well cared for but we also notice that there is quite a lot of construction work. It is a clear sign that places are being modernised and revamped as gentrification spreads east.
Just before we get to the intersection with Main Street we head into a wide alley (3). As we walk south there is an overpowering smell of stale urine. I am told that the terrible stench has led to this conduit being known as Piss Alley. Apparently it is famous as a place to indulge in crack cocaine. Suddenly we are in a different world.
I am not really prepared for what we see next. All around us, lying or crouching on the ground, are large numbers of people smoking joints or inhaling from plastic pipes. Almost all of them look totally stoned and they stare at us blankly as we pass by. There are other people standing around the skips and dustbins selling, buying and using drugs.
At the end of the alley we turn left onto Hastings Street (4) and head towards the intersection with Main Street. The scenes of human degradation now seem to get even worse. Here are people of all ages and colour sitting or lying on the pavement.
Some have their belongings in supermarket trolleys, some are in little makeshift tents whilst others are huddled in doorways. Many have syringes and quite a few are openly injecting. They are surrounded by discarded cartons of half eaten food.
In the last five minutes walking we must have encountered more than a hundred or more people in this state. It is obvious that looking up and down the street there are many, many more. I am quite shocked as I have never come across such a concentration before in any other city I have visited.
The statistics tell us that the drug and homeless problem in London is much worse than Vancouver but yet there is nothing to see like this. In the UK the problem seems much more hidden and less concentrated. For the rest of the day I ponder whether that is a good thing or not. I come to the conclusion that it almost certainly isn’t.
Sun Rise Market
We zigzag a few blocks and pass a historic police archive building. There are plenty of old historic buildings here and there are plaques that explain their cultural significance. There don’t seem to be many tourists around to take much of an interest though.
Now we head back up north along Gore Street and then cut off the corner towards Powell Street by passing through the Sun Rise Market (5). Suddenly it seems as if we are in China. The little market-style supermarket is full of Chinese shoppers and Chinese products. As we pass through I learn that the Chinese community here have their own homeless issues to deal with as well. Apparently there are conflicts between the homeless communities.
Powell Street is also the centre of Vancouver’s original Japan town and we soon come across a poster for a forthcoming Japanese festival. The area doesn’t look too Japanese now though; we walk past cheap flop houses, tattoo shops and, as a sign of possible creeping gentrification, an upmarket fashion accessory shop.
As we come to this little park (6) I get another shock: the grass is completely filled with tents full of homeless people. Here before us is a whole tent city that looks almost as if it is out of the depression era. I am told that there are about 100 tents in total housing around 200 people.
We walk through the park on a path between the tents. They are surprisingly neatly kept. People peer out of some of them. Here the problem seems to be more homelessness than drugs. The astronomically high real estate prices in Vancouver coupled with mental health issues seem to be the main factors here. I learn that the tents are pitched here because of the availability of food and support services nearby.
We see a couple of policemen patrolling the area and it is clear that there seems to be some police acceptance of the whole thing. In fact, the police seem to be friendly toward the residents and the residents in turn don’t seem to be too resentful of the cops. Nevertheless there is a crime problem here and I am told the whole area can be quite dangerous at night.
We sit for a while and discuss the problems. It seems that many solutions have already been tried and I learn about the activities of the homeless charities and the Overdose Prevention Society. I also hear how the problem is actually far worse for indigenous people and that there are special support groups for them.
We move on and walk east again into Strathcona. Now we are on the eastern edge of the Downtown Eastside and we pass through an area that looks attractive and desirable. We see historical houses that are being subdivided into smaller dwellings and resold alongside more modern looking flats. We stop and Google some of the prices; there is a two bedroom apartment for $880,000; a full 5 bedroom house is on the market for $1,975,000.
As we walk along Pender Street we come to an attractive hall with a sign outside that tells us it belongs to the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians (7). There is a man in the doorway and we get chatting. He lets us in to have a look at the beautiful little hall and then explains that he runs a group that uses drama to overcome social problems.
We continue on and the East European theme continues as we turn onto Campbell Street and walk past the beautiful Russian Hall (8). It has a wonderful mosaic outside and close by there is also a lovely little Russian church. I have never really considered Russians being immigrants into Canada much, but here they are with their own little community.
Now, having reached the eastern extent of our walk, we turn back west along East Georgia Street. These are lovely streets filled with expensive-looking houses. At Finches Mall there is a little café with deck chairs arranged outside. I peer through the window and see signs for freshly brewed coffee and homemade cakes. Inside people are relaxing reading newspapers and journals; this is much like more the Vancouver I am familiar with.
The atmosphere changes again as we continue on through a large complex of social housing and then walk past the Pacific Rim Seniors Society; we look through an open window and see a little hall full of elderly people playing mahjong.
Now we are back on Pender Street. We are in the heart of historic Chinatown (9) and it is time for lunch.
As we enter the New Town Bakery we see trays overflowing with delicious egg tarts and steamed buns. We stand there watching people buying them as we wait for a table in the little Cantonese restaurant at the back.
We soon get seated and we put in our order. We get bowls of thin noodles in a mild but tasty broth filled with large chunks of succulent barbeque pork. There are little dumplings on the side and, to finish, gorgeous coconut buns. It is all washed down with hot Chinese tea.
Vancouver now boasts the largest Chinese population of any major North American city and it is still growing. The population has now spread to all areas of the city but here is where it all started more than a hundred years ago.
As we walk around there are historical displays and tableaux that tell how the first Chinese immigrants, much like their American counterparts, came here to build the transcontinental railway, stayed and eventually prospered.
Amongst the many boards that tell of civic pride and progress there are sad stories too; there is one about a guy who fought for the British in the First World War but then struggled to get recognition as a citizen.
We go into the San Yat Chinese garden and admire the carp pond. I am told the story of an otter who managed to break into the pond and set up residence there happily eating the fish for a while before he had to be dealt with.
We walk out of Chinatown and head back to almost where we started the walk. We stop for a few minutes and look across at the vast Canadian Pacific freight yard. There is a train being shunted and we watch as it heads slowly past us.
Now we loop back around again clockwise and soon we are heading along Powell Street again ready for the afternoon’s main activity: a pub crawl or, perhaps more accurately, a tour of the dive bars of the Downtown Eastside.
We start off with a quick look into the No 5 Orange Club (X) on the corner of Main Street and Powell. It is a striptease bar. We head in and stand just inside the doorway. No one stops us or greets us. I am astonished how we can just walk in off the street unchallenged. In the centre of the room is a stage with a semi-naked girl dancing around a pole. There are a few guys sat nursing beers in front of the stage but otherwise the place is largely empty. We head straight out again. There will be better places to drink than this I am told.
Back on Hastings Street we find “Pat’s” (P) or more formally the Patricia Hotel. It is quite famous: one of the Downtown Eastside stalwarts. We go through a set of double doors to reach the bar and inside it all seems dark and old fashioned although not in an unpleasant way.
The building itself must actually be quite old but the bar décor here feels more 1970s than Victorian. The pub is famous for Jazz and even early on this Saturday afternoon they have a live performance in one corner.
They brew beer on the premises and there are signs hanging on the wall explaining the process. We order a couple of pints of the local brew and then get into a discussion about the names of beer glasses. A pint here is 20oz just like in the UK, 16oz, an American pint, is a sleeve and then a half is a half but it is also called a glass.
There is a mix of clientele here. Certainly some people have come to listen to the music and there are a few couples eating, but there are a few vagrants and alcoholics here as well. The waitress who serves us tells us that she always makes a judgement on who she asks to pay in advance. She tells us that she trusts us and will bring the check at the end. Then we watch as she makes a guy at the next table count out his coins before she gets him a drink.
We wander back out into the sunshine and head west again along Hastings. The architecture is fascinating. There is clearly a “faded glory” feeling to the street and it is full of lovely old buildings which, despite being past their prime, still look quite beautiful to me.
There are some lovely old neon signs too. We walk past the Ovaltine Café (breakfast and pork buns for $6:99) and “Save on Meats”.
We reach the Empress (E) hotel. It is a tall thin building standing on its own looking almost unnatural. We pop in. Unlike Pat’s there is no food or live music here. It is just a “cheap beer and pool table” type of place.
The pub is reasonably busy. The barman is quite jovial and the customers, mostly older men, seem to be friendly enough chatting to each other. It strikes me that the Downtown Eastside itself might well be quite dangerous but that a bar like this doesn’t feel too intimidating. I have certainly drunk in much worse places in London.
The beer here is incredibly cheap but unfortunately the selection isn’t up to much; we get a couple of bottles of mediocre Canadian lager.
Funky Winker Beans
Further along the street is Funky Winker Beans (F) or just “Funkys”. The outside is covered in graffiti and it is barely recognisable as a bar.
Inside it is another dark cavernous place. There is a large area almost like a dance floor between bar and the seating area on the side; apparently Karaoke is popular here after 9pm.
There are only a few customers and the atmosphere certainly seems really slow paced here. We sit chatting with a lovely old guy who is originally from the east of Canada but has worked all his life over here.
There is quite a lot of interesting art on the walls but it is the graffiti in the toilets that gets my attention. It is quite something to behold and extends even to the mirrors.
Next to the counter there is a sign that says “We welcome all races, all religions, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all genders, we stand with you, you are safe here”. It is a nice touch.
The last place on our trek is a soon-to-disappear Vancouver landmark: the Cambie (C). It is located in a building that is almost 125 years old and it claims to be one of the oldest pubs in the city. Apparently the demise of the place is all due to a real estate deal for the whole building. It is perhaps another sign of the creeping gentrification of the area.
We sit outside drinking and we discuss how things might change in the next 10 to 20 years. Will gentrification keep spreading east and eventually consume the whole area? Can the problems of drug addiction and homelessness ever be solved?
It is not easy to predict what will happen but hopefully this “most liveable” city will not give up on the Downtown Eastside and its people.