Building bridges in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
Reprinted from "Recovery: Stigma and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 13 (1), p. 30
Ever since I was young, embracing difference has been a theme in my life. When I was seven, we moved to a new house where our neighbours were the only East Indian family in our small town on Vancouver Island. The community was not very culturally diverse, and I remember overhearing a visitor’s concerns about my new playmates. I couldn’t understand those concerns at all. As far as I knew, the four beautiful girls who lived next door were the friends who taught me how to play ping-pong and whose warm home smelled delicious.
I also have personal experience facing stigma and feeling different from other people. Having never quite reached five feet in height, I was forever teased about being small. My mother would tell me often that good things come in small packages. That helped somewhat … until I was 13. My first year of high school was the year that Randy Newman’s “Short People” topped the pop music charts. And if Newman knew what he was talking about, then I wasn’t just short: I also “had nobody to love and no reason to live.”
Today, the idea of taking the song seriously seems silly, but at 13, I thought very differently. I remember the feeling I had walking down the school hallways, listening to other students taunting me cruelly with the lyrics of the song.
So, I fought back: I took the money I had made from my part-time job scooping ice cream and I had a t-shirt made. I waited anxiously over the next few days until I could pick it up. And then I walked down the middle of the school hallway in my new grey shirt with white felt letters ironed on the back: “Short People Make Better Lovers.”
While I laugh now, I can also admit that I’m a little embarrassed about how I handled it. At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the message I was sending; I just knew I couldn’t be silent and do nothing.
Decades later, I had a similar reaction when I heard disturbing comments and objections in the neighbourhood about a social housing complex being built across the street from the design office where I’ve worked for over 25 years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I couldn’t understand such a negative reaction. I wondered, Why such fear? Why are we afraid of our neighbours? What does it even mean to be neighbours?
I discussed these questions with a team of four young business and design interns working with me. I charged them to think about how we might bridge the diversity on the two sides of our street. They were excited by this challenge and began talking to community members and gathering insights.
Together, the interns and I created the Hello Neighbour campaign to welcome the 140 new residents to the neighbourhood. Several businesses contributed items and donated money to provide every new resident with a welcome bag, including a notebook, a picture frame, a keychain, a good-luck bamboo plant, a JJ Bean mug and a pair of Aritzia mittens. All the new residents received a personally addressed, custom-designed card welcoming them to their new home and to the neighbourhood; each card was signed by several neighbours. For the next few weeks, we greeted and welcomed as many new neighbours as possible. Many of our new neighbours had never before lived in a home of their own.
As we greeted folks, we heard stories of all types. Stories of happiness (finally, a home!), stories of fear and trepidation (the challenge of sleeping in a bed versus sleeping in a tent), stories of tragedy (childhoods spent in residential school), and stories of mental illness, disability, sickness and hardship. We also heard stories of love for all things good—food, music, plants, bikes, reading, dogs, bunnies, friends and family.
Our intention with the Hello Neighbour campaign was to begin an ongoing, positive relationship between the residents and the local business community—to help balance out the negative attitudes and social stigma we had observed. We had no idea how our project might unfold, but we were open to whatever opportunity might present itself.
Our first unexpected opportunity came along soon after our welcoming campaign. A local church offered to donate funds from an improv night to Hello Neighbour. The event venue was down the street a few doors, so we invited some of our new neighbours to join us at the event and then give us input on how to spend the proceeds. In no time at all, we’d agreed to purchase a snooker table for the lounge area of the new social housing complex.
Since that evening two years ago, we’ve played weekly snooker games with resident and master pool player Dennis Scott. A sharply dressed, 69-year-old self-professed pool shark who once dreamed of running his own pool school, Dennis now has provided lessons to more than 30 folks from the business community. He considers teaching pool to be his community volunteer activity! Recently, we made him a t-shirt to acknowledge his dedicated service—complete with a head shot of him in his signature shades and the words “Pool School” emblazoned beneath.
In the summer of 2016, a new intern group took up the challenge to continue to build community between our two sides of the street.1 This resulted in The Faces of Alexander Street, a portrait-photography and video project that brought together several community members on both sides of the street.2 The project culminated in an end-of-summer barbecue bash.
But while our positive efforts have been acknowledged by residents and housing staff alike, the truth is, there are no easy fixes or solutions. Continuing poverty and the growing opioid crisis in downtown Vancouver make it all the more important for us to reach out and connect with those who may be struggling.
A number of years ago, my late friend and mentor Milton Wong lamented to me, “What is wrong with us, why do we walk past people on the street, why do we not see people?” This lament struck a chord with me. It brought to mind a saying I’m especially fond of: A loveless world is a sightless world.3
Although they were only across the street, in some ways our neighbours seemed a world away from us in terms of our differences. But Milton’s thoughts are a constant reminder to me that truly seeing others begins with a love for each other and for our shared humanity. We all have our stories, we all experience joy and struggle and we all have a need to be known and to be seen. When we shift our focus to embrace our differences—even celebrate them—then we realize that we are not actually so very different from each other. In fact, reaching out to the people on the other side of the street has reminded me how very much alike we are.
After all, we’re in this world—and on this street—together.