The view of Pigeon Park that gets shown on the media is an outsider’s: gawking from the window of a commuter’s car or through the blue lens of a police reality TV show. The stories these narrators tell are cruel and condemning melodramatic tales of misery, desperation and disease. There are no human beings in their stories, and no human histories of struggle, love, family and home. The stories from the park benches in Pigeon Park, however, are quite the opposite; from inside the Park you can see the essential truth of the Downtown Eastside community: home to the homeless, community for those who are outsiders to Vancouver’s glitz and glam.
Over the years hundreds of people who don’t feel quite comfortable in other places in the city, or even in the Downtown Eastside, have made Pigeon Park home. Tina James, a low-income Indigenous woman and illicit drinker who passed away in her room in the Grand Union Hotel in the summer of 2012, told the DT East shortly before she passed away:
“Pigeon Park is my comfort zone; it’s where all my friends are. My room is like a closet so I’m up and out of my place at 6:30am. And I’m there all day every day, even in the rain and snow. In the community centres I feel judged. If I go in there they smell my breath and make me feel like I don’t belong. But in the park I have a little family. My life is in the block between the Grand Union and Pigeon Park. If anything goes wrong and I need help I go see my family in Pigeon Park.”
At Pigeon Park and in the Downtown Eastside as a whole the struggle against gentrification is about the sort of belonging Tina felt at Pigeon Park. That belonging is protected by taking up space that richer people want, like the community still does every day on those old benches and with protests like the Pidgin Picket.
Pigeon Park and community resistance
Safe Fixing Site, 2002: Not long after co-op radio moved out of old Mercantile Bank building that forms the backdrop of Pigeon Park, the storefront at 327 Carrall was home to Vancouver’s first (illegal) supervised injection site was opened. Ran by a single volunteer nurse, activists, and many peer support workers, the Safe Fixing Site at Pigeon Park warded off police crackdowns, defended IV drug users against an HIV and HepC epidemic, and was a major part of the pressure that produced the funded and legal Insite drop-in and Vancouver’s policy shift to harm reduction.
Squatting for housing justice, 2006: The Anti-Poverty Committee squatted the North Star Hotel for two days in the fall of 2006. Downtown Eastside housing activists demanded the government buy privately owned hotels in the lead-up to the Olympics to stop mass evictions and rent increases. The pressure worked and in 2007 the province bought 24 SRO hotels, which had their rents fixed to welfare shelter rate, and also promised 14 sites of social housing, which is still being built 7 years later.
Olympics contest for public space, 2009: As the Olympics approached, the city and police adopted a maximum-ticket policy around Pigeon Park and other community gathering spaces along the Hastings transit-route. Neighbourhood elder Barbara Pascal told the Courier newspaper at the time, “It’s a cops’ park now, not a residents’ park,” and explained that she was afraid to stop there because of the threat of being ticketed for a frivolous bylaw violation. The community fought back. Pigeon Park was the staging ground for major anti-Olympics actions, and the grandest one of all, the Olympic Tent Village, was held just around the corner and down the block from Pigeon Park. The community pushed police sweeps back.
DNC Street Market and Fair, 2010-2012: The community push-back against anti-poor discriminatory bylaw enforcement continued with the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council’s weekly Street Market and Fair in Pigeon Park and the surrounding streets. The Street Market and Fair started in May 2010 as a protest against street vendors getting jailed off repeat street vending tickets and to take public space against boutique and condo gentrification pressing on Pigeon Park from all sides. Although a new set of market organizers have taken it away from its protest and anti-gentrification roots, the weekly low-income community presence at Pigeon Park and on Carrall St remains an important bulwark against the tide of higher-income shoppers and boutiques.
The struggle continues… Pigeon Park for the people!
Shortly before passing away unexpectedly in July 2012 Tina James said, “The cops are bugging me to get out of Pigeon Park all the time now. It’s my real home and I’m not going anywhere just because the yuppies want it now.”
On top of losing low-income affordable housing at 334 Carrall and the Burns Block across Hastings to gentrification and rent increases the community is also battling city plans to push the people out of Pigeon Park. In 2009, as part of their “Carrall St Greenway” plan the city tried (and failed) to rebrand the park “Pioneer Place”. The largely Indigenous regular park-users were suitably offended. The Greenway Plan itself also includes anti-poor regulations and design strategies like “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design”.
The living legacy of Pigeon Park is the defense of the low-income and Indigenous communities as a whole: their right to be in public on their own terms, their rights to dignified, secure and healthy housing, and their right to stay in the communities they love. The future of Pigeon Park may be embattled, but if history is any guide, it will remain forever a peoples’ park and a home base for community struggles for social justice.