Brief reflections on community displacement and the strategy of “Touching the Corners”: By Herb Varley

Gentrification Storm Warning poster from the first Downtown East newspaper, spring 2012
Gentrification Storm Warning poster from the first Downtown East newspaper, spring 2012

Developers see the Downtown Eastside (DTES) as a gold mine of development potential. The city government wants to “revitalize” the area with this real estate development. People of the DTES have built a community out of some of the toughest conditions imaginable and they don’t want to move. The city can’t make the residents disappear overnight. In order to remove the low-income community the city (knowingly or not) has actually used concepts described by a master swordsman.

Can thoughts on the strategy of fighting with the sword written over 300 years ago be helpful today? Are the concepts only applicable to techniques of the sword? Well I have previously examined how the thoughts of Sun Tzu are alive and well today. Now I shall share some brief thoughts on Miyamoto Mushashi’s work titled Gorin No Sho or translated loosely The Book of Five Rings.

One of the key concepts he spoke of was the idea of “touching” or “hitting the corner.” In sword combat what this means is that it’s very hard to strike your opponent down right away by going for the vital parts of the body, especially when your adversary is at least as powerful as you. So Mushashi’s mode of thinking was to try to slash at a hand or leg or even a finger. Once you damage a “corner” the rest of the body will naturally be weakened. This can also be applied to warfare between two armies, and in this case the corners are a bit more literal.

Think of the fact that welfare rates have not risen in eight years. Inflation alone eats away at a person’s income by shrinking their ability to purchase things or rent a place.

One can also think of the spot rezonings allowed in the DTES before the City of Vancouver created the 30-year plan for the neighborhood. In many of these cases the condo applications are quite literally on or near the corners of the DTES area map. Without rent controls the prices go up rapidly and anyone that is scrambling for money, like people on fixed incomes, minimum wage earners, or social service providers on an operating budget, will be overwhelmed and squeezed out. Low-income community advocates call this process gentrification.

Often times social service programs are only funded year to year. Many operating budgets are put together in a piece-meal fashion. Workers spend hours of their time putting together proposals with no certainty that they will have their job next year or even month or week. If they write up their proposals during work hours this cuts into time they could actually be using to do the job they are paid for. Even if it is done during the free time their energy will be diminished. One can think of this as a person working on the outside corners of their work life.

We haven’t even delved into the idea of austerity or fiscal responsibility that governments use to fool people into giving up on social programs. Those are just fancy terms for penny pinching. It seems that the government is penny pinching in every area except for policing and personal salaries.

But here’s the rub. Appreciation of a strategy or technique is fairly easy, but application is hard. How can we touch the corners of a system that puts the profit of some above the well-being of others?

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