Just Imagine! Rest, music, and the richness of life in the Downtown Eastside community: By Priscillia Mays Tait
Just Imagine…. For thousands of years, right up to relatively recent times, what we now know as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) was part of an ancient forest filled with wild berries and edible roots. Wolf, elk, and bear roamed the vast land. The Coast Salish people – Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish – lived in harmony with their environment. When Europeans arrived in the later 1800s, things began to change. The trees were cut down to feed the sawmills and the creation of a modern city began. Gastown, Strathcona, Chinatown, Japantown and Hogan’s Alley were established. Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels were built for seasonal workers and later housed low-income people. The DTES became Canada’s poorest urban postal code, with social challenges which can’t be hidden away like those within the gates of exclusive wealthy neighbourhoods.
Everyone needs somewhere to sleep. For those with little income, the best they can do is often a room in an old, rundown, poorly maintained SRO hotel where there might well be too much noise to get a decent night’s sleep. An alternative could be a bed in a shelter, where you will be expected to leave early in the morning, even if your next bed neighbours kept you up all night with their snoring. Just imagine being so tired the next day that you fall asleep at your table in the Carnegie cafeteria, and security staff sends you trudging around outside in the rain because you’re not allowed to sleep in that community centre. Or perhaps you avoid this scenario by drinking lots of cheap coffee or taking drugs that will keep you awake and spinning your wheels without really getting anywhere.
But maybe you have a love and a talent for music. If you’re a woman, you might end up at the DTES Women’s Centre, finding joy and satisfaction playing the piano there. But not for long. It’s a loud instrument, and among the many women sharing the limited space, there’s bound to be at least one who objects in no uncertain terms.
Though there are music programs in the DTES, space is limited. Times are specified and often short. Just Imagine how helpful it would be if there was a place where an individual could strum a guitar or beat a drum or tickle the ivories whenever they pleased, regaining a sense of their own purpose and personal creative power. Just Imagine, for that matter, how beneficial it would be if an exhausted homeless or under-housed person had somewhere to take a nap and awake refreshed, revitalized, and clear-minded enough to make healthy decisions about their actions and their lives.
You might have noticed a large, dilapidated, two storey, retro-yellow building on the northeast corner of Gore and East Hastings. It has high narrow windows, some of which rise above the two entrances, which open onto Hastings Street. Constructed in 1949 as headquarters for the Salvation Army and used for many years to provide services to low-income people, it was later sold to the Gold Buddha Monastery which occupied the building from 1985 to 1993. Now it’s owned by Vancouver Coastal Health and used to store furniture. They have been accepting development proposals for the site.
Just Imagine the creation, through renovation or redevelopment, of an establishment which would not only provide much-needed social housing, but would also have many rooms sufficiently soundproofed so that you could sleep undisturbed or express yourself at whatever volume without imposing on others. Musical instruments of many kinds, even loud ones like drums and horns and pianos could be made available to those with the desire to use them. Many people facing personal challenges in their lives would be given the opportunity to heal and to develop themselves. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. Sometimes all it takes is faith in ourselves and in each other.
Just Imagine… Sometime in the not-too-distant future, humanity may transcend the technologies which strain our ecosystem, and break free of the gravity which ties us to the planet’s surface. We may once again live in harmony with nature, and share the Downtown Eastside area with the towering trees of the reborn temperate rainforest.