Jen Gerson: Is this what failure looks like?
I couldn't help but ask myself: "How much larger will this tent city be allowed to grow before someone cracks down on it?" Literally. What street will prove the border?
By: Jen Gerson
Forgive me for starting today's column with an old anecdote: when I was in high school in the late '90s, early aughts (which does not seem all that long ago), my favourite class was photography. Ours was probably the last class to learn the craft on physical film. There was nothing I loved more than taking pictures, and then unveiling the mystery of light in that solitary, red-lit darkroom. I took every photography class offered; they were taught by a jovial overweight man with a gold tooth who wore colourful plaid shirts and suspenders. He was a gem.
And like every proper photography teacher in a suburban high school, he was also a bit nuts. So we can't entirely blame him for imagining it was a good idea to take his class of sheltered teenagers to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to capture searing images of human suffering.
The DTES, may be among the worst slums in North America. I'm sure such language will be deemed problematic, but I'm not sure what else to call it while still being honest. This is several square blocks of astonishing human misery, largely ignored by police and avoided by Vancouver residents.
Only a few blocks from some of this very wealthy city's most chi-chi hotels and shopping enclaves, to pass into the DTES is like walking through an invisible wall. All of the sudden, you are in one of this country's few "no-go" zones, where trash, open drug use, defecation, prostitution, crime and the very real threat of random violence is ever present.
So, of course, great spot for a high school photography class field trip, right?
I would not consider this one of the highlights of my high school career. Remember, we were kids. We had neither the courage, experience, nor social skills to initiate real, human interactions with many of the people we encountered at the time. Those of us with any sense knew well enough to stay away from the largely high residents of the street. We took a few pictures and then high-tailed it to Gastown to spend the rest of the day drinking Starbucks and imagining we were cool and sophisticated downtown denizens, rather than suburban mall rats with delusions.
Some of my classmates did try to get photographs. They were literally chased out of the area, and a few came home absent the school-issued film cameras they were sent with.
This is about what you would have predicted. It was legendary.
Anyway, I had been through the DTES a few times since then, both by car and on foot, but moved away from Vancouver and spent much of my adulthood elsewhere. I happened to be in Vancouver last year and decided to drive through the area again, just out of curiosity. A lot has happened since I left; the rise of harm-reduction policies, and the establishment of Insite, a safe injection site for drug users; the drugs that have flooded the country since then have also become more potent and dangerous. Fentanyl is now one of the street drugs of choice, and accounts for the vast majority of overdose deaths in North America. How has that affected the DTES?
I'm not claiming to have done exhaustive research; I just drove through it so I could get a very general sense of how it compared to my memory. I didn't expect much change at all.
That expectation was wrong.