Yesterday I wrote about some of the controversy of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver, B.C.  Today I focus on the celebrity of the area.

The celebrity status connected to the DTES comes from the movies and many films that feature the area. The Gemini Award winning TV series Da Vinci’s Inquest and then Da Vinci’s City Hall brought the alleyways, the rooming houses and other parts of the area alive on our televisions. Other movies or films have focused on the journeys of individuals who have lived in the area.

Celebrity about the DTES is also attributed to Dr. Gabor Mate who has written several books with his latest one based on his work with the Portland Hotel Society in the DTES. His book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction has helped and continues to help to reshape our thinking about addictions. Dr. Mate notes that he has learned a lot from the people he saw as a physician here.

Many other books have been written about this area and it has been the subject of much research about addictions, HIV, and other illness and of course mental illness. A recent book A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the Fight for Its Future provides an excellent chronological and historical analysis of the area. This book illustrates the struggles of people who make the DTES their home as well as people who have been trying to help them have a better life.

Celebrity is also evident in Pivot Legal society’s Hope in Shadows calendars that are now well known and sought after.  Every year for the last nine years the annual calendar has been published with photos resulting from a photo contest that local residents participate in. Cameras are given to people and off they go to take pictures. Twelve photos are selected for the calendar. The calendar is then sold on the streets by individuals who receive 50% of the sales as their income. A book of the same name was also published and contains the stories of many of the people who make DTES their home.

Another point of both controversy and celebrity for the DTES focuses on the fate of the Woodward’s Department Store and the rebirth of the Woodward’s complex today. The death of the department store had a major impact on the neighborhood leaving a hole in the community. Quite a struggle was involved in what was to happen with it. This struggle is worth more than a mention in a future post.

The notoriety is interesting and the area has almost, rather unfortunately, become a tourist attraction. On my walks to and from the office I have often been asked for directions for Hastings & Main the famous corner that houses the Carnegie Library and community centre and is a gathering place for many of the people who call the DTES home. I have also been asked if it is safe to drive down East Hastings Street and have heard many “concerned” comments about my living so close to the area and my willingness to walk around in the area. Or I have had people respond to my having travelled through the area as deserving of a badge of courage. I am always a bit taken aback with these comments, particularly given my comfort level with being in the area.

I attribute my comfort to several things: my general impressions about people and their intentions; my years working within the mental health system including a psychiatric hospital, and my own travels through and in the dark night of the soul. My impressions about people have me convinced that most people are just people who have the same basic needs and issues that I have. I also believe that they are not really that interested in singling me out to do me harm, and my regular walks in the area, both day and night without being harmed or even noticed have reinforced this impression and thus my comfort level.  Working in the mental health and long term care system and spending many days with “patients and residents” has made me familiar with people who have various illnesses and the various behaviours associated with the same. I am also comfortable with the physical manifestations of psychotropic drug use that I see in many people wandering the streets of the DTES. Finally, my personal struggles with my mental health have provided me with some empathy if nothing else. In summary, I generally do not notice that I am in this infamous area other than to know that there is where I walk every day.

Through my travels in the DTES and in talking with others I have gathered a number of personal stories that highlight the interesting and positive aspects of the neighbourhood. I will share those with you tomorrow.

Irene McDermott © 2011