The Downtown Eastside (DTES) is a catch all descriptor for the neighbourhoods east of Cambie, west of Clark, north of Prior, and south of the waterfront. Technically, it includes Gastown, Strathcona, Chinatown, and Railtown/Japantown, but we’ve separated each of these for their individual characters and are treating the DTES here much as the zeitgeist does: as the slowly shrinking collection of blocks east of Carrall, west of Jackson, north of Pender, and south of Cordova. If you have a different interpretation of the landscape and its borders, good for you!
Sadly, it’s safe to say that most Canadian’s view the DTES as less as a community and more of a sensational eyesore; an urban blight box crammed with a loose association of kid-gloved petty criminals, dealers, addicts, and people with mental health issues operating in and around bed bug-infested Single Room Occupancy hotels, daily dodging a very real minefield of violence and disease in often third world living conditions.
That might appear to be superficially true, but the reality is a lot more complicated and nuanced. The DTES is not, for example, “Canada’s poorest postal code”, as it is so often claimed. Neither is it Vancouver’s most transient neighbourhood (that distinction goes to the West End). And if you ask a resident if they feel like they belong to a genuine community, the answer will be a resounding “yes”.
A fierce sense of belonging would naturally coalesce and strengthen in any neighbourhood that was so institutionally demonized, referred to constantly from within and without as “a huge problem”. By policing it in a petty and punitive fashion, insulting it passive aggressively (or fully in the face), trying to price its residents out, or even pretending that it doesn’t exist, the people who see it as an abomination (or rather as a financial opportunity) have only made the community more suspicious of (and resistant to) change.
To wit, “The Downtown Eastside needs to be destroyed,” an editorial in The Province newspaper has declared. “The more residents who are pushed out, the better. It is unconscionable that such a hellhole should exist in a province as wealthy as B.C., in a country as advanced as Canada.” Now, if someone wrote that kind of trash about you and where you lived, you’d likely get your back up, too. Because not everyone who lives on the DTES fits the hysterical stereotype, and those that do are not so bereft of humanity as to not notice when someone tries to rob them of what little humanity they have left.
Indeed, if there’s anything to celebrate on the DTES, it’s that in spite of the high instance of mental illness; homelessness; the AIDS and Hepatitis C epidemics; heroin, crack cocaine, and crystal meth; a long and horrifying history of sexual abuse (before Robert Pickton, violence against First Nations women was treated as a fact of life on the DTES); and the way in which the rest of the city – not to mention the provincial and federal governments – views it through the prism of a largely unsympathetic corporate media; the DTES remains a strong, vibrant, and essential facet of Vancouver that – to its eternal credit – isn’t afraid to stand up for itself.
While other neighbourhoods protest against comparatively first-world affronts like bike lines, casinos, art installations, high rises, and funeral homes, residents of the DTES’ dwindling core demonstrate for vital services and in opposition to real or perceived threats against their ability to remain residents. They don’t always protest wisely (targeting small businesses is a nonsensical exercise in quixotic futility), but that they organize and advance a message that needs to be heard by all citizens despite often crippling circumstances is as commendable as it is all too often tragically ignored.
Looking around the DTES today it’s sometimes hard to imagine that it was the beating heart of Vancouver less than a century ago. The banks, the newspapers, the courts, even City Hall once called it home. But while it’s important to remember that the neighbourhood wasn’t always as it is now, romancing the DTES’ past or speculating on its future belittles a present crisis that doesn’t have much in the way of room for halcyon reminiscences or high hopes. The area needs help, and it needs help now; help that new condos and businesses can’t directly give. It requires assistance from the provincial and federal governments in the form of new, affordable housing, a long overdue increase to the welfare shelter allowance of $375 per month (there has only been only one increase since 1992), the non-politicization of harm reduction programs, and – in a hurry – a serious approach to mental health care that includes new facilities, preferably located in whichever affluent neighbourhood complains about them the most.
Change on the DTES is a good thing, and we’re all for it, just so long as the people who live there can continue to call it home.
Left to right: Pat’s Lager at Pat’s Pub in the Patricia Hotel; Victorian era purple/blue glass basement prisms; Ovaltine Cafe neon tri-colour; the grass of Oppenheimer Park; Carnegie Community Centre; duo of road colours at Main & Hastings; No. 5 Orange; dormant Salvation Army building exterior at Gore & Main; VPD blue; needle tip orange.
INSITE, THE CONTROVERSIAL BUT LIFE-SAVING SAFE INJECTION SITE
THE SAD, FORLORN EMPTY SHELLS OF THE ONLY AND THE LOGGER’S SOCIAL CLUB
THE RAMP CAM AT THE SMILING BUDDHA SKATEPARK
A COMPETITIVE MARKET FOR STREET CIGARETTES
THE GOOD WORKS OF THE PORTLAND HOTEL SOCIETY
THE INCOMPARABLE INTERIOR OF THE OVALTINE CAFE
BARGAIN HUNTERS COMBING THE PIGEON PARK STREET MARKET
THE CRUEL AND UNUSUAL ASSHOLERY OF SOME OF THE STREET-LEVEL DRUG DEALERS
A NETWORK OF ALLEYWAYS THAT ARE BEST AVOIDED
SWEET DUDS AT COMMUNITY & THE FROCK SHOPPE
OLD, RESPECTFUL GUYS WHO YELL “KIDS ON THE BLOCK” WHENEVER PEOPLE WALK PAST WITH CHILDREN
KOREAN PANCAKES AT THE DUNLEVY SNACKBAR
CHICKPEA BURGERS AND KALE CAESARS AT RAINIER PROVISIONS
BEEF DIP SANDWICHES AND HOUSE LAGER AT PAT’S PUB
BEAN TO BAR AND CUP CHOCOLATE & COFFEE AT EAST VAN ROASTERS
GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES AT THE OVALTINE CAFE
AVO ON TOAST WITH EARL GREY TEA AT NELSON THE SEAGULL
JERK FRIES & RUM FLIGHTS AT CALABASH
PRETZEL SAMBOS & BEER FLIGHTS AT BITTER TASTING ROOM
CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATE AWFUL AWFUL AT SAVE ON MEATS
CRISPY CHICKEN W/ FRIED RICE AND THE VEGGIE PHO AT HANOI PHO
CHICKEN WINGS & VITELLO TONNATO AT PIDGIN
- In 1917, the Food Floor in Woodwards at Hastings & Abbott was the largest of its kind in the world.
- Vancouver’s City Hall was formerly located next to Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings.
- The bell at St. James’ Church (then on Powell and Main) was, for many, the warning siren of the Great Fire in 1886; the melted remnants can be found at the Vancouver Museum.
- The First Nations name for Crab Park (Portside) is Lucklucky, meaning “Grove of Beautiful Trees”. The name “Crab” originates from the Create a Real Available Beach (CRAB) initiative by DTES residents in the early 1980s.
- In 1989 Vancouver launched North America’s first needle exchange program in an effort to promote harm reduction for residents of the Downtown Eastside. In 2003 North America’s only legal supervised injection site, Insite, was founded.
- The multi-height, 45 ft. wide half-pipe at the Smiling Buddha was built using the bones of several historic Vancouver skate ramps, including the original Richmond Skate Ranch and the Expo ’86 vert ramp.
Skid Road | Slang | Skid road, or skid row, derives from the logging term for a road one can “skid” logs down. In Vancouver, it’s the old descriptor for the Downtown Eastside. The actual Wikipedia definition is “a shabby urban area with cheap taverns, dive bars, and dilapidated hotels frequented by lowlifes, alcoholics, and itinerants…” Wow, don’t hold back or anything!
Usage: “Fuck you, Seattle. Vancouver had the first Skid Road.
Brand, Mark | Person | A barman-turned-businessman who went from making cocktails at Chambar to co-owning an art gallery (Catalog), a bar (Portside), a shop (Sharks + Hammers), a brewery (Persephone), and a number of eateries (Boneta, Save On Meats, Sea Monstr Sushi). All of his businesses are located within the Downtown Eastside, except for his brewery, which is located in Gibsons, BC.
Usage | “I heard Brand was opening another place in Gastown…”
by Andrew Morrison | Pidgin, the highly anticipated first Vancouver restaurant from Canadian Culinary Champion Makoto Ono, opened last night to friends and family at 350 Carrall Street (across the street from Pigeon Park on the DTES). I took a look inside while they were preparing for service and stayed until it started to fill up. “We ended up feeling pretty good,” Ono’s business partner, Brandon Grossutti, told me this morning — so much so that they let the door go and finished the night with two full turns.
Designed by Craig Stanghetta with several installations by local artist Ricky Alvarez (a tandem we also saw to great effect at Revolver), the finished room is startlingly beautiful — the most mature of Stanghetta’s restaurant spaces to date. Alvarez’s works – I spied a collection of suspended scissors, a white forearm with hand brandishing a cleaver, golden thread-suspended blocks of quartz in the washrooms, a goosewing fastened to an orange decahedron, a California quail taxidermist’s triptych set in alcoves above the chef’s table – make for easy conversations, as do the weighty metal menus, the magnetic wall sections (to fasten the menus to, natch), and the service of JoieFarm “Noble Blend” and soju from gleaming taps.
Clearly, a lot of thought went into everything a diner’s eye might set upon, and that includes the wide angle view of the oft-sordid goings on across the street at Pigeon Park. There are at least a dozen seats right in the window, which tells me Grossutti and Ono are not in the least bit embarrassed by their bright projection of style and cuisine in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. And nor should they be. The contrast between inside and out might be massive, very real, and as striking to those who congregate on the northeast corner of East Hastings and Carrall as to the diners themselves, supping foie gras rice bowls and sipping Negronis in heated, cloistered comfort behind an unfrosted window, but that’s the reality of Vancouver, and I dig that they’re framing it instead of running from it. Stanghetta and Alvarez may have outdid themselves, but for the time being this is the talking point that will dominate the rest.
That is, until its Ono’s turn, because the heart of the matter is his French/Japanese/Korean food. I tried just a few of his dishes, definitely not enough of the menu to square and share a judgment with any kind of confidence, but suffice it to say that he’s wicked clever, and that I’d happily eat everything that I tried last night again (especially the squid and the tataki). I will, however, predict that if the service can hold up its end of the bargain (always a tall order when there’s a fierce talent in the kitchen) that Pidgin might just rapidly join the rarified ranks of the most ambitious restaurants in the city. It definitely has the potential to be that good. But make your own call. Pidgin opens tonight (Sunday) for real at 6:30pm. Click here for further intel/context, and browse the fresh shots below…
Andrew Morrison lives and works in Vancouver as editor-in-chief of Scout and Culinary Referee & Judge at the Gold Medal Plates and Canadian Culinary Championships. He also contributes regularly to a wide range of publications, radio programs, and television shows on local food, culture and travel; collects inexpensive things; and enjoys rare birds, skateboards, cocktails, shoes, good pastas, many songs, and the smell of camp fires.
Andrew Morrison | I started writing my annual Top 10 Best New Restaurants column for the newspaper yesterday when I learned that the keeper of the #9 spot, Fat Dragon, was going to close for good next Saturday (December 22). It’s a bummer, for sure, that they couldn’t last nine months. My family loved the place; it was casual, affordable, and “Chinese BBQ meets Southern US spice” concepts don’t come along every day. The people, however, never fell for it the same way that the critics did (I wasn’t alone in my affections. My colleagues at the Globe & Mail, The Courier, and the Vancouver Sun also loved The Fat Dragon). I think that had lot of that had to do with the simple fact that few of them ever bothered to go, which was a bit of a shocker considering how the owners – the same people who brought us Refuel and the two Campagnolos – are highly respected for track record of uncompromising quality.
No, I suspect the real reason why it couldn’t make it was its address. Located just down the street from Oppenheimer Park, the 500 block of Powell St. hasn’t attracted much in the way of gastronomically adventurous foot traffic since the old days of Japantown. It’s unfortunate that a lot of Vancouver diners still dread the core of the Downtown Eastside as if it were an urban Hades, a place where their cars would be broken into by crack addicts and their persons robbed by HIV-infected needle-point, but I understand that nothing stifles an appetite quite like anxiety, however baseless and prejudicial the anxiety might be. What is true, however, is that many of my neighbours on the DTES didn’t give the Fat Dragon a warm reception. The owners were (sadly, predictably, falsely, laughably) decried as gentrifiers by a lot of them before the restaurant was even open, and I was disgusted and ashamed to hear – just a few weeks after opening – that someone felt it necessary to introduce a pile of feces to the handle of the front door. Read more
by Andrew Morrison | A weekend of dry runs with friends and family have owners Tom Doughty, Robert Belcham, and Ted Anderson all set to open their much anticipated Fat Dragon at 566 Powell St. on the DTES this week. The new restaurant will specialize in Chinese BBQ in a way that we haven’t seen before, as nearly all the items will enjoy a lick of southern spice with a proper bar lending a pairing hand with five original cocktails or 4×4 wines by the glass (plus a reserve list). I took a look yesterday afternoon and there was much to like, including a kaffir lime soft serve ice cream that’ll be making it onto their opening menu this Thursday (so good). Here’s the PR and all of our photos from yesterday afternoon:
Accomplished restaurateurs, Tom Doughty & Robert Belcham of Campagnolo and Campagnolo ROMA, are excited to partner with longtime employee and first time restaurant owner, Ted Anderson, to proudly announce the opening of Fat Dragon Bar-B-Q on Thursday April 5, 2012. Fat Dragon, where Far East Asian flavours collide with American Southern barbecue methods, is the most casual restaurant this team has so far created. Open seven days a week, from 11am – late, Fat Dragon offers both dine-in and take-out options with street parking available at 566 Powell Street. “We have always wanted to open a barbeque joint.” says Anderson, ”We want guests to be able to enjoy a few cocktails and snacks without getting fatigued on heavy barbeque, so we incorporated Asian flavours and techniques to lighten the load.”
The Fat Dragon kitchen team will be led by Chef de Cuisine Adam Johnson in serving delicious food, first seasoned with Asian spices and herbs, then slow smoked over local fruit woods. These techniques will be applied to the best local cuts of pork, beef, lamb, fresh seafood, vegetables, and tofu. “We have a great love for different types of food from all over Asia,” says Ted Anderson. “This is our homage to the many, great, late-night dinners of noodles, barbequed pork and stir fried crab that we have enjoyed in our travels.”
The team at Bricault Design has created a stripped down, open space reminiscent of a 1920’s opium den. Exposed brick and wooden beams are complemented by a silk entry way, resembling the interior of a Chinese lantern, and a dragon-skin inspired ceiling installation made of wooden scales. The focal point of the room is an 18 ft bar housing a variety of local craft brews and imported Asian beers, a small selection of wines by the glass, and an assortment of cocktails derived from classic recipes rejuvenated with smoke and Asian flavours.
We’re digging the 1962 film Hastings Street. Think ex-cons, petty criminals, jerk cops, cagey hookers, drugs, smokes, whiskey, and Save On Meats all in original, fifty year old black and white. Larry Kent’s first movie was about a fella fresh out of prison and trying to get enough dough to get his neck above water on the DTES, presented fresh in all its seedy former (and still very present) glory. Money quote: ”I haven’t seen you since that night in Coquitlam.” The whole thing is just…wow (hat tip: JC).
by Andrew Morrison | Robert Belcham and Tom Doughty, the owner/sommelier duo behind the two Campagnolo restaurants, are opening a Chinese BBQ restaurant called Fat Dragon in the heart of the Downtown Eastside (566 Powell).
Joining them as a first time owner is Ted Anderson, long the chef at Refuel and now at Campagnolo Roma out on East Hastings (always nice to see that happen). The concept is interesting – Chinese food with a Southern US “lick of smoke” – and I’m sure they’ll nail it (the menu reads fantastic, and we’ll get to that soon), but let’s be honest; the thing that will define The Fat Dragon won’t be its food, but rather its location, at least in its first couple of years.
If you thought Salt Tasting Room in Blood Alley was daring back in the day, or really any location remotely worthy of the word in recent years, dinner at Fat Dragon will be – for some – like going to the moon. It’s this section of the DTES around Oppenheimer Park that has been (and still is) considered a bridge too far by restaurateurs, even hungry first-timers with very few funds. There is a community here, and a strong one at that, but it has to face a daily gnarliness that no other neighbourhood in the city has to contend with. I think for most Vancouverites, the idea of dining out hereabouts is repellent, and yet the restaurant, due in under two months, will probably do very well indeed. Read more
I love this short documentary. My neighbourhood is in it, even though it really isn’t. 9 Businesses depicts – yup – nine new businesses in the once mighty city of Detroit, which is still struggling to find some semblance of a renaissance after several decades of decay. While the parallels between the declines of Motown and the DTES aren’t perfectly aligned (far from it), the individuals profiled in the film most certainly are. The resemblances are uncanny. They share the very same goals, inspirations, and vocations of those who’ve recently set up shop in and around the DTES. They’re all cooks, craftsmen, designers, bakers, creatives, and such – all young, independent, and bereft of wealth, but eager nonetheless to inject some awesomeness back into a city they love. And the consequences for them are the same, too. They’re either welcomed as restorers of an urban fabric long ago rent asunder or scoffed at as the foot soldiers of gentrification, even though the realities on the ground are defined more by nuance and instance than the black and white of absolutism. Anyway, it’s worth watching if you can spare six and half minutes.
Sean posted a link to “Whistling Smith”, a short film made by Marrin Canell in 1975 about a beat cop on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, in today’s T&TS (see below), but I thought I’d embed it here for y’all to see right and proper. As Sean points out, it’s an “eerily familiar DTES”, even though it over 35 years old.
Sean Heather and Scott Hawthorn, partners at Salt Tasting Room and Judas Goat, are joining forces for a third time to open a new joint called Bitter. “It’s an extension of Salt, really” says Heather, “only its a beer format instead of wine”. Beers will be had in all guises and sizes, from tiny tasters to pitchers, while the food will see fresh pretzels, weisswurst, smoked sausage, house sauerkraut, currywurst, whole smoked ham hocks, pickled onions, scotch eggs, pork pies, and more. Bitter will land on the main floor of the oddly-shaped (flat-iron-ish) building at 18 West Hastings opposite Pigeon Park, and will sport some 140 seats, two entrances (one from the street and one from the back alley), a patio in Center A’s parking lot, a 20ft diameter circular bar and finishing kitchen around which diners will sit and be served, and my favourite thing of all..a neon sign flashing the word “BITTER”.
We’ll be giving you the first look very soon, probably tomorrow after we launch the new version of the site. Until then, dream a little dream of pork hock and ales…
Closure of critical health centre hits Downtown Eastside hard. The Olympics are over so we no longer need to dress up for the world. Sorry suckers. If you need a bandage at 4am, try St. Pauls.
The quote of the day comes from a story in the Sun about MS: “Something may very well be tragic, but that doesn’t make it unethical,” he said. “Life is tragic. We are all going to die. That doesn’t make it unethical.”
Waiting for the bus with my kids on Georgia yesterday I was approached by a near-toothless and super-friendly dude named Thomas. He was carrying a blue canvas paperboy’s bag and selling the 2009 Hope in the Shadows calendar. Thomas was as persuasive as they come, and though I really did want to buy one – I just didn’t have any cash. He was understanding, explaining that he knew what it meant to not have cash. So he left me there, warm Starbucks cup in hand, waiting for a bus home to West Van with my boys and feeling liked a dolt. I have been thinking about him ever since.
Hope In Shadows is an inspiring community project that culminates in a photography contest for residents in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The prize-winning photos are then compiled into a calendar that “gives a glimpse of the hope, spirit and courage of people living in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood”. From their website:
“For the past five years, Pivot Legal Society’s annual Hope in Shadows photography contest has empowered residents of the Downtown Eastside by providing them with disposable cameras to document their lives, resulting in more than 20,000 images of the neighbourhood, giving residents an artistic means to enter the ongoing and stormy dialogue over the place they call home.”
HOPE IN SHADOWS fosters local arts and culture, gives residents a sense of pride in their community and builds confidence in participants and photography winners. The exhibition, calendar and high profile media attention promotes understanding of the people who live in this impoverished neighbourhood.
Finally, the selling of the calendar helps hundreds of people both financially and through providing tangible work experience.
The top 40 photographs are on display at the Roundhouse until December 6th.
Calendars can be ordered online here.
The book Hope in the Shadows recently won the 2008 City of Vancouver Book Awards for its thought-provoking essays and stirring photographs that depict life on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Hope in Shadows
by Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome
Arsenal Pulp Press/Pivot Legal Society