The good, the bad and the ugly: Snapshots of Downtown Vancouver

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Downtown Vancouver, 1915 (Flikr)

Beaches and parks and ships, oh my

Downtown Vancouver, known for lattes, yoga pants and long lines, is also home to some of the city’s richest historic neighbourhoods.

Stretching from southwest False Creek, around the Seawall to northern Burrard inlet, through to Gastown and southern-most Yaletown, the peninsula encompasses a large number of diverse communities.

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Map of Downtown Vancouver (Flickr)

Diversity of downtown neighbourhoods

The West End, home to LGBTQ-friendly Davie Street, is celebrated worldwide for it’s Pride Week in August and attracts thousands of allies and organizations every year.

Coal Harbour, which borders the city’s Financial District and Stanley Park, has developed into a dense hub of high-rises that have gleaned international attention for their sky-high rental prices and empty homes.

Chinatown, shared by the Downtown Eastside across Main Street, is Canada’s largest Chinatown and remains a tourist attraction despite recent gentrification and displacement of the Cantonese community.

As the city’s central district for entertainment, business, arts and sports, it comes as no surprise that Downtown Vancouver attracts residents who vary economically, culturally and ethnically. While one neighbourhood may be lush with tree-lined trails and cobblestone beaches, another harbours the city’s only legal floating homes.

A Downtown Vancouver identity

Vancouver, ranked number six in quality of living globally in 2016, continues to see growth in its Downtown centre, however, like many neighbourhoods in major cities, it is not devoid of problems.

Homelessness, mental health and addiction and crime are evident and epidemic. The fentanyl crisis is ongoing and population density is seeing a demand in resources such as schools and health facilities.

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Activist Daron Rutter at a Vancouver pot protest outside the Vancouver Art Gallery

Vancouverite values are notorious for their Greenest City Action Plan, cannabis craze and granola sub-culture, but the identity of Downtown Vancouver is much more complex. It has been developed and defined through history by its cultural communities, and has just as many scars as it has strengths.

The Good

Foodie paradise

Some of the most prominent restaurants and chefs in the world can be found downtown. Vancouver has been ranked among the best food cities in the world, alongside London, Tokyo and Dubai.

Cactus Club Cafe, a popular chain based in Vancouver, currently has three locations downtown and is spreading internationally. In 2014 and 2015, it was named Best Downtown Restaurant in Vancouver and is seen by many as a staple establishment in Vancouver.

“Working downtown is convenient, public transit-wise.” – Tram Danh, Cactus Club cook

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Tram Danh during a shift at Cactus Club Coal Harbour

Tram Danh, kitchen partner and trainer at Cactus Club, has seen her fair share of locations across the nation. Having started her career in Yaletown and opened English Bay and Coal Harbour, she has gotten a real taste — literally — of Downtown Vancouver.

“English Bay was my favourite. It’s the whole beach vibe, so the clientele is super mellow and we were always busy when I worked there,” she said. “Working downtown is convenient, public transit-wise. […] Overall, I like downtown because it’s higher volume so I’ll always have something to do.”

However, she said she would never consider living downtown.

“It’s way too expensive,” she said. “It would be a lot more attractive if everything was cheaper.”

The Bad

Vacancy lows and pricing woes

The many positive qualities of living in downtown can be overshadowed by the divide in rental and condominium pricing. In the downtown core, a renovated one-bedroom high-rise suite easily starts at $2,100 a month, while in the West End, an older suite rents for $1,200. The discrepancies are further highlighted with renting issues for publicly-funded households, as well as for any resident who owns a pet.

“So if there’s no pets allowed, why are there so many dogs on the West End?” – Derek Hamanishi, West End resident

For Derek Hamanishi, hailing from East Vancouver, his rental struggle lasted almost four months. His quiet 25-pound Shiba inu, Sabu, was preventing him from finding an apartment that remained within his budget. It was only after befriending the building manager of an apartment in the West End during a smoke break, that he finally found success.

“I’ve been downtown quite a bit, and every block I turn, there’s a dog,” Hamanishi said. “So if there’s no pets allowed, why are there so many dogs on the West End?”

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Dogs along the Seawall (Flickr)

During a recent Renters Advisory Committee meeting, the issue of pets in rental units was brought to fruition after three years on the backburner. Lawyer and committee member Joshua Prowse presented a draft motion to see more pet-friendly units in the city — particularly to aid low-income pet owners seeking publicly-funded housing.

Hamanishi agreed that a change in the provincial policy would be beneficial for animals and their humans alike.

“[Otherwise] it is totally dog-friendly Vancouver in the downtown core,” he said.

The Ugly

Ghosts of Japantown

Once a thriving community east of Gastown, Japantown was home to thousands of Japanese-Canadians. The only indication of life pre-WWII when all residents with Japanese ancestry were forced out of their homes and shipped to internment camps, is one block of buildings across Oppenheimer Park. Every summer, the Powell Street Festival is held on these grounds in celebration of what used to be a rich Japanese community, but is now nonexistent.

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Origami crane at the Powell Street Festival (Flickr)

The dispossession of Japanese Canadians is one of the worst cases of racism and discrimination in the nation’s history and may be a difficult concept to grasp.

“Who and what determines value?” – Nicole Yakashiro, U of T research assistant

Nicole Yakashiro, a research assistant at the University of Toronto and fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian, has been delving into the idea of value — not in terms of property, but in terms of culture and history.

35th Annual Powell Street Festival in Vancouver
Japanese Hall Community and Language School, 487 Alexander Street (Flikr)

Her project addresses the possessions and property of interned Japanese-Canadians that were not returned to them after the war. Only a few Japanese-Canadians made a property claim upon resettlement. Even then, Yakashiro said many only received “marginal compensation for loss of the future,” as did all Japanese-Canadians who were never compensated for loss of their civil rights.

Yakashiro addressed an overarching issue that links all systemic issues — particularly in a multi-faceted city sector such as Downtown Vancouver.

“I’m looking at the difference in how value was perceived, understood and obtained,” Yakashiro said. “Who and what determines value, and how do [people] honour the diversity in that?”

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Landscapes of Injustice exhibit at the Vancouver Public Library (January 14, 2017)

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