A Walk

Lori Steuart
Department of English, CSPT
University of Victoria
25 August, 2011

Living Space: Gentrification in Vancouver and Hamburg

Walking downtown in Vancouver near Hastings and Carrall streets, the poorest postal code in Canada, I see a throng of people crowding Pigeon Park and the north side of Carrall. Used to the bustling intersection of Main and Hastings, I don’t think much of it until I look closer – today is Sunday, and this is the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council’s (DNC) street market and fair. One of many projects and initiatives of the DNC and similar groups, the street market represents a confirmation of Downtown Eastside (DTES) residents and their place in the larger Vancouver community. The street market is part of a larger appeal to Vancouverites regarding the stigmatisation of the DTES and its members – the homeless, the addicted, the impoverished, the misfits, the different.
    Why am I writing about the DTES today? In my academic, creative, and personal work I’ve been thinking a lot about community, what makes a community, and what a community can make. It seems to me that a sense of community among any number of people can powerfully affect the societal makeup and even geographical space of a city. Having recently spent time in Hamburg, Germany, studying the economic, social, and political situation there, I was struck by the ongoing struggles against gentrification taking place in the city, and the real, positive change some neighbourhoods were making in the face of this challenge. These actions hit home; as a six-year resident of Vancouver, I’ve come to recognize the look and feel of gentrification just by walking downtown. While on walking tours with Maren Harnack and Anke Strüver through the Atelier 5 housing development and St. Pauli, an inner-city quarter of Hamburg, I saw Vancouver’s Yaletown and Chinatown, respectively, the former characterized by its gentrified, established shops and upper-middle class residents, the latter by the impending threat of development and its immigrant, poor, and marginalized population.
But what does this have to do with gentrification? A case study of St. Pauli in Hamburg and what I view as its correlate in Vancouver, two overlapping areas, the DTES and Chinatown, should make clear my understanding of community in the context of the city.
    St. Pauli lies slightly west of downtown Hamburg, near the docks, and is known for its football team and its red light district. Traditionally, St. Pauli’s residents have always been a mixed crew of people without citizenship or visas, people without money, sailors, and artists. It was also home to the only hospital in Hamburg that would treat those without health insurance. There are many acts of community which have taken and take place in the area, but one particular site of action in St. Pauli makes it significant in understanding the relationship between community and social.
    Park Fiction is situated on a plot of land in the southern half of St. Pauli which has a view of the river and harbour. In the 1990s, the government was planning to sell this parcel of land to private developers who wanted to build condominiums on the lot. A group of residents in the neighbourhood believed that a park, accessible to all, should be built instead, but they had no legal recourse to take. Alongside the developer’s planning process, these residents began their own, a wish campaign, asking those in St. Pauli what they wanted to see in a park. They demonstrated, installed banners on the site declaring their wishes, opened the Golden Poodle Club nearby, a community-minded dance club and hangout spot, and developed a movement the politicians couldn’t ignore. The popularity of Park Fiction, even outside of St. Pauli, began to spread, which legitimated the movement, and the strong sense of community developing in the neighbourhood became visible. In 1997, through the network created by these actions, the government allowed Park Fiction to become a reality, and developed it according to the community’s wishes. Today, the park stands almost complete and always in use, a spot of green amidst the highly developed Bernhardt Nocht area, a testament to the community-minded residents of St. Pauli.
    In Vancouver, housing development of a similar sort has been taking place in the DTES for years. The demolition and redevelopment of the 1903 established Woodward’s building in 2006 marked the development frenzy leading into the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, an event which sparked even higher housing prices and the further displacement of homeless and low-income residents of the DTES. In the spring months of 2011 another historic building in the neighbourhood was targeted for demolition – the Pantages theatre. Calling for social housing, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) has rallied support for a 100% social housing development on the site of the theatre, instead of the condominium set to be built. During the demolition, the DNC brought attention to the unsafe work conditions of the site (for example, unsafely removing asbestos, neglecting to build proper scaffolding to protect passersby), causing the governmental organisation WorkSafe BC to shut it down. More than just a council, the DNC joins forces with other DTES groups such as the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and Pivot Legal Society to provide support to the residents of the neighbourhood. Creating a sense of community within this neighbourhood has helped enable demonstrations, actions, the street fair, and, in the case of the Pantages, the health and safety of the community.
At issue in both these cases is not that a given area shouldn’t have affordable and safe housing options for its residents – it should – but that development in an area shouldn’t always be aimed at raising market value and thus displacing those who already call it home. Long-term residents of any neighbourhood feel responsible for their surroundings and their neighbours, and the examples in Vancouver and Hamburg show the variety of ways a community might fight back and change the course of their city planning and cultural surroundings. From the anti-development movement titled No-BNQ in Hamburg to the Local Area Planning Process initiated in the DTES, signs of hope are rising for these neighbourhoods. In the fight against expansive gentrification, each city might learn from the other, working together to create even stronger communities and develop cultural institutions that would offer rallying points for identification and dialogue with the city at large.