Five great displacements
In the last 100 years of the City of Vancouver’s existence there have been four great displacements of oppressed peoples’ communities from the territory we know as the Downtown Eastside. We are now facing the prospect of a fifth great displacement, which history may show to be the second largest and most devastating of all, second only to the original colonial dispossession and displacement of the Coast Salish nations.
The first four great displacements have been:
ONE: COLONIAL (1887-1913)
The displacement of the Coast Salish nations out of Vancouver city was done through planning and making the city streets and buildings. This administrative development was ordered by City Council and carried out through the planning decisions of bureaucrats. It always appeared – to the city council and settlers with power – to be neutral, legal, and even inevitable.
The Tsleil Waututh lived in what the city government called “Indian camps” around the edges of today’s Downtown Eastside, especially on the east end of the neighbourhood near the mills and docks where many men worked seasonally. In 1910 Vancouver City Council made it illegal for “Indians to camp” within city limits. In 1913 one of the last remaining camps at the foot of Pandora Street, was razed by road building crews when the board of works made an administrative order to extend the street over the train tracks.
And, also in 1913, a major village of the Squamish nation was moved en masse from the north shore of the Burrard Inlet 99 years ago by barge through negotiation by city planners.
TWO: SEX WORKER WOMEN (1907-1913)
Sex worker women were contained and moved by the combined efforts of planners and police in three major moves at the beginning of the 20th century. The city tolerated brothel districts along Pender St in 1907, then moved it to in Shanghai Alley, up to the West Hotel until 1910, and finally most concentrated along Alexander Street between Princess and Heatley Ave.
City councilors and newspapers said that Alexander Street was a blight on the city, a den of vice, immorality and disease. In 1913 City Hall and the cops attacked the Alexander Street brothel district and smashed the organization of women, scattering them out throughout the city.
Since the disorganization of the Vancouver brothel district there were more and more arrests of sex worker women and more and more violence against women stigmatized by their involvement in the street level sex industry.
THREE: JAPANESE COMMUNITY (1941-1947)
The north end of the Downtown Eastside, along Powell and Alexander Streets, from Main to Heatley, was Japantown. As they did with the Chinese community Vancouver city council established legal rules that created a racial ghetto for Japanese people. City council said they needed sanitation and health rules to protect white Vancouverites from the “filthy and immoral lifestyles” of the low-income communities that they identified racially as Japanese and Chinese.
They also cited the “laziness” and “savagery” of the “Orientals” as reasoning for laws that kept these communities from running businesses anywhere but in their racial ghettos.
Following federal legislation in 1941 the Federal Government of Canada passed a law forcing the internment of Japanese Canadians and the seizure of their property and belongings, which were sold off cheaply at auction. The Japanese community was pushed out of Japantown through the internment office located on Powell Street near Sunrise Market, which was staffed and run by administrators who did their jobs correctly and according to the laws of the day.
FOUR: BLACK COMMUNITY (1970)
In the late 1960s city planners and council targeted Vancouver’s Black community, known a Hogan’s Alley, as a slum, urban “blight” and vice. The solution, they said, was to knock down the decaying tenaments and let the sun in to brighten the darkness.
The buildings of Hogan’s Alley were combined, knocked down, and replaced by a clean efficient viaduct roadway which was to be the beginning of a freeway system to cut through the whole of the city.
And the effect of the planners’ prescription to cure the Hogan’s Alley slum was the displacement of the mostly low-income Black community that lived there.
These displacements have four important things in common:
1. The physical displacements were foreshadowed by violent speech by civic politicians, business leaders, and newspapers that made the communities about to be displaced seem less human, and actually a nuisance and harm to society. Getting rid of them was explained as for the betterment of Vancouver as a whole.
2. In each case the displacement came at a time of major economic and urban development, either boom or stagnation.
3. Each physical displacement was done through banal administrative acts. Never was there a Hitler figure commanding a brutal military assault on a defenseless community. In each case it was the lowest level of government, Vancouver city council, that decided to build roads, make new buildings and knock down the old ones, enforce provincial or federal health or internment regulations, support the property rights of a few powerful individuals and develop the city.
4. In each case city council could have acted to stop the displacement if they had the courage to build a socially just city instead of a Vancouver based on inequality. In some cases they may have had to change minor administrative laws in order to stop these displacements… but does anyone today dare suggest that such administrative changes would have been too great a cost to stop these displacements?
And now we are facing a fifth great displacement that has all the qualities of the first four.
FIVE: DOWNTOWN EASTSIDE LOWINCOME COMMUNITY (present-day)
In 2012 real estate investors and developers look hungrily upon the cheap land and buildings that provide housing for low-income people. The DTES is essentially a poor neighbourhood, and the low-income community argues that any development should be tailored to their needs; the stores should be affordable for low-income people, housing should be affordable for people on welfare and basic Old Age Pension.
Official City policy is that the heart of that community, the Oppenheimer district, where 80% of the residents were low-income, should remain low-income. But now that developer interest in buying, building, and selling has increased City Hall is starting to forget its policies and develop new ones that are more friendly towards developers.
If the Vancouver City Council that ran on “ending homelessness” allows one person’s property rights to displace thousands of vulnerable people, they will undermine every single progressive housing and social policy the City of Vancouver has. This mass displacement will result in violence, death, homelessness, the spread of HIV and HepC. Everyone knows this. And yet nothing is being done.
A proud and defining moment of Vancouver history, for everyone including those who are now calling for the displacement of the DTES, was the “Strathcona Freeways Moment” when homeowners and some tenants organized to stop the freeway from being pushed through Strathcona. Our community doesn’t have the appeal of this Strathcona memory, which is wrongly remembered as about heritage houses and quaint community gardens.
This is our Hogan’s Alley moment. Our Helmsdeep.
And as our community fights we have behind us the weight of all those others who have fought the tremendous power of Vancouver property owners against the displacement of their communities and for social justice over profit. The DNC is proud to continue this fight.
Contact: Herb Varley, 778-709-0733
Tami Starlight, 604-790-9943