The Other Side Of Vancouver, The World’s Most “Livable” City
I recently had the pleasure of once again re-visiting British Columbia’s gem of a city, Vancouver.
Voted time and again, ‘ the world's most livable city’ and I have to agree that the pundits seem to have got it spot on with their assessment. Nestleing as it does between the ocean and the majestic mountains it is a picture of genteel paradise enjoyed by its 600,000 inner city residents.
On this visit it was made even more enjoyable as my daughter has decided that this is the place she now calls home and it was here where she decided to get married. Vancouver did itself proud by laying on a month of sublime weather bathing that city in golden sunshine for the entirety of our month long stay.
There is nothing more beautiful in seeing a stunning vista bathed in late afternoon sunshine and Vancouver seemed to revel in the golden light.
A few years ago I wrote a piece on this city exploring the seamier sides which have been hidden in the east, away from the eyes its genteel population. Vancouverites it would appear have shelled out king’s ransoms on new apartments that have sprung up like mushrooms in new and recently ‘gentrified ‘ areas of town.
Not only does Vancouver boast that it is the world’s most livable city but it recently acquired the title of the worlds most expensive when it comes to real estate!
Naturally, this time around I felt compelled to return to some of the areas where the population certainly doesn’t have a couple of million dollars to fork out on a tiny two - bedroom apartment. I was curious to see whether much or anything had changed. I was a little disappointed.
The downtown streets in areas like Yaletown are impossibly clean and tidy and play host to apartment dwellers walking their immaculately groomed dogs or taking their children to play in the numerous parks that abound beneath the high rises that house the affluent. Most, if not all no doubt thank their lucky stars that they have ended up living in a city such as this.
In the chic cafes, restaurants and bars that proliferate these neighborhoods, I couldn’t help noticing the clientele who looked so prosperous, enjoying their lot in life.
Occasionally on the main thoroughfare of Glanville Street I passed 'homeless’ people begging for change and I noted wryly that that in some way they look perhaps healthier than I, meaning even the beggars have an up market feel to them.
But where do the really poor and destitute people live?
Today, as back then the low life and desperate and are still confined to a few blocks between Main and East Hastings Streets, a ‘no go area’ for the residents of this beautiful city.
Continually warned not to venture there, as one would be taking ones life in ones hands; this was an area to be avoided at all costs.
Naturally, I had to revisit this version of Dante’s Inferno.
East Hastings Street is literally a stone throw from the gentrified Water Street and the tourist delights of Gastown.
Within one hundred meters the change is palpable.
The graffiti is a little more desperate and grimy, the pedestrians a little more ‘glassy eyed’ and an air of hopelessness permeates the air. Welcome an area that has the highest crime rate in North America!
The four- block area where I spent my time is busy. The streets are crowded with makeshift stalls comprising of a piece of plastic laid out on the pavement on which a pathetic array of goods are displayed for sale.
Within seconds of my arrival, Willie, a crack addict whose teeth resemble a picket fence with half the palings missing, approaches me to sell a shrinked wrapped chicken and some beef mince. He proudly shows me the use by date and whispers conspiratorially that he had stolen it just an hour before.
After assuring the hapless Willie that I would not be purchasing his chicken I am immediately approached by several other pedestrians offering me weed, crack, heroin and perhaps a woman or in fact anything my heart desires!
This underbelly of Vancouver’s primary currency seems overwhelmingly to be drugs and prostitution.
Once elegant hotels dating back to the beginning of the 20th where the fashionable members of society used to gather are now badly run down and are now home to thousands of’ homeless’ people who rent rooms by the day or use the grimy lobbies as shooting galleries.
The statistics here are sobering.
One in three homeless people, in what is Canada’s poorest postal district have AIDS while two in three have hepatitis C. HIV infection rates are the some of the highest in the industrialized world, on par with Africa’s Botswana!
In the late eighties and early nineties, the BC government in their wisdom, de -institutionalized thousands of psychiatric patients releasing hundreds from the Riverview Hospital alone. These poor souls were left to fend for themselves, finding their way to the Hasting Street precinct with no care and access to medication. The result is detritus of mentally disturbed citizens wandering among society’s outcasts with neither help nor a shoulder to cry on.
Ice usage is at epidemic levels and I watch as addicts enter the social services office and emerge with their weekly check only to hand it over to one of the waiting dealers who line the street.
Reading Douglas Coupland’s excellent book on Vancouver, he advises that if venturing into this district to, “ wear sturdy footwear and an open mind.”
I walk both sides of the street, replete with my sturdy boots, carefully avoiding discarded needles and broken ice pipes that litter the footpaths. I wonder how a city as ‘livable’ as Vancouver can have an area that is perhaps just as unlivable as this one.
Cranes are beginning to dot the skyline as developers, mindful of the street’s proximity to downtown, begin to gentrify the district. Within time, rents will increase, businesses will move back and a consecrated push will begin to ‘rid’ the city of this unsightly bight on its pristine reputation.
I am sure that much is being done to assist in re- housing and rehabilitating those most in need but at this juncture it would seem that it’s a place that the more well heeled residents of downtown pretend doesn’t exist.
All statistics quoted here were taken from official Canadian government sites. All opinions expressed are those of the writer only.
Paul v Walters is a best selling novelist and when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali writes for several leading travel and vox pop journals. His latest novel Scimitar was released in September 2016.