Musings on Gentrification and Vancouver’s No Fun City Reptuation
By Ruth Meta:
So Vancouver – it really, really bothers you when you are referred to as a ‘no fun’ city. I don’t blame you that this upsets you. I’m sorry, but you are, no fun, no spontaneity, no zest, no verve. You do not know how to just erupt in joy and bliss unless SOMEBODY tells you you MAY. What has happened to you? Who did this to you. Where did this emotional constipation come from?
Have you never traveled? Have you ever been to Caribanna in Toronto when the bliss is so contagious, the police, the administrators at city hall, the “bureaucrats” are AFRAID to shut it down because the joy cannot be contained. It ends when participants are so exhausted, they just go home. And it has lasted for over 35 years, in Toronto, on one of the hottest, most humid weekends in August, when over 2 million African Americans converge on a Canadian city. To my knowledge, while there have been some out of control incidents – there has NEVER been a riot. The same thing happens at the Toronto and Montreal Jazz Festivals. The free events take place all over the city and do not shut down just because it’s now 9:30 at night and somebody MIGHT get drunk and start some disturbance. The same thing happens in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and in Tennesee all through the summer at Cedars of Lebanon Park just outside of Nashville. It happens in a zillion other places all over the globe. It happens in Haiti where folks are so poor they eat dirt cookies, but the financial obstacles do NOT inhibit their ability to erupt in joy.
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But it doesn’t happen in Vancouver. It doesn’t happen here because the administrators at city hall are so afraid you MIGHT misbehave, they over regulate you. Permits for this, permits for that, permits for walking on that side of the street, on smiling at somebody on the skytrain, for dancing outside this chalk line. Don’t you find that NEGATIVE attitude about the possibility of you possibly mishehaving to be somewhat insulting?
I moved to Vancouver from Toronto 18 years ago and found myself in a rented house in Strathcona. One of the oldest parts of Vancouver, a few blocks east of what is called the Downtown Eastside. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. In front of my house, MacLean Park, my front yard, somebody was putting a Berthold Brecht play. Two weeks later, somebody else – Public Dreams was putting on a fire festival, right in the park, right in front of my house. Artists of every discipline from visual to written and spoken word, to fire eaters and jugglers and theatre to puppetry lived in every one of the houses. Why? Because the housing in Strathcona at the time was CHEAP – and where do artists go to live? They go where they can afford, because everybody knows nobody “pays” artists. They are supposed to survive on “exposure” and “networking”. It’s the same in every urban centre.
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It took a while to find out that, while I THOUGHT I had moved to artistic heaven, the residents thought they were besieged by endless problems. Problems with money, problems with drug addicts, problems with street engaged sex workers, problems with theft, problems with affordability, problems with food security. Problems, Problems Problems. The residents THOUGHT they were poor. I thought I had moved to one of the richest neighborhoods in Canada. It was rich in community, it was rich in spirit. There is such a thing as poverty of spirit and money is hardly a cure for that. Ask Robin Williams, or Amy Winehouse, or Phllip Seymour Hoffman. I just didn’t get it Strathcona. Do you really think financial poverty, survival sex trade, drug addiction, mental illness is only endemic only to Vancouver? Survival sex work was not invented here and it is not ONLY a soul stealing activity many women, men and trans folks find themselves locked into in Vancouver. Folks of all races, all nations, from all economic and social status fall into a pit for many reasons and the older they get, the harder it is to get out of that pit.
My youngest daughter was 8 when we arrived here. She is now 26. My youngest daughter has always been somewhat eccentric (like her mother). She thinks in visuals, she is an introvert, her mother is an extrovert, she is a half breed. Her father is 4th a generation Japanese Canadian. Her mother is Ashkenazi Jewish. She has never walked around without a sketchpad and drawing utensils since she was able to walk and hold these things in her hands. Strathcona was a fertile ground for a young visual artist. Nobody in Strathcona ever put constraints around my daughters’ growing ability to put pictures to paper. No one ever made any remarks about her hair colour changing every second day, the tattoos which appeared, the piercings, the mystical way she walked, her apparent aloofness which is really social anxiety.
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She is now one of Vancouver’s most sought after tattoo artists and illustrators. She lives and works in Vancouver, but she is known globally, has traveled all over the world. She recently earned her BFA in Illustration from Emily Carr University of Art and Design.It is my belief that she is the gifted artist she is BECAUSE she grew up in Strathcona. She is NOT a tragedy of east Vancouver, but a gift as so many others are.
So, after starting many community economic development projects in East Vancouver, including a community owned and operated Laundromat in the Downtown Eastside 14 years ago, and an all Canadian literary event for kids in East Vancouver, I wanted to show my personal gratitude to the folks of Strathcona by opening a place of beauty on East Hastings at the corner of Heatley. We’ve been there for almost 18 months now. We are located in the Heatley block a building slated for demolition a few years ago but saved from the wreckers’ ball by Strathcona residents due to it’s almost heritage designation. The building is now fully occupied by retail enterprises, a tattoo shop beside us to the west (no, my daughter does not work at that one). A gift store beside us to the east, and most recently, the Heatley, a local pub/establishment.
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What kind of a business are we? That is a good question. Ostensibly, we are an organic florist/plant store/non gmo, open pollinated, locally sourced seed store/ART GALLERY/event space, three ring circus. We play folk music both ON the street 24/7, and inside the store. Our windows are graced by changing hand painted art which is created by local visual artists to reflect the changing seasons. We do NOT have bars on our windows, we do NOT have cameras all over the place to watch our patrons. We have not had any thefts (well, maybe one or two). We have not been tagged, there have been no needles or condoms left outside our premises. We are Floral and Hardy Edible Plants, 688 east hastings, 604-255-7199. We have done many community events at our own expense, monthly music jams, an urban guerilla folk festival, a birthday party for George Orwell, complete with a pig and rat topped cake. A birthday party for Louis Riel during the Heart of the City Festival last year with metis step dancers, drummers, bannock and smoked salmon. We are planning a zombie themed fashion show this September as a fundraiser for Aboriginal Front Door, Raycam Cooperative Centre and AIDS Vancouver. Aside: anyone who would like to participate by making zombie themed wearable art, or model or make up artists or special effects, please contact me).
The point of the store is to reflect the beauty of the people who live in Strathcona back onto a dismal, barren, forgotten stretch of streetscape on east hastings from Main to Clark. The city allowed this area to die. It didn’t die because of the residents, it died because of neglect by the city. The infrastructure was never updated to today’s standards, the hydro lines, the water mains and all of that type of thing slowly devolved into decay and the storefronts were taken up by social services which are necessary, but hardly conducive to walkby traffic. We were the first of 4 businesses to take up residence in that building 18 months ago. For months we put up with being the only safe haven for folks who were in distress on that strip of barrenness. The media TOTALLY ignored us, but passers by gravitated to the place like flies to sugar. We have beautiful plants and flowers outside, and then there’s the music. There is NO florist like this in all of Canada. It is also an art gallery with representation from many edgy, emerging Vancouver artists. Artists like Nomi Chi, Alison Woodward, Melissa Mary Duncan, Phresha Le Vandele, Mia Dungeon, Steampunk Jewellery by Carolyn Bruce – and many more. We have not been protested against by residents as the vanguard of gentrification because there is a big difference between beautifying and gentrification and I am OF the community. I am known there, my daughter is known there.
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No matter how many times I have notified the local media about the events we have offered there, they have totally ignored us. Scout Magazine has interviewed all three of our neighbouring businesses and not once stopped by to speak with us. There is no other florist like this in Canada. I know, I’ve researched it. We are not there to push people out of the neighbourhood or suck money out of it and then go somewhere else at night. We are there to glorify the neighbourhood and change the perception of a wonderful place which has, for far too long, been a place of desolation and despair.
The ultimate insult happened this past Monday. It took me over 6 months to get Susan Musgrave, BC’s poetic treasure and her husband, reknowned author and former bank robber, Stephen Reid to talk about their poetry, their lives, their work, their recovery, and to talk about Susan’s new book, soon to be published by Whitecap Books. The book is called A Taste of Haida Gwaii, Feasting and Foraging from the Edge of the World and will be out in September. We will have the book for purchase and you can pre purchase now if you like.
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In the sweltering heat of last Monday, well over 100F, with the humidity hovering at 90%, several folks came from all over the city to hear two of BC’s (rather Canadian) literary treasures share their lives with the folks of east Vancouver. We sat on the street and just talked, asked questions, were charmed by their humour (there’s a photo on our fb page to illustrate what the street looked like). Every media outlet in the city was notified of this event. Scout Magazine, The Georgia Straight, The Gastown Gazette, Vancuver is Awesome, The Westender, The Courier, 24 hours, you name it. Not one reporter came to see this remarkable event. These newspapers are filled with the endless openings of yet another bar, another restaurant, another hipster place where people sit around and drink, look at their technology and eat teeny tiny portions of art food – I guess.
This event was free, unless you wanted to purchase a book, but there was no pressure to do so. There is much more than drinking and eating which makes a “world class” city. True world travelers want to know where the “locals” go, what is the pulse and culture of a city, what makes it tick. It is the responsibility of the media to inform the rest of the city and visitors OF those places. We are one of them. For those other folks who want a REALLY authentic piece of old Strathcona and the heritage of Vancouver, you do NOT need our permission to sit on the street and participate in a literary event, dance to our music outside or inside, wander around and see the beauty of the emerging artists of Vancouver, just BE. You are ALLOWED to be part of OUR Strathcona fun city. I give you permission.
AUTHOR: Ruth Meta,
About Ruth Meta:
Ruth Meta: Co owner Avenue Florists and Gifts Inc. Doing business as: Floral and Hardy Edible Plants. 688 East Hastings Vancouver V6A 1R1 Telephone: 604-255-7199 FB: floralandhardyedibleplants TWITTER @floral_hardy
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