Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Downtown East Side, Vancouver's dark side:


Today's post will be a little different. A few photos with a few annotations. On all of my previous postings I have given you a glimpse using Tourist eyes. Places that I want to see when you visit my town and also to record places I have been in the Pacific North West, sort of a documentation of my adventures to out of the way places. Consider this a photo essay without much written substance. I am not political. I do not wish to enter into discussions involving religion(s), points of view nor argue about who is right or what has to be done. This is the Canadian way, we just sit back and accept what it is and mumble under our breath about how things should be. Our drug laws are too lax, we do not enforce them as viciously as they do south of the border. We have a big gang problem here somehow interconnected with the Mexican cartels. Drug dealers are being killed weekly, bodies are found dumped on the streets, then we have the 2010 Olympics where they are trying to hide the homeless from public view. It's a mess . . .

I wasn't sure how I was going to present this but I had been thinking about this for some time and recently I was prompted by a comment from Michael (Key West Diary) (<-- click link)

Conchscooter said: (comment of October 11, 2009)

Quote: "By the way where are all the freedom loving people living in cars and on the sidewalks? Jeez, Key West this surely isn't...."


Let me first give you some background:

Quote: "Sending the homeless out of town might not be official policy, but with the 2010 Olympics looming, some worry it will be the ticket to cleaning up the Dante-like stretch of Vancouver known as the Downtown Eastside.

Every major city in Canada has destitute people, but nowhere are they concentrated in such a harrowing display of human desperation as in Vancouver, where a dense neighbourhood of junkies, streetwalkers and mentally ill people openly challenges British Columbia's licence-plate slogan, “The Best Place on Earth.” The area is a 10-minute stroll from the site designated as the Olympics' international media centre."

You can read the complete article here:

The Downtown East Side of Vancouver straddles an area adjacent to Strathcona, one of the oldest areas of Vancouver

(Strathcona elementary school)

It was a grand area, once the premier area of the city with ornate buildings

(notice the bars)

It is a contradition of values. Drug dealers, homeless, artists and includes ordinary people just trying to make a living. while many homes have deteriorated and on their last legs

(Vancouver's Conch style housing)

many others have purchased into the area and restored their homes to better than new condition while retaining the character of times past

(typical period homes)

Others prefer to live in their townhome surrounded by chain link fence complete with barbed wire as a prisoner confined to their cell, while the criminals are allowed to roam around unencumbered.


The hub and epicentre of drug activity is centred on the intersections of Main & Hastings Street and compasses the poorest postal code in Canada which runs for 10 blocks west to Victory Square. It is not an area to frequent during the darkness of night and preferrably not by yourself even during the day. The "residents" do not take kindly to images of their likeness so taking covert photos was the priority of the day. I was not able to capture all of the images that I would have liked and feared that someone would notice a large camera with a longer lens. I opted for my small palm sized one and tried to hide it best as I was able. I used to do a lot of street photography down in this area years ago when some of the pawn shops were still operating and stopped when we perceived that it was too dangerous. The "bad dudes" (for lack of a better word) have an excellent radar system. They are able to immediately spot people who do not belong. I thought I was doing well during the torrential rain all bundled up in my Gortex Jacket and hat and someone came up to me with a sports bag and asked me if I was interested in a Video Camera. He opened his bag a bit so I could take a peek at it so obviously I wasn't as covert as I thought. The police started to enforce some by-law rules last year in anticipation of the 2010 Winter Olympics and just managed to move the drug dealers to another area farther west into some of the tourist areas of Granville Street and very close to Sunset Beach. I see them camped out in the lane with their garbage bag tents and cardboard mattresses but I didn't have the nerve to snap any photos. There are dozens of them and only one of me, and I didn't want to damage my handsome physique.

I can't post all of the photos here so have only selected a dozen or so. If you wish to view the whole set, just click on one photo and it will take you to the album hosted on Webshots. You should really avoid this area if you are visiting Vancouver. Whenever we see people who who obviously don't belong we try to steer them in the other direction. This "forbidden" zone is only one block north of Historic Chinatown and one block south of Historic Gastown and only one wrong left turn from the cruise ship terminal so you can see that it is very easy to stumble into this area by accident.

Every business has steel bars for security



(watch out for used needles discarded on the sidewalk)

(keeping out of the rain, in the bus shelter)


(living on the street)


(The Only: once the best seafood cafe in Vancouver)


(Carnegie Centre, once the best library in town)

(Insite: safe injection site government sponsored)

(even this temple is behind bars)


Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside: a contraction of old and new, of crooks, thieves, drug dealers and ordinary people living side by side trying to survive -- one day at a time. Be careful where you park, monitor your surroundings and don't go alone


  1. Dear Bobskoot:

    I think it took more than a little courage to post this essay this morning. Courage and honesty. The first time I ever visited Vancouver was on a business trip more than 20 years ago. I came away thinking it was easily the most beautiful city in North America. Each community seenmed to have a unique character of their own, but were tied together in a common theme.

    I have been there four or five times since. Thirteen years ago, I wandered through town in the company of my 13-year-old daughter. We wanted dungenes crab from a Chinese Restaurant. I had the cab driver let us out at a likely spot. My instructions to him were to return in two hours.

    We were done in 90 minutes, and decided to walk around. On the street, in broad daylight (about 2pm), I watched as a guy come out of a doorway behind us, exactly as his counterpart came out of another spider hole across the street. It was then I noticed the total absence of anyone else on the street.

    I said to Katherine, "You're going to have to make a run for it."

    She is a tall kid. She was all of 5'8" at 13 and growing like a weed. She had also just gotten her black belt in Karate. God bless her, she said to me, "I can take the one coming from across the street... But I'm just going to let him have it."

    The cab pulled up in that split second, and the driver threw open the front door. We were moving pronto... Looking back, I watched both of those guys return to their original spots.

    Every city has these places. If you were to visit here, I wouldn't even think of taking you to Philly. We'd just go up to New York. My daughter loves to bust my balls. She lives in Philly now. She carries mace in her pocket. I wish it was a Colt 45.

    Fondest regards,
    Jack • reep • Toad
    Twisted Roads

  2. PS: I still think Vancouver is one of the most beautiful cities in North America. I think it is even more beautiful than San Francisco, which I regard as the most delightful city in the United States.

    For the record, I was on a business trip to Los Angeles, attending an event at the convention center, which I could see from my hotel. I was going to walk to it one morning, with my name tag on my jacket. The doorman stopped me, and insisted I take a cab for my own safety.

    I was invited to a corporate party in New Orleans, held at the warehouse where all the Mardi Gras stuff was stored. I went outside to smoke a cigar with some friends, and a uniformed cop in a police car advised me not to step away from the building. I had a similar experience in London, where a "Bobby" escourted me back to an "Underground" station, after redirecting me to the proper stop for the museum I wanted to see.

    It's everywhere. Somehow, I thought Vancouver would have been spared. None of us will be spared anything.


  3. Good stuff and worth reading. I have no equivalent pictures from Key West though I have an essay planned for Saturday about Dangerous Bahama Village. I got a little ticked off when a rather superficial travel site started telling people Bahama Village at night is dangerous. I should redirect them here to see real danger. Maybe I will if I can figure out.
    I have no stories like riepe (I never do) but I will say my wife and I took a drive into Jamaica once from our cruise ship dock and we decided that Jamaica is the only country either of us has ever been to, that is way outside our comfort zone. I have traveled across Africa and my wife has been all over South America to give you an idea.
    We had a nice dinner in a brief visit to Vancouver once. It seemd okay...

  4. Dear Conch Via Bobskoot:

    I bet you have plenty of stories like mine... Like sailing through storms... Riding in bandit-ridden hills... Trading gas for eggs and aspirin in Tierra Del Fuego. They just don't seem exciting to you, because you lived and didn't have your clothes burst into flames, or you didn't have to sneak out of the police station wearing the coroner's jacket.

    There are a million untold stories in the world every minute. I bet yours are the best. Were you ever on your boat, and rowed into shore to walk the dog... And he ran off into the bushes, and came back out with a severed hand?

    That's happend to 10 people I know.

    Fondest regards,
    Jack • reep • Toad
    Twisted Roads

  5. Bob,

    Good, honest post. I read your post this morning while I was eating breakfast. I was going to comment then but I wanted to think about it for awhile. I agree with Mr. Riepe - "it's everywhere". The two pictures above "The Only" seafood place look exactly like the front of the Portland Rescue Mission. I could give you my take on the moral depravity of society but it would involve spiritual matters. There is hope though.

    One thing's for sure, reading this I'm never coming to Vancouver. No, that's not true. We really like Vancouver. It's the most cosmopolitan city we've ever visited. Nice people and lots to do there.

    Thanks Bob...

  6. Watch "Intelligence" from Netflix. I thoroughly enjoyed both seasons. A kinder, gentler Soprano family north of the border.
    It's just TV, it ain't real life but the characters are shaded all kinds of gray.

  7. Bobskoot,

    I am one who would go directly there. I would take a small rangefinder camera (I just bought a 1960ish one) and try to make myself as invisible as possible. But I would go without hesitation.

    As an ethnographer, these are the places I strive to understand, explore and definitely never avoid.

    What do you mean that you are not political? Your photo are replete with social and political commentary, which, personally, I think is a very good thing IMHO.

  8. :( what a shame. it looks very much like oakland, san francisco, stockton, modesto... its everywhere bobskoot. i fear it will continue as the population grows too.

  9. Bob,

    I happen to really like Vancouver. I also happen to know that what you describe is everywhere. And those folks that inhabit the streets are everywhere. And they come from everywhere. You see, I have a son who is a heroin addict. He's a trust fund kid who's blowing his inheritance on rehab.

    It happens.

    And I wore a Vancouver 2010 t-shirt on my run today.

    Best to you and your city.

  10. Jack "r":

    I know that every city has undesirable areas but you always want visitors to only view the good things in the hopes that they will come and visit. It's not easy to take pictures of the destitute mixed in with drug dealers who wish to remain anonymous

    Mr Conchscooter:

    Glad to hear that Key West is one of the safest places to live if there is no corresponding area of competition. Hoping that you pass through Vancouver again soon. Your dinner is waiting

    Jack "r":

    I am sure that Mr Conch has lots of stories to tell. It's just that he can't write about them in case Mrs Conch finds out


    I think there are areas like this everywhere. They are working on more social housing for the un-employable so it is getting better. The street people are okay, it's the people that are into drugs that create the problems


    I got carried away. It was not my intention to offer any opinions but as I was commenting on the pictures, some words fell out onto my keyboard. It was really pouring the morning that I went down there and got soaked. I plan to go down there again on a rainless day as there are more photos to take. Come to Vancouver and I will take you to some out of the way places

    Ms Marianne:

    My inlaw used to live in Berkeley. When we visited SF and came back over the Bay Bridge we went too far south into Oakland and didn't get a good feeling, but this was years ago during the time of the "Black Panthers"


    Was very nice to hear from you today, and wear our 2010 Olympic shirt. Bad areas are everywhere, not just limited to Vancouver. You just have to be aware of your surroundings when you travel and try to avoid them

  11. We had to cross Hastings early one morning for my medical exam for my US immigration papers before heading to Montreal for my INS interview. We felt much safer walking down Rue Sainte-Catherine in Montreal at night than we did walking in Vancouver at 8am in the morning. 'Tis sad, I warn everyone visiting 'Canada' to avoid Main and Hastings. I am glad you brought attention and wrote about this part of Vancouver, but we've also enjoyed the great things you've written and photographed in your beautiful city too.

  12. Dear Bobsckoot:

    The only time that Leslie and I were ever robbed in a city, it was as guests of the best hotel in Montreal -- at the Quen Elizabeth - The Hotel.

    We had six thousand dollars worth of laptop computers stolen from a hotel office, while a hotel guard sat in a chair outside the door.

    And thre hotel management acted as if it was an everyday occurrence. Maybe it is in Montreal.

    Fondest regards,
    Jack • reep • Toad
    Twisted Roads

  13. Troubadour/Bradley:

    I think you would be safe enough during the day, but night I would stay away. My car has been vandalized twice down in that area. I will park a mile away and walk into the area. Glad you made it out safely

    Jack "r":

    Happily it happened during the "good" times. Your equipment would be harder to replace now. I had a $300. tripod stolen from my car. I checked the pawn shops in the area an hour later and luckily got to buy it back for

    Leslie and I were having a nice chat while you were having your beauty sleep.

  14. Bob, thanks for this view of Vancouver. It seems that most big cities have those areas where "one should not go" - I know it is for Seattle. These "bad" areas tend to change address from time to time - it used to be First Avenue in Seattle, but now it's more like 2nd or 3rd. I guess in the far reaches of my mind I suspected the same for Vancouver, and I thank you for your honesty in showing this side. You still have one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

  15. I have thought and thought about this post. I guess there are bad people everywhere. Sometimes around here I wonder about the potentially safer places.
    Many people around here arm themselves and just seem to wait for something bad to happen. It can be in the bad parts of the city, the better parts, or in the country. Some of those vrazies scare me just as much as the supposedly bad people.

  16. Bob,

    I am coming to Vancouver and taking you up on your offer! Thanks.

  17. Lance:

    The Main & Hastings area didn't seem as bad as before. Maybe it was the rain that kept them away. I notice that with the greater Police presence, "They" have moved into the alleyways of the West end, and in the Lanes closer to the downtown core. The next time you come up to Vancouver, we will take our bikes and do a "lane" tour. We'll wear shoddy leather jackets, that'll keep them away


    The truly homeless live under the overhangs of abandoned business's, sleeping on cardboard with their life's possessions in a grocery cart. It is really hard to point your camera at them to snap a photo.
    There are bad people everywhere. And all the scammers and con men are people that look just like you and me and we may even be friends with some of them without knowing


    It's a deal. Fly to Vancouver, as long as I have "extra" wheels you are welcome to use it. My super scooter X500Ri is just sitting there waiting to be ridden.