I was cleaning through the garden at the community centre, the garden that we want to make more useable for the kids. This garden is intended to be a place for them to explore and help grow things, look at bugs, a place to be quiet and write or draw if they feel moved to. Every time i go in there i pick up garbage. Today i picked up some crack in an empty pill bottle and a few condoms. The drugs are rare to find, so exposed anyway, the condoms and needles are fairly standard, along with all the candy wrappers that i’m sure the kids, as well as the night visitors leave on the ground without concern. It drives me nuts.
In 1997 when i worked at Oppenheimer Park i used to rake the sand in the children’s play area for needles after doing a round of the park to check for more needles. Oppenheimer Park predominantly serves an older crowd, but there are still a number of children who live across from the park and around the neighborhood, that come there with their parents or other family members. In the mornings when i would arrive for work in the summer, the park would be littered with the remains of the meals and drinking from the night before. Some days it would be more than i was willing to do, and i would head up to the area where alot of people were sitting, some waking up and i would have brooms, pick-up claws, and garbage bags and i would offer to make breakfast if they would clean up, more often than not, this worked.
My work in this neighborhood has had me working directly with drug users, dealers, sex trade workers, their kids, other people’s kids and other people’s aging, lonely parents, parents that either abandoned their kids or were abandoned by them. The work has also had me in more meetings than any human being should have to bare with the people who are trying to “fix” the problem; city planners, health care workers, cops, housing advocates, activists, politicians, community developers, developers, business people, architects, religious groups, artists, and concerned locals. I write this list, and it brings up every tired memory of conferences, meetings and workshops that inevitably ended up nowhere. The illusion of progress is process. Not alot has changed in the last decade, i was picking up needles and condoms 11 years ago so kids wouldn’t come in contact with them, and i’m doing it now. Sure, there is a drug users organization, there is a Safe injection site, and overdose deaths have gone down, but there are many things that have stayed exactly the same. In all of the passionate advocacy for this community from all ends of the spectrum, none of that has been enough to pull it out of the nightmare that goes on there everyday. It isn’t enough, because the people that are so passionately advocating, don’t believe it can end. There is much spoken of the safety net in the Downtown Eastside. If your homeless, and even if your not, you can get fed, clothed, showered, de-loused, acupuncture, and massage treatment, beauty nights, camping trips, yoga and dance classes, and more, all for free. Which is great and not great, i think Its the free part that is at the crux of why things haven’t changed, and why, despite incredible efforts, the Downtown Eastside will be, and is being gentrified.
What are we trying to save anyway? I use to ask myself this question when i was working at the corner of Main and Hastings, when i was trying to protect what was happening out there, things that i thought were good, and some things and people that i thought needed protecting. I had a bigger investment in people needing me, than i did in them not needing me, even though i talked about it that way. I would say that we were all working ourselves out of job someday, that we shouldn’t accept what was going on as a permanent condition. Are we trying to make sure that people are still getting knifed for 7 dollars, or that 10 year old kids are getting hep c from needle contact, or that people are smoking crack in front of the library, selling crack, heroine, everything in front of the library, is that what were trying to save, the right to leave your needle and a condom in a kid’s garden? I don’t think so. The free, charity based, liberal idea of care and development has translated as, people not caring, because they are not asked to, leaving their stuff around for other people to pick up, because apparently they are too sick, too out of it, or too damaged to care. Somehow accepting the situation has been seen as having more liberal politics. People have a right to smoke crack in public. The fixers, and i am among them, have behaved like one huge unboundaried family. I’ll just take care of you, i won’t ask you to be more, because honestly i don’t think you can be. The entire neighborhood is basically run on this premise, a neighborhood that has been glued together by crisis and trauma providing unstable and fertile ground for cowboy developers, who see the neighborhood as the final frontier for development in this city.
I think things could change, if the dynamics would change, if we were willing to hold each other able, if we didn’t see the neighborhood and its residents as a never-ending project and cause, if we recognize that this neighborhood like so many, is a creation of policy, nimbyism and neglect, and if were willing to start asking awkward questions of each other from a caring place. Instead of i am good and well and you are bad and sick, it would be, we are both human beings living in the same community. A conversation could go something like this ” Could you not leave your red condoms in the garden, I don’t want the condoms in the garden, because i don’t want any of the kids that are running through there during the day to come in contact with it or a needle and potentially catch something, and i don’ t think you do either, because your a part of this neighborhood, and you would care if some kid got sick because you left something behind that you could have picked up, and if you have some time would you like to help me weed?”