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VANCOUVER—Towering 43 storeys at the corner of Abbott and Hastings Streets, in the poorest neighbourhood in Vancouver—the Downtown East Side (DTES)—sits the new Woodwards.
The $400 million project, launched by the City of Vancouver, is a mixture of market and social housing, commercial stores, offices, a public atrium, part of Simon Fraser University's (SFU) downtown campus and a community space. It takes up three quarters of the block, or 1,222,230 square feet.
The block looked very different on September 14, 2002, when a number of people from the DTES and their allies occupied the then-abandoned Woodwards department store in a bid to have the site made into social housing.
“There was gentrification happening all around the world and we saw it coming,” said Shawn Millar, who broke into the Woodwards building with around 60 other people to begin the occupation. “The saying was, 'As Woodwards goes, so goes the neighbourhood.'”
On September 21, police arrested 54 squatters and sealed the building, only to see them return the next day and set up a tent city on the sidewalk. Their numbers swelled to 150 as homeless people and their allies set up camp.
Police later arrested tenters and City workers disposed of their belongings in garbage trucks. The City promised temporary housing for squatters, as well as room in the future Woodwards social housing project.
According to Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP, an organization that advocates on DTES housing, income and land issues), co-ordinator Jean Swanson, there was no mention at that time of having condominiums at the site.
"At the last minute developers put in two condo towers,” said Swanson. “They said the rich needed to be there in order to make the project pay. Instead the area around Woodwards became a zone of exclusion.”
“Thirty per cent of the Woodwards is social housing, but only 15 per cent is actual welfare-rate social housing that were part of the original demands,” said Ivan Drury, a researcher for CCAP. “A good part of the project is supportive social housing, which is not in accordance with the Residential Tenancy Act and so can be run with immunity.”
Commercial space in Woodwards was offered a ten-year tax break as an encouragement to set up in the neighbourhood, which was deemed to be a high-crime area. Shops such as Nester's Market and London Drugs changed the space by policing it with private security.
“[When you go in there] you're treated like a thief,” said Millar. “They have a sign: 'Where The Community Shops.' It's not where the community shops. The community is not welcome there.”
The September 15 sixth annual Women's Housing March, organized by the DTES-based Power of Women group, called out many high-end cafes and other shops that are now taking over the DTES for making the neighbourhood unwelcome to low-income people. This pattern of gentrification began with the stores situated in Woodwards.
In September 2010, SFU moved its School for Contemporary Arts from its Burnaby campus to Woodwards, into what became the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.
“We were concerned about the naming of the building because it's alleged that Goldcorp mining in Latin America is pursuing an environmentally and socially destructive policy,” said Dr. Ian Angus, a Professor of Humanities at SFU who was part of a faculty group that took these concerns to the university president. “Naming the school this way connects SFU to corporate practices that have come under widespread criticism.”
Despite student protests that called for an end to the association between SFU and the mining company, SFU has yet to address concerns about Goldcorp's $10 million donation to the university.
After the City of Vancouver paid $50 million of the $70 million price tag on the Centre for the Arts, SFU was left to raise the rest through private donations. Half of Goldcorp's donation went towards paying for the construction of the Centre, while the rest was earmarked for cultural programs. SFU Woodwards hosts events and talks as part of its community mandate.
“It's disgusting because Goldcorp has demonstrated itself to be abusive,” said Christopher Pavsek, Assistant Professor of Film with the School for Contemporary Arts. “It puts to lie anything SFU has said about caring about human rights.”
Woodwards developers' major concession with regard to the DTES neighbourhood, other than fractional social housing, was a community space. A call was put to community groups to to create this space. Of four main groups that attended these consultations, three pulled out and left just one to take the space. The group, known at the time as Creative Technology, became W2 Community Media Arts.
“The place was designed to fool,” said Jim Carrico, who represented one of the many smaller organizations making up the community groups involved with the consultations. “The whole building was designed to not have real mixing. It was built into the architecture. For us, the main floor was off-limits. We were given a smaller space. It was not about helping the groups involved. [The groups] had to come up with the money to finish the space.”
As a result of this perceived exclusion, Carrico left the consultations.
W2 has burgeoned into a number of projects including a cafe, meeting space, arts society and radio show on Co-op Radio. It has also become a controversial space because of its existence in the DTES.
“We had fundraising events to keep W2 running,” said Donna Chen, the organization's former Volunteer Co-ordinator. “We had majority middle-class white males partying in the DTES. How much is this befitting of W2's mission and mandate?”
Strategies like this have had repercussions from the DTES community.
“I don't trust [W2's] motives,” said Lyn Highway, who has worked with a number of social services organizations in the DTES. “I still to this day boycott them. They're in the cornerstone of gentrification in the DTES...They're so eager and willing to participate in that and be at the forefront of its community acceptance.”
Ten years after the squat, the Woodwards building has lived up to its promise of mixing in a different way. It combines housing, commercial space and education, under the guise of community benefit via social housing and a media space.
“What we really need is for the social housing programs to be restored,” said Swanson. “We need self-contained housing with enough space to think that is resident-controlled. The City needs to slow down gentrification and stop pushing low-income people out of the DTES.”
Isaac K. Oommen is a freelance journalist and academic researcher based in the Unceded Coast Salish Territories. Murray Bush is a Vancouver-based photographer and regular contributor to the Vancouver Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.