Residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside woke up yesterday to the sounds of Woodward’s collapse.
The heritage building, which has stood empty for nearly a decade – taking up an entire city block in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada, has been disputed over for years. While developers repeatedly bought and sold the derelict building, never actualizing their plans to resuscitate it, residents and activists protested that such a huge building stood empty while hundreds slept in the streets. The protests culminated in a three month long squat inside and then around the building (once protesters were forcibly removed by the police) in 2002. When the left-leaning COPE party won the Municipal elections that fall, one of their campaign promises was to buy the Woodward’s building and turn it into social housing with street level services and businesses that reflect the needs of the area. The homeless protesters were put up in seedy hotels on the city bill and the fight was over.
Unfortunately, the development plans for Woodward’s make it look more and more like just another condo hoping to “revitalize” the area. There are only 200 units slated for social housing in the upscale condo with apartments going for $200,000 to $600,000. And with a motto declaring “be bold or move to suburbia“, you can be sure they are marketing the disenfranchised Downtown Eastside (DTES) as the hot new “hip” and “edgy” neighbourhood to move into. Instead of reflecting the needs of the community, this new development seems like the first step of the inevitable gentrification of the DTES, just in time for the Olympics. And just how many of the people who camped out in front of Woodward’s for 92 days in the cold and wet winter of 2002 will be living in this new condo? I doubt very many.
As the cloud of dust and debris sweeps through the rainy downtown streets, Vancouver housing activists shake their heads and ask themselves “is this what we fought for?”