New Community Research Resource! Read “The Continuous Fabric of Change, Resistance and the Right to Remain in the DTES/Paueru gai”
The Revitalizing ‘Japantown?’ research team is pleased to release this comprehensive Community Research Resource to our partners, peers and friends in the community. An in-depth analysis of over 60 interviews and oral histories generously shared with us by past past and present Downtown Eastside inhabitants, their families, friends and allies,”The Continuous Fabric of Change, Resistance and the Right to Remain in the DTES/Paueru gai” provides a comprehensive look at what the Right to Remain in the neighbourhood means for thousands of inhabitants.
Divided into four themes, this resource provides a tool for anyone concerned with the complex challenges facing the neighbourhood today – challenges which, as this Resource demonstrates, have their roots in the racist and exploitative conditions that have always shaped this nationally important community.
Since such an in depth resource may not be the most useful tool for everyone, we will also be releasing a full Community Report later this Fall. This report will share a much shortened version of this resource on the Right to Remain, as well as chronicle the Right to Remain Community Fair.
To read the Introduction and Executive Summary for this Community Research Resource, continue reading below. To read the entire Resource, download it and share it, click here.
We encourage your comments and feedback – a heartfelt thank you to all who have contributed.
The Revitalizing Japantown Team
The Continuous Fabric of Change, Resistance and the Right to Remain in the DTES/Paueru gai: A Community Research Resource
Introduction to Resource
Colonized, racialized, stigmatized, gentrified – residents of the Downtown Eastside (DTES)/Paueru gai, both past and present, have continuously resisted Human Rights violations by rallying for social justice. These violations and struggles are not as well known as they should be, nor are the linked causes that connect them properly understood. We feel this knowledge and way of understanding can remind those who seek to revitalize the neighbourhood that the DTES is not just a space occupied by buildings, streets, and parks. The DTES is its people, and the people of the DTES do not need to be “revitalized” because they are already “vital.”
But what can be done to ensure that this knowledge and understanding of the DTES can continue to teach Canadians about our Human Rights legacy and present-day challenges, including Human Rights issues taking place around housing, health, food, and the right to the city? What can be done to ensure that the “regenocide” facing the neighbourhoods’ present inhabitants is not presented as a regrettable but exceptional incident, but instead is seen for what it is – a continuation of the threat to the continuous community of racialized, marginalized, working class people who have lived there for decades? How can we ensure that the original colonization of K’emk’emeláý (“place where maples grow”), as the area was know to it’s original Squamish inhabitants, is considered in today’s profit-driven development of what is now some of the most valuable real estate in North America?
“Revitalizing Japantown?” is a research project being undertaken by community organizations, artists and researchers between 2012 and 2015 who are working to reclaim and re-enliven the Human Rights history of the DTES to ensure that the rights of present-day inhabitants are prioritized amidst rapid social and environmental change.
The overall aim of our interviews with Low-Income and former Japanese Canadian inhabitants of the present-day Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood, also referred to in this resource as Paueru Gai, was to bring to light the parallels between past and present stories of human rights abuses and struggles in the area of Vancouver. Our reason for doing this is to dispel the prevailing narrative of discontinuous succession that dominates public and governmental discussions of ‘what needs doing’ with this neighbourhood. In this problematic narrative, the DTES is chronicled as periodically abandoned, with each emptying of the space – or abandonment of its remaining inhabitants – justifying a new wave of development and improvement. By stripping away connections between the dramatic periods of change the area has seen, this narrative permits the ‘revitalization’ agenda that has fuelled today’s rapid regenocide of the area’s Low Income, marginalized and racialized residents.
Through our work with the current Low Income community and Nikkei (Japanese Canadians) who were forced to leave by the Internment of 1942, this resource provides a more truthful and corrective story of a complex, multi-generational, and crucially, continuous community. This evolving community is perhaps, painfully, necessary for the capitalist economy and is deeply shaped – and scarred – by Canada’s colonial past and present. But it is also evolving through that necessity and adapting relational possibilities for dignified living, for flourishing, for opposition and ultimately remaining in the face of racism, marginalization and exploitation. Our definition of community in this resource borrows from the idea that community the ‘continually reproduced desire to overcome the adversity of social life’ (Brent 2004: 221).
The best way to see this corrective story is to not set past and present experiences side by side like separate things found by us and then placed together for comparison. Rather, the story actually appears more clearly when we think of continuous threads that have never fully disappeared. These threads of people, places and events reveal a pattern when they are folded together. Lived experiences separated by years, language, and the silence imposed by collective and individual trauma become a stronger, more useful fabric when they touch across the folds. The pattern we see is one of colonial and capitalist exploitation, and of community resistance.
To stretch the material fabric metaphor further, the loom for this story is the physical, economic, social, and for many people spiritual, place of the Downtown Eastside. This means not only a unique built environment of housing, shops, libraries, employment services, and other staple neighbourhood amenities built by and for a longstanding working class enclave, particularly resource industry labourers, but also the streets, sidewalks, pavements and small but precious green spaces that are the public plaza for many DTES residents past and present, from window boxes to Crab and Oppenheimer Parks.
The folds of the continuous story of exploitation and resistance that has been woven into the DTES ultimately gives shape to a Right to Remain that is the hallmark of the neighbourhood. This is a right not merely to survive, but to live, create and ultimately positively influence the conditions of change that have shaped this tenuous but continuous community. We believe, and this resource reflects, that this Right to Remain needs to be pursued not just locally, but nationally and globally. For too long, the DTES/Paueru gai has been characterized by mainstream media, political, and research outlets as a “Our nation’s slum” and “Vancouver’s Gulag.” By tying this place’s long history of resilience and activism toward a Right to Remain denied and a Right to Remain achieved (time and again) into a singular concept and popular slogan, we seek to challenge and dismantle this reputation by representing its past and present inhabitants not on the basis of their vulnerability but as astute and determined political leaders who have created a national legacy of human rights achievement.
Executive Summary of Resource
This resource is the result of over three years of community research participation by past and present residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), formerly know to the Japanese Canadians who were forcibly removed from the area as “Powell Street”, or Paueru gai. The aim of our interviews with Low-Income and former Japanese Canadian inhabitants of the neighbourhood was to bring to light the parallels between past and present stories of Human Rights abuses and struggles. In all, seven research team members spoke with 51 people (n=44 English or Chinese speaking current or recent residents; n=7 Japanese Canadian Elders) and analyzed 8 oral histories provided by Japanese Canadian Elders, and it is our considered interpretation of their interviews and histories that create what is so clearly a continuous fabric of stories across events, time, borders and cultures.
Our reason for doing this is to dispel the prevailing narrative of discontinuous succession that dominates public and governmental discussions of ‘what needs doing’ with this neighbourhood. In this problematic narrative, the DTES is chronicled as periodically abandoned, with each emptying of the space – or abandonment of its remaining inhabitants – justifying a new wave of development and improvement. By stripping away connections between the dramatic periods of change the area has seen, this narrative permits the ‘revitalization’ agenda that has fuelled today’s rapid regenocide of the area’s Low Income, marginalized and racialized residents.
Through our work with the current Low Income community and Nikkei (Japanese Canadians) who were forced to leave by the Internment of 1942, this resource provides a more truthful and corrective story of a complex, multi-generational, and crucially, continuous community. This community is deeply shaped – and scarred – by Canada’s colonial past and present. But it is also adapting possibilities for dignified living, for flourishing, for opposition and ultimately remaining in the face of racism, marginalization and exploitation. We have summed up this story as the Right to Remain. It has four main themes: existential, material, cultural and political. Each of these themes is made up of three to four subthemes, which are described in detail in the main resource (pp. 7-30).
Theme One: the existential Right to Remain – loss, violence and erasure (pp.8-14)
Low Income residents’ accounts indicate disproportionate levels of physical, sexual and verbal violence in their lives, as well as their frequent degrading treatment by some police, health care, service, and housing providers. For many, this environment raises the level of fear and anxiety both in their homes and in the spaces of care where most people expect to feel safe and respected. Implicit in respondents’ accounts is a link between systemic violence traumatic personal loss and historical and social erasure. This link is also implicit in Japanese Canadian Elders’ accounts of the time of the Internment. They recall their wartime experience of dispossession and uprooting as one of confusion and naiveté, and of pain and shame for their parents, many of whom never discussed the racist reality of their situation with their children.
Arguably, the intergenerational silencing of this historic abuse against Japanese Canadians warns of the potential for silencing and erasing the current Low Income community from public consciousness. The multigenerational ripple effect of such trauma provides a powerful signal about the potential long-term consequences of present-day disruptions in the community. Current resident ‘Richard’ cautioned that a lack of awareness of people’s life histories and complexity undermined the community: “You can’t deny the past, right? You know, it stays with people for a long time, so don’t expect them to be perfect citizens.” For Nikkei Elder Terry Miyamoto, confronting past injustices means dealing with their lifelong impact, as she recalls “I cried when I first went back to Powell St. Brought back so many memories. So sad. Left in 24 hours; to somewhere we didn’t know anything about.”
What it does: The existential element of the Right to Remain exposes the double-edged assaults that are made possible when state-authorized or condoned oppression targets the bodies, cultures and spirits of socially marginalized Canadians, and these assaults persist over multiple generations.
Theme Two: the material Right to Remain – housing, costs and gentrification (pp. 14-19
A central fact of the uprooting and trauma experienced by interviewees is the repeated assault on material living conditions, and the positioning of the neighbourhood as both a useful ‘dumping ground’ for the demonized, racialized and marginalized – and a source of ready opportunities for investment by outsiders. This continuing neighbourhood commoditization amounts to the destruction of what few economic rights remain to low-income DTES residents.
The intimate association between socioeconomic precarity and housing harkens to the pre-war material conditions of the Japanese Canadian community. Recollections from Nikkei respondents reflect the economic hardships that community faced, and the discomforts and sacrifices made while living in ‘boarding house’ style homes even then. Also reflected in interview responses is an understanding of the exploitative nature of the national and even international economic structures that have shaped and threaten the DTES/Paueru gai, including the neighbourhood’s legacy of “rooming houses” cum SRO’s for working class and Low Income people. For many current Low Income respondents, this threat comes in the form of misplaced “revitalization”, or gentrification. In ‘Aurora’s’ view, “I really have concerns about the community, like how we all come together, and care about each other, and whether or not that will last with the push of revitalization”
What it does: These material dimensions of the Right to Remain emphasize the right of inhabitants to live – in their neighbourhood – with dignity, safety, and the same expectation of care and respect as other Canadians. Ensuring the material Right to Remain will require a substantial public investment in social housing that truly respects residents’ autonomy, increases in service funding, social assistance and living wage levels, and an urban development process that strongly privileges meeting social needs over profit.
Theme Three: the cultural Right to Remain – roots, creativity, and organizing (pp. 19-24)
In many respects ‘culture’ in the DTES, as an important touchstone for people’s identities, exists in tension between a sense of nostalgia and preservation and a more political recognition of a community’s right to remain irrespective of state or market forces, not the least through creating, defining and using (in this case urban) spaces. This is true of both the uprooted Nikkei community and current Low Income residents, a complex connection well-captured by Nikkei Elder Grace in her comment on the annual Powell Street Festival at Oppenheimer Park/Powell Grounds:
“We don’t live there anymore but we are coming to have our festival…remembering that there are now others living there… .In essence, we are inviting ourselves annually through our history to celebrate in their community.”
The DTES/Paueru gai has always been characterized by intricate networks of mutual support, and has existed in a complex relationship with more formal, outside or ‘topdown’ charity and services. The experience of survival against colonial and capitalist exploitation has created a powerful cultural of belonging and community-building, which, while always fragile and contingent, are now increasingly strained by intense economic and political pressure.
Finally, creative and artistic practice has always been vital to the work of making community, finding support and sharing mutual aid, and Indigenous culture and territorial presence has been a binding current of this work for Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents alike.
What it does: the cultural Right to Remain declares the right to the social, cultural, and spiritual resources that enable DTES/Paueru gai residents to collectively create livelihoods, spaces of care and support, and opportunities for comfort and pleasure. A meaningful cultural element that supports the Right to Remain in the DTES/Paueru gai will draw on unassailable Indigenous territorial rights, decades-old skills in self-organizing and mutual aid, and the active “Never Again” legacy of the Japanese Canadian Redress movement.
Theme Four: the political Right to Remain – belonging, boundaries and change (pp. 24-31)
The Right to Remain is the right by which the future – any future – of the DTES hangs in the balance amidst the converging forces of private sector-led gentrification, governmental interventions, and coalescing community activism. From our interviewees, it is clear that a community with the cultural, social and economic resources to not merely exist but also to live and grow will have to do so by pressing its right to remain within a political sphere, not just in the context of local planning processes, but by upscaling efforts into broader national and international movements, many of which have already been formative in DTES activism and accomplishments.
The history of the DTES/Paueru gai reflects the changing face of economic and racial stratification and inequality in Canada, but there are constants throughout the decades. Politics in the DTES has often been ‘double-sided,’ and the neighbourhood characterized by many as both repulsive and attractive, a refuge and a trap, a site of containment and a site of opportunity. This distinctiveness is a strong social and political resource for many inhabitants who are excluded from other parts of the city. As Karen says, “I think I’ve got the right to the neighbourhood but I’m certainly aware that I don’t have the right to the city as a whole”. Accompanying these dualities is the sense that the DTES is a very fluid place – Paueru gai, East Van, East Side or Powell Street, it’s an area that both creates and is created by the larger city, region and country, and, like its future, its boundaries are always under negotiation.
What it does: the political Right to Remain fully recognizes the ‘double edged’ yet intimate relationship between the DTES/Paueru gai and the rest of the city (indeed the province and country), and the rightful role of its inhabitants and allies in its own development. It is also the right to exploit, in a self-directed way, the differences which inhabitants have both created and been branded with. Working for the Right to Remain requires not only working against erasure, silencing and uprooting in the DTES/Paueru gai, but asserting a positive alternative to the increasingly divisive, inequitable and unliveable city around it.
This resource reveals how the life experiences of inhabitants of the DTES/Paueru gai are woven together in the continuous fabric of community over many decades. In place of an imposed representation that strips away inhabitants’ agency and places the fate of successive communities in the hands of inevitable historical upheavals, we see a multi-generational community that has been produced while enduring the violence, exploitation and disrespect of the dominant economic, ethnic and cultural elements of the Canadian state.
Each of the four elements of the Right to Remain move beyond simply listing injustices, and provide a direct language for asserting a positive vision of dignity, agency and equality for Low Income and racialized people, both in the DTES/Paueru gai, and in places across Canada that are under constant pressure to change in line with market and consumer demands.
In addition, after seeing the strong connections apparent across several decades of tumultuous but continuous community, it is clear that more dialogue needs to happen between past and present residents of the DTES/Paueru gai, particularly between the uprooted and dispersed Nikkei diaspora and currently threatened Low Income inhabitants. Based on the importance many Nikkei Elders place on the role of youth and intergenerational learning in the life of the Nikkei diaspora, it is clear we also need to speak to the dynamic group of young Nikkei who are increasingly involved in the cultural and political life of the Nikkei community, particularly in relation to developments in the Downtown Eastside.
Please see the Appendices in the complete Resource for a fuller explanation of the history, development and aims of the project.
Brent, J. (2004) ‘The desire for community: Illusion, confusion, paradox’, Community Development Journal 39(3):213–23.
Globe and Mail. (2009). “Our nation’s slum: time to fix it”. Globe and Mail. February 14, 2009; Hopper, T. (2014) “Vancouver’s ‘gulag’: Canada’s poorest neighbourhood refuses to get better despite $1M a day in social spending”. National Post. November 14, 2014