CAR-FREE GASTOWN COULD BE RESULT OF CITY PLAN
At Water and Carrall streets, a statue of Gastown’s founder stands over a cobblestoned square that harks back to the days of Vancouver’s founding. From there, Water, a thoroughfare popular with tourists, runs west, with old-fashioned street lamps and trees adorned with white lights on both sides.
“Imagine those places car-free,” Brent Toderian said in a phone interview.
The City of Vancouver’s former chief planner offered his thoughts on an idea floated in a redevelopment plan going for public consultation later this month. Building on Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 framework, one of the city’s objectives is to “explore Vancouver’s first car-light or pedestrian priority area”.
According to that document, that could see parts or even all of Water Street and Cordova Street, plus each one-block stretch connecting them in Gastown—cambie, Abbott, Carrall, and Columbia—declared free of traffic.
“It’s the best intersection in the city,” Toderian said about Water and Carrall. “And it could be the best public place. But does it have to be that way all the time? That’s an interesting question.”
Going car-free doesn’t have to mean banning vehicles 24 hours a day or seven days a week, he explained. Maybe these streets are pedestrian-only on weekends. Perhaps the intersection of Water and Carrall can transform into a patio filled with tables and chairs in the summer and then let cars drive through during rainier months.
“And then there are other parts of Gastown where you could take a different approach,” Toderian continued. “I think the answer can vary around Gastown.”
There are a few very small sections of Vancouver where similar ideas have taken shape. Just last month, the 800 block of Robson Street on the south side of the Vancouver Art Gallery, for example, was permanently transformed into a pedestrian-only area that will sometimes include seating and public art. But the Gastown plan puts a significantly larger area up for discussion.
Leanore Sali, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Association Society, said the group doesn’t yet have a position on the idea. “There’s the potential to come up with some real interesting opportunities,” she told the Straight. In the late summer of 1997, a poster with a message aimed at drug users appeared on electrical poles throughout the Downtown Eastside.
“Meeting in the park,” one read. “Let’s talk about a community approach.”
It was a revolutionary idea: that people who use drugs should gather and organize around shared challenges and interests.
On September 9, 1997, a few dozen people took note and met at the east end of Oppenheimer Park.
Donald Macpherson was there that day. He was working at the Carnegie Community Centre at the time and the plight of drug users had caught his attention.
“There was a big drug scene in the park in those days,” he recounted in a telephone interview. “And there [on September 9] was this wacky meeting with drug users, drug dealers, rice-wine drinkers, and residents.”
At the front of the meeting was Bud Osborn, a poet and budding activist. Beside him was Ann Livingston, a single mother on welfare who had recently made a name for herself in the Downtown Eastside when, in 1995, she had opened the city’s first illegal injection site.
“Ann was a contender, and then, with Bud—the pair of them working together—they were very powerful,” Macpherson told the Straight.
It was largely a response to a surge of drug-overdose deaths. In 1991, there were 117 fatal overdoses in B.C. Then 162 in 1992 and then 354 the year after that. Livingston says that the idea in the park that day was to gather people in the community who were most affected and ask them what they wanted to do about it.
“The technique was to say, ‘What are your issues?’ ” she recounts. “The second step was, ‘Why do you have those issues?’ The third step: ‘What action are we going to take?’”
They formed an organization, or a union, of sorts. The group didn’t take the name it holds today until a year later, but that September 9 meeting in Oppenheimer was the formation of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. VANDU, as it is more commonly known, celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.
After B.C. entered its second overdose epidemic, in 2011, that group of drug users became an integral part of the response. VANDU alley patrols walk the Downtown Eastside and offer people clean supplies and a show of support. The organization also pushes city officials and politicians to recognize what has become a guiding VANDU mantra: “Nothing about us without us,” ensuring drug users have a say in drug policy.
Macpherson, who went on to establish the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said VANDU arose in response to a need and made considerable contributions to addressing those problems.
“They’ve been an amazingly solid, persistent, and creative, constructive force,” he said.
“Those were extraordinary times,” Macpherson added in reference to the rise in overdose deaths that occurred in the ’90s. “Just like now is an extraordinary time. And they’re back at it.”