Straight talk


The Georgia Straight - - Contents -

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.”

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