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Thoughts on urban planning, city design, architecture, the built environment, social issues, Seoul, Korea, and soon... London

2.3.04

Impressions of the East Side: The Perverse Beauty of the Urban 

This is (a very slightly modified) piece I whipped up in Sept. 98 about Vancouver's Downtown East Side:

As one walks through the East Side, the strongest impression one receives is one of difference and variation. The visual cacophony of architectural styles from various historical periods is representative of the various groups, past and present, inhabiting this area. Along Pender Street are run-down single unit housing hotels, monumental condominium projects, the orientalised western architecture of Chinatown, and artist lofts. Next to the waterfront, at the edge of Gastown, Vancouver’s oldest city part, lie chic cafes, thrift shops and local fashion designer stores. At the heart of the East Side is the intersection of Main and East Hastings Streets cornered by imperial architecture containing a library, a major bank, a pharmacy and a community bank. Within this area are numerous bars and night-clubs for the varying tastes of Vancouver’s night (and afternoon) life. The seemingly solid built environment contains a series of fragmented impressions and experiences.

A dilapidated single-room, low-rent hotel across from the latest multimillion-dollar condominium project; below the penthouse owner with a million-dollar view is the bloody, shoeless junky struggling to inject on the steps of a bank machine. I am worried about touching his bloody hands as I give him my unfinished cigarette. Aids is a reality in the East End: I justify my worries. He offers us information where the next bank machine while his bare feet repeatedly bounce off the sidewalk as he is jonesing for the hit in his left hand.

By the waterfront, a renovated artist loft, turned gallery. The chic crowd, dressed in black, peruses art and sips on martinis; spills into the street. Individuals dole out twenty dollars for a deck of art cards and a fridge magnet. A success. "Can you spare some change?" "Sorry I’m broke."

A few blocks up from the gallery, drunken "Indians" stumble out of a fake wood-panelled bar, yelling. Are the two men fighting? Are they friends and joking? Why did the woman they are apparently with stumble to her knees and they do not notice? Behind them out of the bar comes a white older man, barely walking, clinging to the wall. The smell of urine lingers out of the alleyway.

The mirrors above each of the Ovaltine’s tables, a restaurant unchanged since the fifties, reflect the living history and many faces of the Vancouver’s East Side.

The junky hunched over staring at her reflection in a windowpane under the afternoon sun. She asks herself how she got here, she questions her history and her present state: how did my face get this way and when did it happen? Or perhaps she, suddenly overwhelmed by her personal history, is painfully aware of everything she has done to get where she is, tracks and all. Or perhaps she finds it trippy how she can never see her self strictly in profile, but can only come so close as seeing sixty percent of her face.

In Chinatown, the shouts of the store workers override the buzzing frenzy of produce markets. It seems as though there is an orderly chaos to the shoppers’ movements. A couple of confused German tourists stand out of the way between produce stores in front "Chinesed" architecture looking over their unfolded map of “Where: Vancouver”. No one stops to assist, including I. They ask no one either. The shopping, the yells of the employees and the sidewalk flow continue. Perhaps they will find their way through this foreign city.

The population of the alleys is dominated by those who have a reason to be there. Between sixty-year old buildings one sees the junky scoring his fix, the prostitute talking to her pimp cum drug dealer, a homeless person seeking refuge, a passed out drunk lying in the foetal position amongst the garbage, and the two artists hunting for art supplies in the trash.

Still afternoon, the sun still pounding, its rays reflect off the gentrified "artists" lofts and are absorbed by the plywood of bordered up storefronts.

Around the edges of Oppenheimer Park sit the downtrodden, the drunk, and the stoned enthusiastically watching a clean uniformed Filipino community baseball game. A few cheers and random shouts from both participating groups in this seemingly mismatched, however lovely, scene.

Workers going home after a long day and tourists wait for the bus by Pigeon Park, Vancouver’s most notorious drug park, in the late afternoon. Unnoticed, a woman in her forties scores her junk two doorways away from a young man carrying a cell phone. Above an old white man watches the happenings from his single-room residence.

Watching a Drag King show in a basement bar named the Lotus* – really the only lesbian-oriented bar in the city. The host rants and raves about how the show is not about politics, it is not at all about gender, it is purely about having a good time and drinking it up! The bar, according to the host, is a haven away from all the “oppressive shit” out there in world, it should not enter into this space. I keep thinking the bar and the show are inseparable from the world out there, its politics and it’s gendering. Nevertheless, sometimes one does feel the need to forget, especially in the East Side.

Outside the bar, across the street from the latest mammoth condominium project we say our goodbyes, standing interspersed between some Vietnamese drug dealers, who loaf about on the corner. A woman in ragged clothes, carrying fresh white roses asks for spare change. No one gives her any. She claims to have been raped. Do we believe her; regardless we feel mixed feelings of guilt and concern and distrust. She walks away; we walk away.

The contradictions of the city are its source of perverse beauty. A variable of individuals who constitute a variable of cultural groups, each with their own histories, is the basis of these fragmentary impressions of Vancouver’s East Side. Do they compose a whole, just as these impressions do, that is, are they a whole because they are contained within in a delineated space, be it that of a page or that of a city part. Are these conflicting groups a community, and if so how? My impressions lead to questions rather than answers.


*The Lotus is now long gone.

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