A Rock in the Mayoral Race in Vancouver

The NPA mayoral candidate, Peter Ladner, tossed a large rock in the middle of the mayoral race this week, by stating one of those things that political correctness (and fear of backlash) leads almost everyone to never say.

His message? (No doubt it’ll be referred to a Human Rights Commission as a hate crime by some idiot.) “The Downtown Eastside needs to become a mixed income community — simply building new housing for the homeless and poor won’t fix it.”

For those who don’t know Vancouver, the DTES is Canada’s collection of poorest urban postal codes. It is filled with the addicted, the homeless, the poor, and the indigent as well. It is a community, not merely a colleciton of derelicts — but it is seldom more than a photo op or an afterthought for anyone in politics.

Now, Ladner has spoken a truth which I have personally experienced. In the mid-1980s, in Toronto, I lived on Toronto’s closest equivalent to the DTES. This area was under going some measure of gentrification — I lived in a heritage brownstone which had been renovated for market-priced flats — but the area also contained many overnight shelters, assistance areas, much prostitution and drug-dealing, and many rundown properties and what some would call “slum lord” conversions into single-room occupancy flats.

In other words, it was (and is: it is recognizably the same in 2008) very similar to the DTES.

What saved this area of Toronto, ultimately, was the mixed income element. I recall “the man” — I never learned his name, as he wasn’t talkative, but he trudged, winter and summer, up and down Shuter Street with his worldly possessions in a plastic grocery store bag and wearing his great coat — who saw this as a community. Working from home one day, I heard a ladder bang up against the brownstone next door. A cable TV truck was on the street. I spotted “the man” watching carefully, then moving at what was (for him) a brisk pace to the payphone on the corner. Shortly the police arrived — and arrested the burglars masquerading as cable TV staff. He knew his neighbours, and cared for them, even if he didn’t want particularly to engage with them directly.

Ladner’s point is simply this: it is the mixing of “classes” that makes the difference.

Interestingly enough, this was part of the original design of Vancouver, with its mid-block lanes. The poor lived in over-carriage house or over-garage apartments; the wealthier lived facing the street. Outgoing Mayor Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity plan also called for a return to this mixed structure. Jane Jacobs noted the value of mixed neighbourhoods in her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Need I go on?

By saying the unsayable, Ladner had actually made it possible to discuss a real issue, something that almost never happens in a political campaign. Good for him!

I don’t know whether this will turn back Gregor Robertson’s apparent lead in November, nor am I myself even sure if Ladner should be given a vote based on one moment. (He has quite a bit to answer for as an NPA councillor who voted with Sullivan in the outgoing council. I still remember the civic strike of 2007 — and fourteen weeks of garbage in my garage.) But I do know this has made him more worth consideration.

May a little honesty, plain speaking and dealing in issues emerge more often, in more situations. We all, as citizens, deserve it.

After all, if it did happen regularly, maybe more of us would go out and vote.

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