The gift of the Downtown Eastside
Last week I was contacted over the Internet by a woman living in a small condominium in the Downtown Eastside. She had found my blog and was offering me all of her building’s empty bottles and cans.
In an email, entitled “refundables”, Tasha wrote that the 24 residents of her small condo discarded a fair number of returnable beverage containers every week. And that they had decided, that in so much as this was literally money that they were throwing away, it would be better off going to profit a community binner than the city of Vancouver.
She would bag all the containers; would I be interested in coming by and collecting them every week-or-so?
Oh yes, I replied — I was very interested.
And so Wednesday morning, I made the short trip from the Fairview neighbourhood downtown in order to meet Tasha and take her up on her building’s generous offer.
Going to the Downtown Eastside for fun and profit
It tuned out to be a short and easy haul, though I prepared for it as if I was traveling to a distant foreign land to collect a piano.
My bike trailer is still not 100 percent; both the hitch arm and the connector to the bike frame are jury-rigged to various degrees and I had to be concerned about the strength of my rig versus the potential weight it might have to carry.
There was no telling how many heavy glass bottles of wine a condo of 24 might be able to knock back in a week so I made sure that everything about the trailer and its connection to the bicycle was as strong as I could make it.
And I resolved to get up hours earlier to make sure that I could have a good breakfast, check my email and still get there with time to spare.
Those darn bike lanes almost make things too easy!
Silly me! I only managed to get up an hour earlier than normal and I ended up drowsily breakfasting and blogging for over two hours. All the same, I arrived far too early for my 9:30 a.m. appointment at Tasha’s building.
From West Broadway Avenue and Hemlock Street, down to 5th Avenue and east until it turns into 2nd and then onto Quebec Street for a nearly straight line run north into the Downtown Eastside represented a very fast 4.7 kilometre trip along some of Vancouver’s bike-friendliest streets.
Traveling north on Quebec, my relatively slow-going bike-and-trailer rig was passed by over 30 cyclists; all of us whizzing safely beside the morning rush hour traffic along our own green-marked bike lane into a downtown Vancouver that is — I almost blush to say — becoming bike-friendly to the point of intimacy.
Even stopping along the way to gawk and take photographs like a tourist — as I did with Marcus Bowcott’s wonderfully silly Trans Am Totem, located a bit north of the intersection of National and Quebec Street — I found myself a block short of my destination but with over an hour to waste.
Where there are condos there are coffee houses
Ongoing gentrification of the Downtown Eastside seems to be creating a very small area of very sharp economic divisions: pockets of very well-off people living shoulder-to-shoulder with the very poorest people, with comparatively little in the way of middle income earners between them (and some might argue that a parallel “ghettofication” is happening in other neighbourhoods that have received new social housing complexes).
Almost immediately I stumbled across one of the by-products of gentrification in the Downtown Eastside.
Surrounded by no fewer than three storefront operations providing health and outreach services to marginalized and homeless Vancouverites, I found the sort of coffee house, offering the same expensive espresso-based drinks, baked treats and Wi-Fi, that South Granville has two-to-a-block.
It was independent, with a community focus and a slightly bohemian air. And it carefully struck a balance between being like and being unlike a Starbucks, if you know what I mean.
Such coffee houses always seem to pop up in proximity to condos and there I was, sipping an Americano and trying to check my email to see if one of those condos had anything to tell me in the way of a change in plans. However the Wi-Fi in this particular coffee house was as flaky as in the McDonald’s on West Broadway Avenue. So I just had to content myself with showing up on Tasha’s doorstep on time.
And there she was, all smiles and happy to see me.
She directed me around back to the alley and the condo’s service entrance. Behind a blank steel door and smooth roll shutters, there were three blue bags of mixed returnable containers. These lent a colourful and random sketchiness to the crisp utilitarian surroundings. One of the bags had even indelicately leaked a bit of liquid on the otherwise immaculate concrete floor.
I mentioned how I always put newspaper under my trailer at night in the parkade where I sleep, just to intercept such leakage from any bagged returnables that the trailer is carrying.
Tasha and I agree that the arrangement around my collecting the returnables must not be disruptive for the building if it’s to continue (and it certainly can’t leave a mess).
For this first pick up, I took the three bags outside into the alley, where a soothing drizzle of rain was falling. I transferred all of the containers (removing caps and flattening the plastic and aluminum as I did so) to the construction-weight black garbage bag that was already a quarter-full on my trailer,
I then turned the three blue bags inside out and folded and hung them on the wrought iron gate guarding the condo’s gas meters, where they stood a good chance of being rinsed by the light rain.
The alley behind Tasha’s condominium was as clean and tidy as can be and I was going to leave it that way. Bottle caps, bits of paper and food containers that had been mixed in with the returnables went with me in a white plastic carrier bag to be disposed of in the proper bins elsewhere.
The guarded face of the Downtown Eastside
A real shame about the Downtown Eastside, it seems to me, is the way that so much beauty and potential — of its oldest buildings and its poorest residents — remains hidden behind veils of neglect and poverty; not to mention a necessary guarded wariness.
Ever the newest buildings, such as the condominium that Tasha calls home, are as guarded on the outside as the people walking down the streets — benign expressions of defensive architecture, with enough gates and bars to suggest exits from some kind of open-air minimum security prison.
Unlike, say Fairview, the Downtown Eastside is not a neighbourhood that smiles and makes eye contact with strangers. I think of it as a neighbourhood full of people who’s trust you need to earn first.
That can be well-worth it by the way. I’ve known my share of Downtown Eastsiders who, appearances to the contrary, have turned out to be really wonderful people — once I got to know them and they got to know me — my friend Jimmy is a good example.
Anyway, I’ll be really thankful if I get this condo as what the old-time binners referred to as a steady “customer”. The arrangement could give me some predictable income that I can plan on as well as a good excuse to regularly visit the Downtown Eastside and maybe explore a bit. Click the images to enlarge them.