There is a nifty, newly-lit sign that juts on to Howe Street heralding a more spacious and modern Vancouver Pen Shop, relocated after 36 years on West Hastings. It begs a story.
The official premise for the new premises is the need for seismic upgrading at the old building. A happy coincidence can’t be denied, though: The cherished, venerable store for writing instruments and stationery gets to escape a district that is dying a death of a thousand smashed windows.
In its case, the vandalism happened five times during the pandemic – three times to its big window, twice to a smaller one. No restitution for the damage and inconvenience. All paid for out of pocket. Walk-up business withered. An overnight break-in, caught on video and called in to police by a passerby, didn’t merit a visit. To shop through much of the last three years, you had to wait at a secured gate. It had come to that.
It has indeed come to the point that the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), historically focused on promoting commerce as a super-booster of businesses already generally afloat, has found itself in these circumstances touting its arrival in the restoration and security business. It is granting businesses half of their costs to a maximum $5,000 of repairing busted windows, doors, removing or coating graffiti, and installing cameras, shutters or gates.
Its bright and candid CEO, Nolan Marshall III, only 18 months removed from New Orleans, has left for Los Angeles. The allure is a nice new job in an upbeat development. Can you blame him?
The challenge of Vancouver’s core is layered in long-term socio-economic problems of trauma and inequity compounded in the short-term by decamped offices and an amortized Downtown Eastside (DTES). Where it was once open for business, it is now open for drug use. For better and worse, where there was once a policy of containment, there is now unhinged rupture.
The arrival of COVID-19 prompted the departure of the weekday occupants, and many haven’t returned and may never. The Altus Group commercial real estate firm in recent weeks reported a two-decade office vacancy high of 11.5 per cent, more than triple the pre-pandemic level. The last three years proved many white-collar jobs can be performed remotely, too late to staunch the arrival of more office space, so many sublets are on offer. A recession would create many more, and it is difficult to see how and when the recent breadth of new towers will again be coveted or constructed.
The conditions on the streets shifted when the coronavirus struck. Buildings emptied, tourist traffic cratered, outdoor West Hastings life densified, crime (particularly open crime) rose, tents smothered the sidewalks, and even authorities wouldn’t tackle them. The most fearful of the homeless population sprawled into less threatening new precincts to the west and south.
The previous civic administration viewed the pain of those at a disadvantage as more important to address than any pain of those with economic stakes in the downtown, and there is an argument that its choice to shrug off the grievances was the issue that lost it the election.
The new mayor, Ken Sim, campaigned on hiring 100 police officers and 100 mental health nurses to bolster the response to complaints of official indifference. The round number, even its feasibility, was less important politically than the initiative’s psychology, because it sounded to so many as so much better than sitting still. Like most simple pledges, it is quickly found to be more complex to deliver than it sounds, so it will take time to fund and find the professionals.
Even slower to arrive will be the remedies promised by the new premier, David Eby, who in his whirling dervish first weeks of office has decided he will take the lead in addressing the multi-faceted challenges of the DTES. This is smarter than the city’s longtime pretence that it could champion change without the clout or resources of a senior government. Recall, we once had a mayor who promised an end to homelessness.
In taking this on and in trying to make the problems truly go away, Eby will need new or enhanced strategies on mental health, on addictions, on policing, on education, on housing, on reconciliation, on urban planning, on sentencing and on income support. He likely will also need to be premier until his young children can vote for him.
He has not gone as far as the New York City mayor in promising to take the seriously mentally ill off the streets and into involuntary hospitalization. But he has posited the need for involuntary or mandatory treatment in mental health-care support and proposed involuntary treatment for those who repeatedly overdose.
If he can deliver this mammoth systemic reshaping of the DTES and does not want a resurgence, he will need to apply the remedies elsewhere in the province and pray that other premiers take his lead in their jurisdictions. To cite Dr. Gabor Maté, the city’s prominent expert on addictions, the concerns are Canada’s and not the Downtown Eastside’s – it’s just that those affected and afflicted find the safest, most amenable environment here to live with their struggles.
Speaking of Canada, anyone recall Justin Trudeau’s last visit to DTES? Anyone? Were this Toronto, Montreal or Ottawa, we would have ages ago seen the compassionate equivalent of the Emergencies Act to combat the problems. Instead, our money is poured into the district with no meaningful turnaround of lives or optimism of outcomes, in the hope the tinderbox doesn’t explode and in the obliviousness of the knock-on effects in a wide radius in the downtown.
Eby and Sim are at least apprehended with the problems. But until authorities deliver consequential fixes to the systems with more than patchwork prescriptions, there will be more Vancouver Pen Shops scurrying for higher ground to dodge the flood of anguish.
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.