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DTES coverage and debate intensifies

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has been the subject of much discussion over the past few weeks, receiving considerable media coverage and public debate.

Last night, Langara College hosted a panel called DTES: Myths and Realities, where panellists discussed what’s needed for the community and, perhaps as importantly, what isn’t.

“I think one of the myths about the Downtown Eastside, the one I hear the most often, is that the problems are incredibly complex,” said David Eby, the acting executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, who said he was sharing his personal views and not necessarily those of the organization.

The solutions are really quite simple, Eby said, and require government commitment to affordable housing, access to meaningful mental health and drug treatment, and health care.

All the panellists agreed that at least some investment in these areas is needed. But one of the most hotly-debated topics was the possible effects of gentrification on the neighbourhood.

“I would argue that we do need to see a broader socio-economic mix,” said urban planner and property developer Michael Geller. He said this will come from a combination of rental and ownership housing, condominiums and prosperous commercial establishments.

But based on past experience, the current conditions would push out the low-income residents of the community, said Wendy Pedersen, long-time DTES resident and organizer with the Carnegie Community Action Project.

“Market condos cause displacement in the Downtown Eastside because we don’t have strong mechanisms to protect the low-income neighbourhood and the low-income housing units,” she said.

These mechanisms that Pedersen said are lacking include a social housing program, bylaws such as standard of maintenance rules, and property lots set aside for social housing.

The debate over gentrification of the neighbourhood was also central to a panel discussion last week hosted by the Globe and Mail and CTV called Canada’s Slum: The Fix.

The forum took the name of the recent Globe series , which itself has received criticism by DTES residents for its portrayal of the neighbourhood.

In a Pivot Legal Society podcast, critics said the coverage unfairly represented the broad experience of the community and its individuals.

“I thought it was a myopic view that the Globe and Mail has of the Downtown Eastside,” said neighbourhood resident Joe Mangatal in the audio interview. “It was definitely skewed.”

Patrick Brethour, the Globe’s British Columbia editor, defended the series and said he is pleased with the questions and answers the coverage has explored.

“I think it’s been extraordinarily fair,” he said.

In an article published earlier this week on, Libby Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver East and long-time activist in the DTES wrote her own analysis of the Globe’s coverage:

Reading the current series in the Globe and Mail, "The Nation's Slum: Fix It," I have been both infuriated and provoked by the articles. Like many, I balk at headlines and descriptions that portray a helpless throng in deep despair waiting to be pulled out of poverty by healthy doses of middle classness and development.

But, when you read these Globe articles more closely, it becomes clear that the underlying story, the real story, is one of community, resistance and social justice

The Province has also undertaken a series about the DTES in partnership with Global BC and CKNW. The year-long series called Operation Phoenix, will culminate next February, just in time for the Olympics.

Deputy Editor Ros Guggi said those involved are striving to represent the diversity of the neighbourhood.

“We are making every effort we can to reflect people in that community - to get their voices into this.”

She said she wants the coverage to celebrate what’s working, fix what’s broken and hold the players involved accountable.

“This project is certainly an advocacy project,” she said.

Garrett Zehr reports for The Hook.

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