Poorest neighbourhood in Canada. Highest average HIV infection rate in North America, primarily due to intravenous drug abuse. Simultaneously proud and pathetic, it lies mere minutes walk away from some of Vancouver's most lucrative tourist destinations - Gastown and Chinatown, and mere blocks away, CEOs toil in offices and skyscrapers. A problem which isn't going away, despite the best ostrich-impressions of politicians.

The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is centered around the intersection at Hastings and Main. The Eastside is probably the strangest place I've ever been in my life.

The feel

For those who haven't seen the area, it's Vancouver's skid row. If you're down on your luck in Vancouver, this is your probable destination. The area is probably the most extreme example of its kind in Canada -- no area in the other major Canadian cities is so desolate.

About half the times I've gone through the area, there has been a paddy wagon or ambulance on Hastings. There are always police cars there. People shoot heroin openly on the street and sell drugs freely. Most of the people on the streets are in a place in their lives that most of us couldn't imagine.

Most of the residents of Greater Vancouver think of the Eastside as some kind of earthly version of hell. In the minds of people from Surrey or Richmond, the moment you get off the bus at Hastings and Main, you'll be forced to buy and take drugs; mugged and raped. In my experience, this perception is almost totally false.

I've never felt unsafe when I've been there.

Crime

There seems to be an unspoken agreement between the Police and the residents of the Eastside. The Police have basically decided that victimless crimes are too numerous to be a priority. That's why an addict shooting heroin will generally be asked to move along but not arrested -- the War on Drugs is based on victimless crimes.

The Police don't let these things go in the rest of the city. That is at least part of what made the area what it is. I think the idea (subconsciusly at least) is that caralling the down-and-out in a well-defined area and keeping them there makes the problem managable.

On the other hand, the police presence is so extreme, that anythine that's prioritized by the Police will be dealt with. I've never heard of anyone getting mugged in the Eastside -- crimes directed at non-residents of the area are dealt with very severely. Any serious crimes are usually between two locals.

That means your average Vancouverite can wander through the area to pick up some pot or visit the pawn shops in a vain attempt to find their stolen laptop. If you do walk around the Eastside, will someone off you drugs? Probably; say no if you don't want any. It's just that easy.

The area is also frequented by old Chinese women going from the Hastings Street busses to the markets in Chinatown; they are also perfectly safe.

That's the strange thing about the area. Every person is either a local or not. Which group you fall into is never in question and the way you're treated depends entirely on the group you're in.

The Surroundings

If you walk a half a block away from Hastings street, you're in a nice clean commercial neighbourhood -- Chinatown to the south and Gastown to the north. The same thing happens on the west side of the area -- when you cross Carrall street, you're downtown with nice shops and SFU's downtown campus. To the east, it trails off into an industrial area near the port.

The extremeness of the ghettoization is caused by local law enforcement. Both Gastown and Chinatown have private security which keeps their streets clean of anything that might make tourists uncomfortable. That leaves the Vancouver Police to deal with the gap in the middle.

Of course, the Vancouver Police are under a great deal of pressure to "clean up" the area. It makes suburban commuters and tourists uncomfortable. Since it's surrounded by such swanky areas, the effect is intensified.

So?

My general hope in writing this is that a few people who think of the Eastside as a cesspool will reconsider just a little. It's a rough neighbourhood to be sure, but it's not a place that any right-thinking person is incapable of understanding.

All the people who live there are just that: people. This seems to be something that many forget when they think about it. Maybe they aren't people like you, but they are people.

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