I spent a couple of days in Vancouver this week and on a sunny day, it’s probably the most beautiful city in the world. It ain’t half bad looking on a rainy day either. And as the locals say, “Wait twenty minutes” and you can observe it either way.
It’s hard not to like Vancouver. The setting is perfect. The architecture, even the pervasive condo towers, is impressive. There’s amazing food, designer beer, art and culture, social consciousness and environmental awareness.
But take a drive a couple of blocks past the downtown glitter and there’s something else. A sea of lost humanity the city does all it can to ignore or gentrify out of existence.
Cruise along Hastings Street on any morning and in two blocks you’ll go from the hipster minions dutifully lined up single file at the bus stops to a blocks long sidewalk flea market where the junkies, the lost and the abused spread knapsacks of old clothes, canned goods and the booty of car break-ins in hope of earning enough money for a fix, a bottle or even a hot cup of soup.
I’ve been on enough police ride-a-longs to differentiate the addicts searching for a dealer from the hookers and the runaways. And here you find them mixed in with those who have obviously just been broken and left beyond hope.
This time through I noticed one young man sitting cross-legged next to a strewn pile of clothing. Both eyes were swollen shut from a recent beating. The rest of his face was marked with cuts and bruises. He looked shell-shocked and lost. Somebody bent down, took a pair of soiled socks and tossed him a quarter.
I almost picked up my cellphone to dial 911, not to request help but ask WTF the people paid to help were doing.
I knew they wouldn’t come. And if they did, I’d probably be the one they’d want to do something about. I’m sure somebody would assure me that the problem was at least “contained” or “under control” or some other bullshit civic officials use to hide their lack of action.
As I drove away, I wondered if that young man would in the next few days become one of the bridge jumpers fashionable Vancouverites complain about at cocktail parties because they tie up traffic.
So I’d like to pass on three things from a guy who’s been embedded with drug squads and gang units all over the US of A.
Number one. The worst parts of Harlem during New York’s crack epidemic of the 1990’s and Compton when any one of the Crips and Bloods street wars raged were far more civilized than what’s going down on Vancouver’s “Lower East Side.”
Yes, it’s laudable that you have a safe place for junkies to shoot up. But that only solves a public health problem. Not the big one. And yes you have a thriving poverty industry promoting the needs of the homeless and the helpless. But from what I see on my regular visits –- they’re not accomplishing much.
The second thing I want you to know comes from a narcotics cop I spent weeks with on Chicago’s notorious South side, where every officer on the force accepted that the “War on Drugs” was mostly a war on the poor and the disadvantaged.
One night he told me that like a solid wooden stool you need three legs to support a drug problem. The drugs, obviously. But you also need crooked cops and crooked politicians.
If you don’t have a drug supply, there’s no problem.
If the politicians aren’t willing to look the other way, you’ve got no problem.
And if cops aren’t hamstrung or taking money to NOT do their job, you’ve got no problem.
Vancouver, therefore, has the Lower East Side because it has all three legs of that stool firmly in place.
Now, I know the good people of Lotus land don’t want to look at their politicians and police that way. Their city fathers entice the world to come to Olympic Games or World Fairs and organic garden and smoke salmon on the side.
The police ride bikes and watch over the nude bodies on Wreck beach without being judgmental. And they always get to the daily gang shootings minutes AFTER they happen.
Which brings me to the third thing.
I know you don’t want to believe your shining jewel of a town has a dark flaw at its center (and I don’t mean the Sedin twins) but frankly, that’s your history and your civic tradition.
If you don’t believe me, buy a terrific new book that’s being published this week by Anvil Press entitled “Vancouver Confidential”.
It features the work of a gang of your most talented writers and journalists, chronically the stories most cities would strive to live down. But decade after decade, Vancouver appears to replicate them.
Well, my personal theory is that it’s a place so smitten with its own charm and sophistication, it is wilfully blind to what any visitor with open eyes sees with frightening clarity.
Or maybe it’s the way so many in Vancouver think that by living there they’re somehow more special, like the film crews who differentiate between being somebody who does “Features” and would thus never deign to toil among the lower caste who does “TV”.
Whatever the real cause, you have a problem Vancouver. And you’ve had it for a long, long time. Pretty as you are, the rest of us can tell you really need to change your underwear.
Buy the book. Learn your history. And then — Stop repeating it.
First published on The Legion of Decency.