(This column was published in the North Shore News on June 11, 2003)
Line blurs between Skids and Gastown
By Leo Knight
DO you remember the days when Gastown was the place to go?
From the Harp and Heather run by Wicklow-born Ray Cartin, up Carrall Street past Gassy Jack's statue to Jim Clark's Spinning Wheel, to Rudy's Blarney Stone right next door, then off around the corner to Daphne O'Sullivan's Pig and Whistle which was right next door to John Barley's, then across the street to Paddy's upstairs and downstairs, the Irish bar scene was central to much of the nightlife that made this city special.
But the Gastown experience didn't stop there. Remember Arnie's Meat Market? The Town Pump? The Old Spaghetti Factory and Brothers' Restaurant were regular dinner stops before catching Ryan Stiles at Punchlines long before he became rich and famous as Drew Carey's sidekick.
Back in those days, the Skids, as the Downtown Eastside was more colloquially known, there was a deliberate separation between the Skids and Gastown. The police beat units, of which I was a part for five years of my policing career, used to enforce the separation to keep Gastown safe for tourists and locals alike who delighted in what Gastown offered without the denizens of the Skids encroaching.
In the intervening years, the Vancouver police dismantled the beat teams and in reality withdrew, for reasons best known to the officer in charge at the time, Insp. Bob Taylor, turning the streets of the Downtown Eastside into North America's largest open air drug bazaar.
The so-called "Sweat" or City Wide Enforcement Teams, have garnered many headlines of late for their hands-on dealing with the cesspit of criminal activity in the Skids. And they have been effective. It used to be, in the recent past, that a quick drive by the south side of the 100-block of East Hastings, you'd see hundreds of crack, coke, speed and heroin dealers. It was a virtual no-go area for anyone not involved in the drug trade. These days, there's hardly a Honduran crack dealer to be found.
During the time the police surrendered the streets, the Skids encroached on Gastown. Beside the Blarney Stone popped up a methadone clinic. Across the street, between the old Meat Market and the Irish Heather, is now the offices, if one can call it that, of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the junkies' lobby group.
In the next block, along the old stroll to Paddy's, is the so-called "Safer Injection Site," an illegal setup for junkies to use in an ostensibly "safe" environment.
But in the heart of Gastown, the tourists still come. The businesses are no longer simply tourist ripoff T-shirt shops who survived when the police surrendered their position of strength.
Last week I was speaking with Derek Norton who runs the exquisite Spirit Wrestler Art Gallery located in one of the oldest buildings in the city, built just after the Great Fire of 1886. He caters to a clientele that appreciates the finest examples in aboriginal art from around the world.
He tells horror stories about how the encroachment has occurred over the years and how the businesses of Gastown have fought an uncaring bureaucracy and an overworked police force to push back against the onslaught of crack dealers, junkies and aggressive panhandlers.
The area behind his store is Gaolers Mews. In what is quite possibly the neatest little corner of Vancouver, there is a constant battle waged to push back the flotsam and jetsam to maintain the area as a unique, engaging and historical place. A special place. Go sit in the atrium behind the Irish Heather and enjoy a stew to die for and a pint of Guinness and you'll see what I mean.
And why this battle has to be waged is totally beyond me. How have the junkies, dealers and poverty brokers managed to get a foothold in what should be the jewel of Vancouver, the place we should be showing off to the rest of the world when they come to visit.
Without getting into a protracted argument about the merits or lack thereof of the Four Pillars approach as the case may be, Gastown cannot be allowed to succumb to the likes of the poverty industry and the hand-wringers who forgive their every trespass.
The area is precious and the people who are spending their life's blood to keep it that way are being forgotten while the junkie and poverty industry take the mile after they've been given an inch.
Vancouver Police Department's efforts with their Sweats have had an effect.
Vancouver council, has so far refused to fund the efforts. They prefer to cater to the junkies who add absolutely nothing to this great city.
This needs to change.