The Right to REMAIN in Vancouver’s Nihonmachi/Downtown Eastside

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  1. March 18, 2014

    […] As published in “The Bulletin: a journal of Japanese-Canadian community, history + culture&#82… By Jeff Masuda with Aaron Franks What’s in a name? This is a question being posed by a team of Vancouver-based community leaders and university researchers that has been actively engaged in conversations with Downtown Eastside (DTES) residents, both past and present, about their experiences of human rights in the neighbourhood. Many readers of The Bulletin will have heard that low-income residents in this area are being evicted and displaced from the neighbourhood at an increasing pace as rising land values have prompted developers to upgrade the many affordable, if often derelict, buildings into condominiums. Most readers will also know that this neighbourhood includes the area that Japanese Canadians have called Powell Street, Powell Grounds, Nihonmachi, or Poweru gai – names going all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. Our purpose is to try to understand and to harness the power of names and naming as a way to support the right of DTES inhabitants to remain in their neighbourhood. The point here is that no matter what name this neighbourhood is referred to by, there are powerful emotions and histories that are brought to mind. So, why do we think that names are an important topic for research? It is easy to understand that to name something is to say that one has a relationship with it. Parents name their children out of love and often commemoration of ancestors. We also name things that we revile – we call a person a crook if they have cheated us of things we value. We can perhaps think of names that are not fit to print for those who have offended us or treated us unfairly. Places can also have names, and these names are often thick with history and meaning. Streets and buildings, or whole neighbourhoods can be named for famous people or for important events that have taken place in the past. By naming a place, you say, “I have an interest in that place.” But these interests can sometimes have positive or negative effects. Japanese Canadians call the Downtown Eastside “Powell Street” because that is what their ancestors knew the neighbourhood by. Residents today call the neighbourhood the “Downtown Eastside” (or the “East End”) because decades ago when most people called the area “Skid Road” (or worse) people who lived there thought it deserved a better name. Today, we continue to see negative names given to the Downtown Eastside. For example, just two months ago, Rex Murphy called this neighbourhood “Vancouver’s most squalid and threatening area.” Imagine how you would feel if someone described your home as “squalid.” This type of labeling denies this place a name, and is a way of saying, “this place has no value,” or perhaps more ominously, “this place needs value.” It erases or ignores any value that the place has for the people who actually live there. Sometimes, names are given to a place to add economic value, perhaps to generate profit by attracting customers. In academia, this has been called “place branding.” For example, the name “JapaGasRailtown,” found in the promotional material of the new restaurant Cuchillo (located on Powell Street) makes people think of this neighbourhood as trendy, cool, and a place they want to go. It helps businesses to thrive by importing or inventing a new identity, but perhaps at the risk of losing the place identity that is already there. What is worse, it has recently been shown by University of Victoria researcher Katherine Burnett that many people are attracted to these restaurants to participate in a phenomenon called “adventure dining.” They want to see the ‘authentic’ grit of the poor people from the window while they dine on their tapas – close, but not too close. Known as “poverty tourism,” such practices are at best an insult to people’s dignity and at worst can be directly harmful to their community. This is because when branding is successful it encourages landlords to drive up people’s rents, forcing people out of their homes as lower-income housing gets replaced with higher-income apartments and condos. The rate at which property values are increasing and low-income residents are being literally evicted from the neighbourhood is accelerating each day, with little to no foresight on the part of governments at any level as to the consequences of such displacements. One long-time Downtown Eastsider we interviewed expressed the dire situation: They’d be putting them in Surrey, in Richmond, you know all these different places, but they don’t have the help that you get down here so a lot of them come back, but then they’re homeless! In the views of many, such instances are an infringement of people’s right to housing, which is embodied in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Putting people out of a home because they are poor is also a violation of their right to be protected from discrimination, a right that is supposed to be upheld by the City of Vancouver as a signatory to the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination. These rights are fought for daily in many cities around the world by activist groups, through organizations like UN Habitat and gatherings like the World Urban Forum. As another case in point, take the name “Japantown.” The City, developers, and many Vancouverites are becoming very interested in this name, because, like Gastown, Railtown, and Chinatown – other ‘branded’ neighbourhoods in Vancouver –,this name gives the Downtown Eastside a certain kind of value. In fact, the idea of Japantown goes all the way back to the early 1980s, when the City of Vancouver, in its 1981 Downtown Eastside/Oppenheimer policy plan, set out to create a “Japanese Village” Powell Street with “Japanese-theme decorative treatment,” complete with “lantern-style pedestrian lighting, Japanese banners, street signs, and some plantings.” […]

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