here for a few days, I took the ferry then a bus, jumped off at the Terminal in downtown Vancouver and decided to walk the four or five kilometers to catch the Sea Bus to the north shore. I wanted to walk through Chinatown, wanted to see Hastings and Main and walk it.
I grew up in North Vancouver, have come downtown all my life. When we were teenagers, we used to see art films in an old theatre at Hastings and Main…. I can’t remember the name of the theatre but I know it was an old vaudeville house and later, a burlesque theatre. When we went, at 16, 17, it was a wonderful old place with huge maroon velvet curtains, slightly moth eaten, and it had the most comfortable maroon velvet theatre seats that snapped like crocodiles when you stood up. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I think I remember a few tarnished cherubs above the doors and on the ceiling.
We always sat at the back of the balcony; up there, people smoked whatever, ate really good things – nanaimo bars, real popcorn, good coffee, laughed and kissed and had the most fun. From our perches, we saw the best of the international and western film canon, and a lot of kitsch too. The theatre was where a lot of our ideas, philosophies were forged. and always after the show, we’d spill out, head somewhere to eat and we’d talk talk talk and argue over what did Bergman really meant with his imagery, or comment on how beautiful Bacall was in Casablanca, or ask each other just how bizarre that Indian film really was.
And we’d head out to Chinatown around the corner, or Gastown to go to the Joint – a jazz haven where they sold “special dark” coffee (the dark was for dark rum) – and we’d talk and talk and talk some more. But to get anywhere, we had to navigate the rough street outside – Hastings and Main – a place we had always been warned about by our parents, a place inhabited by drunks and junkies, prostitutes (as they called sex-trade workers in those days), and roving sailors off the ships and loggers just out of the camps, all hot to spend their pay.
But we never had problems. Our biggest worry was that a drunk might fall on us. Everybody just left everybody alone at Hastings and Main- the junkies, the drunks, the “tourists” such as us kids from the suburbs who came for movies or to eat at the best fish place in Canada – The Only (which is still there). I was never frightened down there – saddened but never frightened – even one night when my car broke down there at 2 a.m. and I was alone, I didn’t worry. A local coming out of one of the bars came to help me.
I walked those streets many, many times day and night without fear.
So today, decades later, I decided I wanted to see it again – wanted to see “Canada’s worst neighbourhood” as it’s described so often in newspaper articles and television programs. And what did I think?
Shame, I felt nothing but shame at how we are collectively failing the people who live there. I walked the blocks at Hastings and Main, through to Gastown, past Pigeon Park, where I did some broadcasting for Co-op radio (nothing glamourous, just announcements for some political show), and one thought kept repeating itself over and over again, Heronymus Bosch and his hell… or worse… the condition of those people, the filth, the sharp knife of atmosphere, was unbelievable…the junkies stick thin, running like rats in the alley when the beat cop peered around the corner, the bedlam fights of way too many madmen within too small a radius, the sleeping girls on doorsteps, the garbage everywhere, the stench of crystal meth piss, the undercurrents of violence..Dickensian, slum, squalor, bear pit… no words can describe it. The only light being the Carnaby centre, which has outdoor tables and chairs, places for people to drink coffee, retain some dignity, recreate some humanity.
I walked through it. No one bothered me,bought a guy coffee. Apologized. For failing him. Wanted to walk the people of Vancouver, of British Columbia, through those few, damned blocks, just as the Allies walked the townspeople who lived beside the concentration camps six decades ago. Let them see what they are turning their heads away from. Smell the air.