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Downtown Eastside tours generate fans, critics

An experiment in having local residents of Vancouver’s famous Downtown Eastside give guided walking tours generated enthusiastic response from guides…

By Carlos Tello , in Culture , on October 22, 2012 Tags: , ,

Tour participants outside UGM headquarters. Photo: Andrew Taran, courtesy of UGM.
Participants gather outside UGM headquarters for the tour. Photo: Andrew Taran, courtesy of UGM

An experiment in having local residents of Vancouver’s famous Downtown Eastside give guided walking tours generated enthusiastic response from guides and tour members. But the unusual tours also drew criticism from those who were unhappy that they had been put on display with no notice.

Organized by the Union Gospel Mission for Homelessness Action Week in the second week of October, the two-hour walking tours made 26 stops throughout the historic neighbourhood including Strathcona, Gastown, Chinatown, the Hastings Corridor, and the Oppenheimer Park area.

The idea was to create public awareness, help Vancouverites learn and understand Downtown Eastside’s community, and offer dignified employment to community members in an area too frequently known for its poverty, drug trade, and population of mentally ill and homeless people.

The tours proved to be a valuable learning experience for Vancouver residents and a good opportunity for tour guides to share an inside look at the neighbourhood.

However, some residents felt left out.

Long-time neighbours like Cassandra Eastman expected better communication from UGM. She’s concerned about Vancouverites getting the wrong impression.

“UGM may have done a good thing but we didn’t get to know details [about the project] or their justification for coming into our neighbourhood and not announcing themselves.”

Tour participants visiting Crab Park. Photo: Carlos Tello.
Crab Park was one of the 26 stops. Photo: Carlos Tello

Many community members were surprised to see the groups walking around their neighbourhood. Some grew curious and lingered close to them so they could hear the tour guide’s explanations. Others turned away and kept about their business. One man approached the group and suggested: “Why don’t you go home?”

The UGM’s Keela Keeping expected mixed reactions. “If you walk down [in the Downtown Eastside], you are going to get someone encouraging and high-fiving you and someone else that’s not so excited about you being there. That’s just the way it is,” said Keeping, who is the mission’s senior public-relations specialist.

Keeping said UGM did try to get the word out.

“Before tours started, we contacted a lot of [community] service providers and we put up posters [explaining] what [the project] was about, what was going on and encouraging [community members] to welcome people to their community.”

She also said the tours ran only during Homelessness Action Week to further minimize discomfort for residents.

Tour participants were asked to write their highlight after the tour. Photo: Carlos Tello.
Participants wrote their highlight after the tour. Photo: Carlos Tello

Tour participants, on the other hand, say they enjoyed getting to know Downtown Eastside. Nicole Swinden lives in Vancouver but, before the tour, she did not know much about the neighbourhood.

“I loved [the tour], it was very informative. I learned a lot about Vancouver’s history and got to go to areas I normally wouldn’t. (…) I also learned about all the different organizations that help Downtown Eastside’s population and it’s nice to see that everyone is connected with a common goal.”

The guides loved the experience, too.

Geoff Milson led tours for the first time in his life. He struggled to get his megaphone working but pressed on.“[My work as a tour guide] was a labour of love. I was in a bad situation so now I’m trying to help, and hopefully get others to help, people in the same situation I was in before.”

Milson went through a UGM drug recovery program to get clean and went on to learn job skills at Mission Possible after having a heart attack he blames on his former addictions. He believes now it’s time to give back to his community.

“Hopefully [this] will help more people see Downtown Eastside is a good place,” he said.

UGM is already thinking about next year. So is Milson. He´s already talked to his employer about taking time off from his regular job so that he can guide again.

Eastman, on the other hand, wants better communication if there is a next time.

“We need to know, too, so there are not any hard feelings. We all share the same neighbourhood,” she said.