The Other Side of Town

It's a spot that defeats any kind of stain remover. The bare patch on the lawn that won't respond to fertilizer. The crack in a one-of-a-kind plate. It's a territory that spreads over more than this one corner of our stunning city, but is concentrated there like a tenth circle of hell inhabited by those who are being punished because of ... addiction, mental illness, childhood trauma, bad luck, self-indulgence, abandonment, abuse, disabilities both intellectual and physical. Sun pours into an alley from the west and spills onto the thick curly hair and beard of a shirtless, young-ish man who lies spread eagled on cobbled hill of trash. He might be sunbathing at the sand dunes, except the landscape of this wide passage is vivid with graffiti and layered with drifts of garbage, probably needles, food wrappers, bottles, odd shoes and pieces of clothing, newspapers and other evidence of human habitation. On either side of the alley vendors squat on the sidewalk with wares spread out in front of them. Clothes, electronics. Most of it hot, stolen. Around the corner, men and women cluster against the sides of buildings, smoking, dealing, some in doorways shooting up. In a shadier section, a small man rests standing with his eyes closed, chin down. The quiet presence of drugged humans late on a summer day. A stucco wall shadows the twenty-year old on the pavement who lifts a cell phone for the appraisal of an older man. It seems invasive, disrespectful to look at faces too long.

Residents of this urban neighbourhood protested when an upscale eatery opened just across from their own Pigeon Park. What really hurt was that the restauranteurs chose the moniker "Pidgin" to play on the name of the long time gathering place that is anything but parklike. Pidgin is not the only trendy restaurant in the neighbourhood. Not far down the block from the Insite safe injection site and the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre is a restored jail and stable, brick walls, wooden floor, crisp cornered white tables, snowy linen napkins, fresh-faced servers. Neopolitan pizza with inventive toppings. Extensive wine list.

Unless you take a taxi and keep your eyes shut until you reach your destination, you can't get to these restaurants without passing the crack, the stain, the bare patch in this beautiful burg where the mountains are a shade deeper blue than the sky and the ocean reflects the time of day.

A slight First Nations woman, hair caught up in the back, a short fringe over her forehead, watches from her wheelchair as a group of friends coming from the pizza place wait for the light to change. Her brown eyes are clear. She is sitting up straight and nods yes when one of the group offers her a take-out container of leftovers. Unlike some of the other street people, who look away or simply lack focus, this woman fearlessly locks gazes.

One of the complaints about Pidgin was that its big front window faces directly onto Pigeon Park, more or less presenting misery as entertainment, a tourist attraction. The juxtaposition is indeed dramatic and bizarre, yet if it forces people to confront the scene outside the window, well, you can't see if you don't look at what no one in charge or anyone else has been able to cleanse, to mend, or rejuvenate.