November 5, 2019

No Days Off for Sarah Blyth or the Downtown Eastside

Sarah Blyth first started to see the spike in drug overdoses in the Downtown Eastside community in 2016.

From her vantage point as manager of the DTES Market, she couldn’t help but see it. People were literally dying in the street.

So she decided to do something about it. Rob sums it up: “You saw the need, set up a tent, and tried to save lives”. Yup.

Blyth’s role as founder and Executive Director of the Overdose Prevention Society is the latest in a series of contributions to the city by a person who, as much as anyone here, can speak to having lived a life of privilege, marginalization, social entrepreneurship, leadership, selflessness, and grace under extreme pressure. (And she’s not even halfway through.)

Blyth, the former skateboard advocate, Park Board Commissioner, and City Council candidate, fields the tough questions from Gord — specifically on the question of safe supply and induced demand. They circle around housing insecurity and authority in Oppenheimer Park, tangle on addiction, and there’s a quick tease about Tyndall’s machine.

And of course, the big question — will she run again? Maybe she should.

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That’s “Downtown Eastside” — a tragic shorthand, an acronym that’s deserving (at the very least) of a full explanation. What’s happening? How did we get to the current situation? And why can’t we find our way out?

Karen Ward is a member of the “we”. She’s an ardent and eloquent activist who lives in the neighbourhood and provides emotional support to her vast personal network — a community which spans from Woodwards to Oppenheimer Park, from the foot of Main Street to City Hall. Karen is a former Board member of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), and former collective member of Gallery Gachet. Most notably, today she contributes to policy strategy as a volunteer advocate to both the BC Centre for Disease Control and as a spokesperson for her community to Vancouver city council and local media. Karen is unquestionably an urbanist, in thought and in action.

Give this episode — just 30 minutes of your life — a listen this holiday season. It’s a small opening into the life led by your neighbours, in a place that was once the beating heart of mainstream, middle-class Vancouver…and which today constitutes “7 or 8 blocks of chaos.”

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“We came within an eyelash of running the table.”

And he’s not wrong. Ken Sim, founder and CEO of homecare provider Nurse Next Door and bagel chain Rosemary Rocksalt, is just two months removed from having come within 957 votes of being the mayor of Vancouver. With five NPA Vancouver councillors, Sim would have led a majority, and thus the face of municipal (and perhaps regional) politics might look very different than it does today.

Having returned to regular family and business life, he goes deep with Gord in this revealing conversation. They discuss the day he got the call from NPA leadership, the big names he spoke to as he mulled his decision (and who finally convinced him to run), his experiences on the campaign trail, his thoughts about the downtown eastside, and what he believes are the major policy priorities for the city.

And more importantly — what does the future hold for Ken Sim?

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Jim Green came to Vancouver in 1968, at a time when the Downtown East Side was in transition.   He  eventually became executive director of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association “during the challenging years when development was encroaching on the city’s poorest neighbourhood,” observes the Sun

Jim was another example of the immigrant success story – though, because an American who came here at the time of the Vietnam War, perhaps not thought of that way.  From these immigrants Canada received a remarkable legacy and Jim was one of the most remarkable, maybe one of the best mayors we never had – though his contribution as councillor was substantial enough. 

Not only is Woodwards a physical testament to the values he fought for, but the way he brought people together and the persistence and skill with which he made it happen was truly a ‘Vancouver’ achievement by a man who not only chose this place as his home but changed the city by his presence.

Coincidentally I received today an interpretation of Jim’s neighbourhood in a short-story video by Larry Kent, another immigrant who came to Canada in 1957 and in his work explored our human condition.  So here is Hastings Street, just before the time when Jim Green would walk these same blocks, and through his commitment to the community, both save it and change it.

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Miro Cirnetig pens an appreciation of Jim Green and his devotion to opera, along with this suggestion:

So isn’t it time to name a public place in Vancouver’s inner city for Jim Green?

Perhaps Pigeon Park or Crab Park, those green spaces he fought to preserve because he knows they are crucial to a good life in the city’s poorest neighborhood. Maybe Green’s name should be on a street or lane way. Or the square of the new Woodward’s building, the edifice Green helped make a reality and is now a catalyst for the Downtown Eastside’s revitalization without forgetting its less wealthy residents.

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