Monday, February 18, 2013

Being Good Neighbours

One of the issues facing our neighbourhood right now is gentrification, and what it means to be a good neighbour when higher-income people are moving into a low-income neighbourhood, often displacing poorer people.  I (Beth) am currently writing a series of blogs about gentrification, and I invite you to engage with me in the comments section over on my blog. But on this blog, I wanted to post something written by another member of our church on the same topic.

Last year, a man named Mike Comrie wrote a letter to the National Post, describing his life as a middle-income father-of-two in the DTES.  It was fairly scathing, as you may guess from the title: "Raising kids amid the hookers, junkies and drunks of Vancouver's worst neighbourhood."  You can read it here.

Krista-Dawn Kimsey, a God's House of Many Faces member and mother of two, wrote a letter to the editor in response to Mike.  It was never published, to our knowledge.  But I'm very happy to post it here, and to showcase her excellent thinking and writing, and her gracious way of living in this neighbourhood.  I hope it spurs some further thought and reflection.



Dear Mike,

I would like to ask you if you see yourself as the “good neighbor” that you are looking for in the DTES. I am also a resident of the DTES and have lived here with my family of 2 kids of a similar age to you (3 and 7) for a few years. We lived right on Hastings Street for a year and now live a few blocks away from Strathcona Elementary. I can commiserate with you over the outrageous housing prices. I don’t see us ever affording to buy in this city even though both my husband and I are college graduates and come from middle class family support structures. I would also join you in inviting other families to raise their children in this neighborhood; it’s a great place for a family to thrive. But my recommendation to new families would be to please buy elsewhere if they share in your opinions of this community and place their hopes for the ideal lifestyle arriving at their doorstep through gentrification. What this neighborhood needs is better neighbors who seek the welfare of all its residents, not new neighbors waiting for cultural annihilation.

I’ve lived in major urban centers most of my life, in all kinds of neighborhoods and also have always had the choice to stay or go. My experience of the DTES is that it is the most welcoming place I have ever lived. This “disturbing new community” that you describe has been a foundational teacher to me and my kids on subjects like generosity, hospitality, acceptance and most significantly, respect. My kids love walking on Hastings, and we also accept the generous gifts of people who have nothing but want to affirm kids being kids. My kids have been given all kinds of gifts, from money to toys to tricycles by the “dodgy” characters that you refer to. The chorus of “kids on the block” to hide their drugs is a kind and respectful act by people who have not received a fair share of kindness in their life. The streets we walk on are their bedrooms and living rooms, not because they all want to live there, but because the city is refusing to listen to the community’s plea for dignified and affordable housing options. Kids are intuitive, they can instantly know if someone is safe or not safe. What they need are parents to teach them how to engage with people who at first glance to them seem fearful, not parents who affirm that there are people so different than themselves that you need to walk on the other side of the street to avoid them.

Perhaps the bus stops and streets are dirty because neighbors who are not living in crisis have not taken responsibility to care for one another. Do you really think there is a kind of human being that enjoys going to the bathroom on the street? Are there not hundreds of apartments and homes in the DTES filled with people with clean bathrooms? When the city is glacially slow to take on responsibility to provide a decent number of public washrooms, couldn’t we know each other’s names and stories enough to answer the door and see a friend who needs to use a bathroom, or a washing machine. People on the streets know each other’s names, they know what their lives have been like, they know when they go missing after 12 hours. Do you know your neighbors in your condo like that? Who is going to teach your kids that people are more important than stuff? It wouldn’t take too much time when you walk with your kids and see a bunch of needles on ground to pick them up and get the name of person who owns the closest sharps container. They are all over, and I’ve found people to be most grateful. We all want to be safe when we walk down the street, not just you.

You don’t have to look far for excellent neighborhood teachers here. People in the Carnegie Community Center know how to identify the dignity in each person in a second. Families in homes like St. Chiara’s, Servants and 614 can show you how to eat dinner with people suffering on a mental illness journey and oppressed by addiction without feeling afraid. I’ve found the best teachers are the ones who are sitting on the park bench in Oppenheimer, while my kids play. So many people in this community have time to share what they are passionate about, where they have come from, what they wish their neighborhood could be like. You could dream with them, and join them in the fight to have those dreams be taken seriously even though they aren’t going to bring big profits for the city. There are lots of people here who can fan the flame of courage to move you along the journey from initial contact to greater engagement and solidarity.

Where I wouldn’t look for help in creating a caring community is the police department. Our residents association invited them to address some people’s safety concerns. All they did was drill into us that there are “bad guys” who will do anything to get our stuff. How many more news stories to we need to see to know the truth that those who are the most dangerous to our kids are more likely to be in our own extended families, or living in quiet suburban neighborhoods behind closed doors?? When we did get the statistics in writing, it was clear that neighborhoods like Kits have higher rates of all kind of crimes than Strathcona and the DTES.

What the DTES really needs is for the city to listen to what the current residents have identified themselves to help them be better neighbors that have the ability to provide for themselves. The city’s refusal to listen to the community and block destructive condo developments like Sequel 138 are only going to bring greater responsibility to us all currently living here to model what a thriving community looks like. How can our current neighbors thrive when their basic needs of decent housing, healthy food and a good night’s sleep are out of reach for them? When Sequel 138 new neighbors sign their lease they need to sign on for a steep learning curve in how to look for and affirm our common humanity. Not use stereotyped preconceptions that identify “dodgy” people as unsafe and look for something to arrest them for. My neighbors won’t be arrested for their drug use because they do it in their backyard, where the smoke comes through my windows to my kids. But they sure would be arrested if they smoked in the breezeway of the Sequel 138.

I agree with you Mike, drug addiction does horrible, horrible things to a human soul. And all of us have a responsibility to speak, write and engage with each other that affirms our common dignity and our human right to thrive. The city is refusing to put those values into action by honoring their earlier policy of replacing 1 SRO to 1 unit of dignified social housing, so ever more new neighbors will be coming just because it’s a cheaper place to live. If these new neighbors like yourself are only coming in hopes that they will create a new kind of community to displace the one that established themselves here for decades, then the soul of Vancouver will be lost. Instead of waiting for something of value to come to this neighborhood, you could take time to make friends with your neighbors and realize the gems that have learned how to survive despite crushing odds. The people here are complicated, just like you and I. But I’ve seen just as atrocious behavior in residence association meetings from people with comfortable homes and 6 figure incomes as the brawls outside the bars. Violent behavior is everywhere, including ourselves. This community has its share of violence, but more often I’ve experienced it’s ability to listen, accept and have each other’s back. The city should be coming down here for lessons in how to develop a supportive community, and import those ideas it to the other neighborhoods that have created Vancouver’s reputation for being a difficult city to know anyone in.

So Mike let’s do the neighborly thing. Let’s get together over coffee and introduce our kids and hear each other’s stories. We could meet at the new doughnut shop down the street from you, the one that sells them for $4.50 each. I’ll bring a friend of mine on welfare and we can start the conversation by brainstorming how he can pay for his dinner since his $8 allowance to live that day went to a coffee and doughnut.

Krista-Dawn Kimsey

1 comment:

  1. Krista-Dawn, thank you for this beautifully written call to neighborly behavior. I hope that it reaches those who need to hear it most.