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Review

A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the Fight for Its Future

By Lori Culbert, Neil Boyd, Larry Campbell

November 4, 2013

Review By Gordon Roe

A Thousand Dreams is a very thorough, if partisan, overview of the events in the Downtown Eastside (DES) over the last twenty years. The partisan aspect is due to the overwhelming voice of Larry Campbell and the resulting emphasis on what he did and what he considers important. This is an important perspective, since the impact of Campbell and the political machine he headed is evident throughout Vancouver today. He and his co-authors provide an indispensable summary of how external and internal forces influenced the problems of the DES. However, as involved outsiders, they are less successful in representing the DES as a community and rely too much on the official voices of the activists and service providers with whom they have worked. While this limits the book’s ability to speak for the DES, it does not detract from the value of its information in speaking of the DES. 

Thanks to Lori Culbert, a veteran Vancouver reporter, the book is well-written, well-researched, and well-organized. And Simon Fraser University (SFU) criminologist Neil Boyd provides a researcher’s perspective on the origin of many of the problems facing the DES. However, the main author and main subject of the book is Larry Campbell. As a police officer, a coroner, a municipal and federal politician, a contributor to many research and policy reports, a member of many community service agencies, and a media darling, Campbell was there when things were happening. He provides the story behind the story, and his first-person accounts of pivotal people and events make the book lively. To students of Vancouver’s political history and policy development, his perspective on events in and around the DES is golden. 

Unfortunately, too much of the book is devoted to the defence of Campbell’s legacy. There are annoying omissions and inclusions. For example, the book states that, as Vancouver’s chief coroner, he tried not to take official notice of many cases of “assisted suicide” among terminal AIDS patients, but it passes over his unsuccessful attempt to subpoena SFU student Russel Ogden’s research on exactly that. And while the section on Da Vinci’s Inquest, a TV show based loosely on Campbell’s time as coroner, is interesting, devoting an entire chapter to it is a tad excessive. 

Much of the book is devoted to supporting the vision of a “mixed” community, developed by Campbell’s political ally Jim Green, as a solution to the DES’s problems. Private developers are now required to incorporate subsidized units and street-level retail spaces into market developments, and both the municipal and provincial governments are funding the repair or building of new social housing units. Social service agencies, most from the DES, manage this social housing for the residents of the area. The result is two-pronged: although there has been a substantial increase in the number of better-quality subsidized and supervised housing units, there has also been an overall decrease in the number of simply affordable housing units in the area. Large numbers of current residents of the area are being displaced. The lucky ones get the new subsidized and affordable housing; the unlucky ones move to the steadily increasing number of emergency shelters or live rough on the streets and in doorways. 

A consequence of this “Public-Private Partnership” (P3) development policy is that the existing community has become redefined as one of service providers and service receivers. Many of the social service and community organizations in the area have become either partners in development or developers themselves. There is a growing divide in the DES between the newly arrived and revitalized market-oriented community and the current residents, many of whom are being moved to social service-supervised housing “reserves.” The book acknowledges that there are individuals and organizations critical of the P3 solution, and some of their voices appear, but there is no question that, for the authors, this is the future of the DES

The book is enjoyable to read and very informative, and anyone interested in the DES in general and the events of the last twenty years in particular should read it – but critically. If the DES has a thousand dreams, it also has ten thousand voices, and not all of them are in this book.

A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the Fight of Its Future 
By Neil Boyd, Larry Campbell and Lori Culbert
Vancouver, D&M Publisher, 2010, $24.95 paper