In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver
November 4, 2013
Review By Lara Campbell
As the trial of the serial killer ac cused of murdering women from the Downtown Eastside continues, the Woodward’s building on Hastings Street is turned into luxury condominiums, and the 2010 Olympics draw closer, the “problem” of Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside has grown increasingly visible in the media. Dara Culhane and Leslie Robertson’s In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver takes an area that has been defined by its problems (7) and involves the women who live and work there in a study on the connections between housing and health in marginalized communities. Robertson and Culhane hope to end the silencing of marginalized women’s lives by publishing the stories of seven female residents of the area: women who, as the book eloquently points out, are visible in the public imagination as social problems and “deviants,” yet whose humanity remains invisible, hidden from mainstream society by poverty, racism, addictions, and violence.
The book is located in the ethnographic tradition of approaching research and writing as “engaged wit nesses” rather than as detached, neutral observers (14), and it gives the subjects some control over the project, including an opportunity to critique transcripts of interviews. The editors shape the research as little as possible; the de tailed stories of the seven women are the heart of the book, and these stories are lightly edited, prefaced by a brief commentary, and concluded with a set of questions that give the last word to the interview subjects. The result is an absorbing but challenging documentation of women’s lives. The stories do not always flow either chronologically or thematically; the reader moves in and out of time frames, geographic spaces, and life events; and the narrative is fluid and circular rather than linear and explanatory. The book itself, however, is not without a narrative structure, for the women who chose to publicly reveal their stories were all participants in the larger Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded Health and Home Project. The seven women were all willing to make their stories public, to engage in a longitudinal study, and to meet with researchers for two fairly extensive interviews. All seven selfidentify as women who wish to move out of the drug and sex trade (13), which itself creates a particular narrative of recovery that shapes the stories and helps to explain the commonalties in the book’s themes. The women talk about the process of hitting “rock bottom,” they are self-consciously aware of their shortcomings and are often hard on themselves, and they are determined to educate the public about the fact that life on the street is difficult and unromantic (169).
Since the narration of the stories is shaped by the intent to explore the relationship between health and housing, it is not surprising to see certain common themes emerge. As I read through each narrative, I was struck by the similarities: childhood and adult lives uprooted by constant moving; isolation from community supports; lives shaped by loss and mourning; early childhood sexual and physical abuse; the varied humiliations of poverty, especially with regard to children; and the inadequacies of inexpensive housing, including noise, dirt, rats, and roaches. While ethnographers are most interested in the everyday lives of the subjects of study rather than policy analysis, Robertson and Culhane also clearly demonstrate that policies on affordable housing and access to health care cannot be understood apart from mental illness, lack of childcare, and/or poor job opportunities. As a result, I found myself wanting some suggestions for future policy directions. Perhaps the best place to start is with the alternative health, social, and legal policies suggested by the women interviewed, including legalizing drugs and prostitution to create safer spaces for women, raising welfare and disability rates, and creating resources to help women get the social benefits to which they are entitled. But perhaps most moving is the plea for a more ethical and caring society, from recognizing that addressing child poverty means caring for poor mothers and valuing the labour of all mothers to recognizing that recovery from addiction is a process rather than a one-time decision.
In Plain Sight is a welcome addition to the growing literature on housing and health, and its ultimate strength lies in the respect it shows the women who were interviewed. While rooted in the distinct geography and history of Downtown Eastside Vancouver, it should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in making social policy that is attentive to the needs of women living in Canada’s margin alized urban communities.