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Speaking for a Long Time: Public Space and Social Memory in Vancouver

By Adrienne L. Burk

Review By David Hugill

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 171 Autumn 2011  | p. 146-149


Mike Davis claims that ours is a time when the lived geographies of privilege and marginality intersect with an ever-diminishing regularity [1]. If he is right, then critical urban research that attempts to understand how new productions of space might militate against this isolation is both relevant and politically urgent. Adrienne Burk’s Speaking for a Long Time is exemplary in this regard. It demonstrates how three alternative monuments in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside operate to disrupt prevailing complacencies by making visible certain forms of violence and precariousness that are routinely disregarded in the discourses of the broader society. These monuments are not venerations of the Great Men of History designed to interpellate national subjects: they are grassroots-driven installations that function as sombre sites of commemoration for victims of endemic forms of predatory misogyny, racialized marginalization, and socio-economic deprivation. Yet Burk insists that they do more than simply memorialize, and she demonstrates how each functions to disrupt naturalized interpretations of space by inscribing a material counter-narrative into the geographies of everyday life. 

Speaking for a Long Time is divided into three sections. The first (entitled “Act”) examines the processes that led to the construction of the three monuments. It assesses the complex institutional and interpersonal negotiations that preceded the installation of Marker of Change (honouring the victims of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal), the Crab Park Boulder (honouring the murder and disappearance of dozens of Downtown Eastside women), and Standing with Courage, Strength, and Pride (honouring those who have been marginalized in the Downtown Eastside, with an emphasis on the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people among them). Particularly thoughtful is Burk’s consideration of the contentious politics of memorializing the victims of the Montreal Massacre in a neighbourhood in which women were still disappearing with an alarming frequency. The second section (entitled “Frame”) develops the relationship between monuments and public space more generally. Burk argues that these alternative installations demonstrate how the permanence of the monument form can be appropriated as a means of disrupting prevailing ways of seeing. Public visibility, she writes, “is a powerful force for negotiation and contesting hegemonic relations” (106). The third section (entitled “Forge”) proposes that a “politics of visibility” (exemplified by the monuments but not limited to them) might help to counter the all-too-common obscuring of acute forms of social suffering. Her most interesting suggestion in this section is that interventions in public space can play a key role in reclassifying nominally “private” crises (e.g., the classification of violence as a “personal and gender-neutral crime”) as problems for the broader body politic (175). 

The book’s most important achievement is its nuanced assessment of the complexities of urban marginalization. Burk adeptly demonstrates how hegemonic forms of domination are naturalized and embedded in the rhythms of everyday life without losing sight of the contingent and contradictory character of such patterns. This is particularly true where she considers the acute levels of social suffering that have long plagued the Downtown Eastside. She breaks with the conventional journalistic insistence that the neighbourhood can be understood as a kind of collection zone for the addicted, the downtrodden, and the criminally inclined (e.g., the Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno describes it as magnet for “lost souls” while the Globe and Mail ’s Gary Mason sees it as a “delirious lure for the drug addled”) [2] In contrast to such odious simplifications Burk emphasizes the plurality and political maturity of the neighbourhood’s cultures. In this sense she challenges those who understand the Downtown Eastside as an afflicted zone that can only be cured by the cleansing might of the wrecking ball (standard rhetoric for those who seek to rationalize the twin violence of eviction and “redevelopment”). She emphasizes the capacity of neighbourhood residents to imagine and build alternative futures without romanticizing their resistance (nor does she overstate the significance of monuments as political tools). She is acutely aware of the limits that constrain her “politics of visibility” and recognizes it as a single element in a long-term war of position

Burk’s emphasis on coordinated resilience goes a long way to disrupting the dangerous assumption that spaces of socio-economic deprivation are always spaces of unruliness, chaos, and disorder. The trope of “disorganization” has a long and problematic history in North American urban research (especially in studies of the African-American ghetto). From the pre-war studies of the Chicago School of urban sociology through to more recent debates about the existence of an American “underclass,” the equation of inner city deprivation with “unruliness, deviance, anomie and atomization” has privatized public crises and explains systemic forms of dispossession as individual failures [3]. The acute forms of racialized poverty that prevail in the Downtown Eastside are markedly different from those that have taken root in the United States, but a similar rhetoric of disorganization and chaos is routinely mobilized to describe the neighbourhood [4]. Burk’s discussion undermines these problematic assumptions by demonstrating that it is space ordered by a different set of principles, many of which are responses to outside restraints and restrictions. 

In spite of this significant achievement, however, the political potency of Burk’s contribution might have been amplified if she had asked tougher questions about the kind of visibility that would be required to thoroughly disrupt hegemonic interpretations of the problems of the Downtown Eastside. While she adroitly reveals how systemic forms of misogyny and racism are central to the production of precariousness in the neighbourhood, she leaves the culpability of the state largely unexamined. Burk’s commitment to a “politics of visibility” aimed at indicting the “inadequacy” of previous approaches to violence and marginalization is laudable, but it would have been strengthened if it had included a more explicit examination of how, in recent decades, transformations of the state (particularly retrenchment of key forms of social provision) have operated to accelerate vulnerability. It seems to me that this should be made visible in our efforts to recalibrate private suffering as a public problem. 


[1] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London and New York: Verso 2006), 119.

[2] See Rosie DiManno’s “For Eastside Girls Nothing’s Changed” (Toronto Star, January 22, 2007) and Gary Mason’s “Business as Usual in the Wretched District” (Globe and Mail, January 24, 2007). Both are quoted in David Hugill, Missing Women, Missing News: Covering Crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing 2010), 88-93.

[3] Loïc Wacquant, 1997, “Three Pernicious Premises in the Study of the American Ghetto,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 21(2), 345-47.

[4] For a full discussion of how mainstream journalists have attributed the trope of disorganization to the Downtown Eastside, see Hugill, Missing Women, Missing News, 86-91. 

Speaking for a Long Time: Public Space and Social Memory in Vancouver
By Adrienne L. Burk
Vancouver: UBC Press 2010.  212 pp. $29.95 paper