In partnership with Trinity Western University, we will be highlighting interesting expressions ministry & student life... Read about 'Students engaging Vancouver's Downtown Eastside residents in 'real talk about tourism'
Widely known as one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) is synonymous with addiction and homelessness. But students at Trinity Western University recently presented a report to Tourism Vancouver recommending it as a tourist destination, rich in art and culture.
The neighbourhood has been a topic of hot debate in the last month after the opening of a high-end restaurant across from Pigeon Park—a hub for the city’s homeless population. Critics claim restaurants like the newly opened Pidgin pose a threat to vulnerable residents.
According to TWU Anthropology professor, Claudia Launhardt, the DTES can be a desirable tourist destination without displacing its existing population. However, she says, it can only be accomplished through communication.
“On one hand,” she explained, “you have people in the DTES living in a certain world, and then you have another group of people in downtown offices making decisions on their behalf. There’s a disconnect between them. Decisions are made which do not solve problems because little attempt is made to relate to the practicalities of daily life for actual residents.”
Launhardt is certainly familiar with those practicalities. Along with her husband, she runs the Ivanhoe Hotel—one of Vancouver’s Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) hotels on the DTES.
Every semester student in her Cross-cultural Communications courses spend time at the hotel, engaging with her tenants, and conducting first-hand research in the neighbourhood.
In fall 2012, she began her 'Communications 302' class with the question:
“Can the DTES be a tourist destination?”
With this notion as their focus, the students conducted extensive research and interviews with local residents. The result was a comprehensive document outlining the cultural wealth in the DTES, which was then presented to Tourism Vancouver.
“It’s an incredibly timely piece,” said Suzanne Raikes of Tourism Vancouver. At the moment Tourism Vancouver doesn’t produce any marketing that focuses on this neighbourhood. But, says Raikes, there’s a good chance some of the students’ recommendations will be evident in future Tourism initiatives. The document has made its way to the Executive Vice President of Tourism Vancouver who’s leading development of a new Tourism Vancouver Masterplan—which will include a deliberate focus on the challenges posed by the DTES.
Raikes has seen interest in the area start to shift away from stereotypes of drugs and homelessness and towards the cultural gems highlighted in the student’s report. This is mostly thanks to the initiative of small businesses and events like Off the Eaten Track—a guided culinary tour of Railtown.
“The DTES is not just drugs and addiction,” clarified Launhardt. “It’s a community of poor and often broken people, but people who have a lot to share.” She points to the thriving art scene and explains this is only possible because of a welcoming community which embraces fresh approaches and enables artists to perform on a lower budget.
Her students were not advocating what’s become known as “poorism"— voyeuristic bus tours showing poverty — nor were they proposing the addition of venues that encourage visitors to simply come, drink, and leave. “We’ve seen incidences of young people coming in, partying and abusing residents. These people have no interest in the heart of the neighbourhood. It must come back to communication, respect and understanding.”
Instead the report showcases the DTES as an already vibrant neighbourhood. It highlights areas of interest and potential issues that may stand in the way of them becoming viable attractions. It recommends focusing on the existing strengths of the neighbourhood—the rich community of residents who have fostered a creative hub, welcoming of respectful outsiders.
This type of applied research at the undergraduate level is not something you’d find at many universities. The students completed the course with both the skills to conduct academic research, and more importantly, an authentic understanding of marginalised people in their own city.
“One day these students might be the ones in office towers making decisions for others,” says Launhardt. “And if so, they can make better decisions because they spent time here. They won’t just see numbers but will see real people.”
Read the full report here.
Learn more about the work of Claudia Launhardt, Ph.D., and students of her Communications 302 class in this