Seeking to uplift and destigmatize Vancouver’s vibrant Downtown Eastside – commonly known for homelessness, addiction and crime – the 18th annual Heart of the City Festival showcases the area’s artists and their stories.
Produced by Vancouver Moving Theatre, the festival was founded in 2004 by Savannah Walling, artistic director, and Terry Hunter, executive director. The festival hosts a plethora of artistic offerings including theatre, dance, music, history walks, readings and films across various locations throughout the area. This year, the festival runs Oct. 27 through Nov. 7 and includes more than 60 community partners.
The festival’s goal is to feature and develop the artists of the low-income neighbourhood, who are often denied the same opportunities to participate in the arts as those in other communities throughout the country. Historically, the Downtown Eastside has been disproportionately affected by multiple social issues including homelessness and drug overdoses.
“We’ve also wanted to provide a kind of window into the community that’s honest and truthful to the larger community outside of us to help reduce some of the stigma that can get attached to an inner-city community,” says Walling.
Hunter and Walling, who have lived in the Downtown Eastside since 1974, say that the area is typically thought of, especially by people who don’t live there, as the “poor area,” located around Main Street and East Hastings Street. But the Downtown Eastside district is actually far bigger and includes neighbourhoods like the Powell Street area (home to Japanese Canadians), Chinatown and the residential neighbourhood Strathcona. The entire district is home to approximately 19,000 people, including Vancouver’s largest Indigenous population, sitting at around 31 per cent. “Acknowledging the historical roots and cultural traditions and founding communities is also a big part of what we’ve been doing,” says Walling. The district is on unceded Coast Salish Territory.
The festival ignited from a project aimed at bringing the Downtown Eastside communities together. In 2003, the year before the first Heart of the City Festival, Walling and Hunter partnered with Carnegie Community Centre and Japanese Hall to produce In the Heart of a City: The Downtown Eastside Community Play. Their purpose was to “bring together the diverse people and neighbourhoods of the [Downtown Eastside] to work together in a positive way that built bridges and built connections and tried to defuse some of the tension that was happening in the community,” says Hunter. At the time, there was conflict between communities because of the frequent deaths related to drug use. An initiative was forming to establish a harm reduction centre that included a safe injection site in the area, but not all communities were on board.
So the community centre, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary, approached Hunter and Walling with the idea of producing the large-scale play. The project involved more than 80 performers and hundreds of volunteers. “It had such a big impact and a real desire for people in the community to continue on that the festival was given birth,” says Walling.
The theme of this year’s festival is “Stories We Need to Hear.” Hunter says that the theme evolved from a conversation with an Indigenous artist last year, who said that there are urgent stories that need to be heard to help people get through ongoing difficult times. “Not only getting through the pandemic but also all the deaths that are happening from drug overdoses in the neighbourhood,” Hunter says. During the pandemic, British Columbia has seen a surge in these deaths. In 2020, the province saw 1,716 people die from overdoses, a figure that increased by 74 per cent since 2019. This is not new; in 2016, the province declared a public health emergency because of the severe increase in reported opioid-related deaths. Since that emergency was declared, more than 7,000 lives have been lost, and advocates blame the province for not acting soon enough to reduce the number of preventable deaths.
In April, CBC reported that the provincial government would be formally requesting exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act so that folks in possession of small amounts of illicit drugs would no longer be criminalized. This request is an effort to destigmatize drug use and encourage more people to get help. The province also offers the country’s only permanent safe supply program, another harm reduction strategy.
These issues will be reflected in this year’s lineup: Travis Lupick will give a presentation about his book Fighting for Space, which tells the story of how Liz Evans (Portland Hotel Society) and Ann Livingston (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) fought through the ’90s and early aughts for safe injection sites. Other events include My Art is Activism: Part III, an archival video collection by Sid Chow Tan highlighting Chinese Canadian social movements and direct action in Chinatown, and Heart Beats 2021, a performance celebrating the shared traditions of drums, song and dance between Indigenous and Irish cultures.
Since Walling and Hunter started working in the Downtown Eastside, nearly 50 years ago, they have noticed a significant shift. “There is a feeling of pride in what’s coming forth from this neighbourhood that wasn’t there in the early years that we were working,” says Walling, “as well as a growing, really strong interest in theatre and being involved or coming to see projects.” She has also noticed the media taking a different approach to their reporting. Although a lot of stigmatizing still happens, Walling believes that “a large amount of the media also makes a point of pointing out that that’s not the only story, that it’s a complex and rich community.”
Pour une dix-huitième édition, le festival annuel Heart of the City met en vedette des artistes et des récits du Downtown Eastside à Vancouver. Le festival veut soulever et déstigmatiser ce vibrant quartier, connu pour ses problèmes d’itinérance, de drogues et de criminalité. Une production du Vancouver Moving Theatre, le festival a été fondé en 2004 par la directrice artistique Savannah Walling et le directeur général Terry Hunter. Heart of the City accueille une variété d’offrandes artistiques — théâtre, danse, musique, promenades historiques, lectures et cinéma — sur nombre de sites dans le quartier. Cette année, le festival se déroule du 27 octobre au 7 novembre et compte plus de soixante partenaires communautaires. L’objectif est de présenter les artistes du quartier défavorisé souvent exclus des occasions artistiques régulières. Historiquement, le Downtown Eastside souffre de façon disproportionnée de plusieurs problèmes sociaux. « Nous voulions ouvrir une porte sur une communauté avec honnêteté et lucidité pour aider à réduire la stigmatisation qui colle aux habitants du centre-ville », explique Walling. Cet article présente des photos des dix-huit années du festival.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 print issue.