A Seductive Image of Despair

As part of the recent Contact photography festival in Toronto, the Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art exhibited Vancouver photographer Stan Douglas’ epic 16′ x 3′ Every Building on 100 West Hastings. Originally accompanying Douglas’ film/video installation Journey into Fear in the autumn of 2002, this piece depicts a particularly desolate stretch of Vancouver’s controversial Downtown Eastside, the most sensationalized centre of the drug trade in Canada and perhaps even North America.

While truthful in its realism and accuracy of scale, the photograph is really a fiction and an extremely subjective representation that was digitally constructed and manipulated to create a seamless banded image of the buildings that constitute the south side of the 100 block of West Hastings Street. Douglas has painstakingly crafted a seductively smooth and glossy high-contrast image which belies the gritty reality of the subject. In the quiet stillness of the image, there is an eerie absence of the real life on the street. The photograph is curiously devoid of the fabled illicit activities of the prostitutes, addicts and menacing dealers plying their trade. Streetlamps punctuate the block at regular intervals, casting a satiny gleam on the coloured storefronts. From a distance, the image is one of clarity and striking beauty, and conveys the illusory appeal of a string of candy at midnight. But look closer, and the details tell a different story.

In this row of increasingly derelict Edwardian buildings, broken and boarded-up windows stare like dead eyes from a soulless body. For those few spaces actually inhabited, dirty tattered sheets hang haphazardly, covering windows in a lame attempt at modesty. Faded ghosted signage from decades ago hint at past lives, overshadowed by a preponderance of for sale signs. Given that this unfortunate blighted strip is surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in the country, in one of the most pristinely clean and attractive cities in North America, how did things go so terribly awry?

Reid Shier, Curator of the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto and Editor of the book bearing the same name as this photograph, suggests that while Hastings Street has for decades been associated with disrepute, one momentous event signalled the beginning of the end. In 1993, when the massive Woodward’s department store on the north side of the 100 block of Hastings Street shut its doors for good, it was a death knell. Having served generations of Vancouverites for nearly a century, the store’s closure created a black hole sucking all life and energy into its void. Its abandoned hulking mass transformed the 100 block of West Hastings into a valley of uninhabited darkness. Commercial enterprise dwindled. Furthermore, the introduction of relatively affordable crack cocaine and increased aggression in an already thriving drug culture began to overtake the street, making legitimate businesses untenable. Even the most resilient of the artistic vanguard have fled the area, vacating low-rent studios and galleries for greener pastures. And over the past decade, the long-established community of low-income residents in the Downtown Eastside has effectively resisted any development scheme that does not address their interests. Time and again the parties involved reach an inevitable impasse, plans are abandoned, and the area stagnates further. For these reasons, Hastings has resisted the process of gentrification that surrounds it.

Renewed hope for the future of Hastings and the Downtown Eastside occurred in March of 2003 when the City of Vancouver purchased the Woodward’s Building from the Province of British Columbia. With the involvement of the community and other Vancouver residents, urban design guidelines have recently been established, and discussions for its transformation include mixed use comprised primarily of non-market housing along with retail functions at ground level to ensure an active and legitimate pedestrian streetscape. Other positive changes in the community include the long-overdue provision of decent affordable housing. The award-winning Lore Krill Housing Co-op (see CA, May 2004), located just one block away from the troubled 100 block of West Hastings is one such example, providing a highly functional and humane archetype for future housing projects.