Vancouver Tries To Polish 'Skid Road' For Olympics

Russ Stiles plays for change at East Hastings and Main.

Russ Stiles plays for change at East Hastings and Main, the center of Vancouver's "Skid Road." Stiles says he makes better money in the nicer parts of town, but plays here because he likes the neighborhood's "characters." Martin Kaste/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Martin Kaste/NPR

The Winter Olympics tends to be heavy on glitz and fanfare, but this year much of the pageantry is taking place unusually close to one of the bleakest neighborhoods in North America.

Vancouver's "Skid Road" is just a few blocks from the site of Friday's opening ceremony, and the host city has found that proximity awkward, to say the least.

East Hastings Street is the main drag of a neighborhood often referred to as "Canada's poorest postal code." But it's not just poverty that sets this area apart.

"It's where a lot of people get their drugs; it's a lot of dealing around here," says Tillman Doiron, who lives nearby.

On a recent night, Doiron is hanging out on a block where hundreds of people congregate with their shopping carts. It's an improvised open-air market. Doiron says people here sell whatever they can find — one woman is offering a couple of boxes of breakfast cereal.

"People go binning," Doiron says, a reference to Dumpster diving. "You also get people that are boosting things out of stores, and so a lot of people are here just to buy the hot goods."

The Original 'Skid Road'

Some say this is the original "Skid Road" — that's "Road," not "Row" — the place loggers and sailors used to come to burn through their pay. Having the first Skid Road is a dubious distinction also claimed by other West Coast cities, such as Seattle, but they all share common traits: a port, a history of logging and a mild climate.

A generation ago, city fathers rebranded the neighborhood as "the Downtown Eastside." Still, they continue to worry about the "Skid Road" image.

That's abundantly clear at the "EastSide Connect," a storefront set up by the city and province to tell "good news stories" about the neighborhood. It's a temporary installation, just for the Olympics, when thousands of foreign reporters will be tempted to take their notepads and cameras and wander down East Hastings.

A billboard pitches exclusive Canada-brand Olympic fashions in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. i i

A billboard pitches exclusive Canada-brand Olympic fashions in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. A center for drug use and prostitution, this neighborhood is only a few blocks from the site of the Winter Olympics opening ceremony. Martin Kaste/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Martin Kaste/NPR
A billboard pitches exclusive Canada-brand Olympic fashions in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

A billboard pitches exclusive Canada-brand Olympic fashions in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. A center for drug use and prostitution, this neighborhood is only a few blocks from the site of the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

Martin Kaste/NPR

Michelle Clausius of Covenant House, one of the nonprofit groups brought in by the government to talk to foreign reporters, says a donation from Olympics organizers enabled her organization to expand its homeless shelter. The government has also pitched in, renovating some of the area's more rundown single-room-occupancy hotels, Clausius says.

"I guess the more cynical people will say, anything the government has done is just because of the Olympics, and even if that's the case, I'm fine with that," she says.

A Grim History

Still, the government has a real reputation problem on East Hastings. It has yet to live down its sluggish response to an epidemic of missing women in the neighborhood in the 1980s and '90s. It took years for police to recognize that a serial killer was at work. Finally, in 2007, Robert Pickton was convicted of six of the murders; he is suspected of killing dozens more, disposing of their remains on his pig farm outside Vancouver.

But for all its grim history, East Hastings is not a particularly dangerous place — at least, not for the average outsider.

Russ Stiles plays his saxophone for change at the corner of East Hastings and Main. He's not from the neighborhood, but he's not nervous about being here, either.

"I mean, I wouldn't want to sleep in the alleyways at night," he says. "Somebody might try to roll you. But, other than that, it's not dangerous at all. It's not like America. People don't pack handguns, and most people are pretty amicable. It's safe!"

Stiles says he makes more money in the nicer parts of town, but he likes playing here because of all the "characters."

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