My work was selected to be painted on planters on Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside, in Vancouver, BC. This is part of the Hastings Urban Tree Nursery project created by the Strathcona Business Improvement Association. The project's intent is not only to add vibrancy and beauty to a very unique neighbourhood, but also to encourage community pride and connection, as members of the community care for and nurture the young trees. When the trees grow large enough, they are auctioned off, replaced with new young trees, and the cycle begins again.
This was such a rich and enlightening project for me. I have long had compassion and some semblance of understanding of what the residents of this neighbourhood go through, and what has transpired to create their current reality. Being right there, in the thick of it, in front of VANDU, for hours and days on end, allowed for a whole new window of understanding, and opportunities for connection.
For the days I was working there, I saw some of the poverty, addiction, and dysfunction that residents face everyday. I was prepared for that. I expected it. What I didn't expect was all of the beauty.
I saw so many supportive relationships and interactions. I saw community and caring. People looked out for each other. They shared their stories with one another. They are clearly a tight community. Tighter than any I have ever lived in.
As I painted, residents unabashedly showered my work with compliments, encouragement, suggestions, and overwhelming gratitude. I'm sure that in those three days, I had heard almost a hundred positive comments from passers by. I was deeply touched.
Also enlightening to me were three of the interactions I had. One was with a very angry resident, while the other two were with people who worked to support residents in some capacity. Their comments made me aware of the politics involved in the area. It wasn't enough that I was adding artwork to the community. They wanted to know why I was painting there. They wanted to know whether I was paid, and who had asked me to do so. The answers to these questions seemed to dictate whether my work was of any value to the community. In my opinion, they had missed the point. They didn't seem to be listening to all of the people who had shown me so much gratitude and appreciation. It made me think about how often the politics of the Downtown Eastside gets in the way of actually helping people.
Spending time here, having conversations with the members of this community, reminded me that we cannot judge a person before we've learned their story. And even then, forget the judgement. We are all just humans doing the best we can with what we were given.
I hope that this doesn't come across too sugar-coated. I really just wanted to share my experience. I know this is a controversial and complicated area, and that many people have strong views about the issues that the neighbourhood faces.
I look forward to painting in this neighbourhood again in the future, and seeing the faces of the many lovely humans that I met there.