A Counter Story of Woodwards

Presented at the Rights to the City Conference, Vancouver, November 5-6, 2010, Woodward’s Now and Then Panel

Because Woodward’s has been symbolically and politically important in the fight against displacement and exclusion in the DTES, and in Vancouver, it has been at the heart of struggles over use of urban space and definitions of what it means to belong in our various communities. Collective actions on Woodward’s redevelopment and the struggle against gentrification can be usefully understood as active and radical forms of citizenship. And as we were reminded yesterday, being a citizen means having rights to the city. Approaching these issues through citizenship makes their political dimension explicit, encouraging us to think about rights and responsibilities, decision-making processes, and political and cultural representation. It draws attention to the identities of members and practices of belonging within political communities, which extends beyond the nation-state to include citizenship rooted in cities and neighbourhoods. Citizenship also emphasizes contestation and the process of making claims as central to defining membership, including negotiating issues of who is included and excluded, why, and how. Woodward’s 20 year long conversion process illuminates the relationship between the low-income community in the DTES, the City of Vancouver, and local corporate media as they struggle to define what it means to belong in this political community. Further, changes in rights to housing and entitlement to urban neighbourhoods shows how these claims have been affected by the decline of social rights of citizenship in Vancouver and in Canada with the raise of neoliberalism. In this sense, rights to housing and more so now rights to the city can be understood as part of broader citizenship struggles that seek to offer alternatives to the current (anti-) social relationships privileged in the neoliberal city.

Focusing on campaigns in the 1990s, I will briefly discuss the struggle for affordable housing in Woodward’s in terms of citizenship, emphasizing collective identities and actions and the process of making claims. My account of these actions are based on my phd research, in which I’ve had the privilege to analyze the many creative campaigns and collective actions for social housing at Woodward’s, with many of the advocates and activists participating throughout this conference and on this panel.

During the 1990s, organizations in the low-income community, such as Carnegie, C-Cap, and DERA, successfully brought Woodward’s redevelopment into the public realm and positioned it as a social issue that required local voices in the decisions over its conversion. This emergent public issue was supported by a collective identity based on an inclusive vision of the DTES. In and outside of official spaces, low income community advocates publicized alternative views of redevelopment in the DTES and complicated the conversion process, creating opportunities to increase mobilizations against an all market housing project at Woodward’s, one they were ultimately successful in blocking. Though the current manifestation of Woodward’s distorts and perverts the original goals and spirit of social housing fought for by many of those in the DTES, the movement in the neighbourhood did inform and influence Woodward’s redevelopment.

The two major campaigns in the 1990s surrounded the Development Permit Board Hearings, where then owner of Woodward’s, Fama Holdings Corporation, proposed an all market housing and commercial project. The first series of collective actions to oppose Fama occurred in 1995 under the slogan “See You at Woodward’s.” Actions included a cleaning bee at the abandoned building and painting the windows with visions of an inclusive redevelopment that would serve the needs of the low-income community. These claims for Woodward’s challenged notions of heritage, arguing that the historical significance of a building and neighbourhood stems from the community that gives it its meaning. To displace the existing low-income community would compromises the social heritage of the Woodward’s building, which could be argued to be the case with the new site.

The second major campaign occurred in 1997 after Fama left the year and a half long partnership with the NDP provincial government and the DTES community, who had been negotiating the building of 400 units of cooperative social housing at Woodward’s. Fama instead brought an all market housing proposal for 416 condos to the final development permit board meeting. The LIC advocates’ campaign slogan at this time claimed, “Woodward’s Belongs to Us” not Fama. Challenging private property by asserting collective property rights, advocates occupied Fama’s corporate offices, held all night vigils at Woodward’s, and staged a tent city and People’s Opposition Forum at the Development Permit Board meeting. While Fama’s proposal was successful, support for social housing grew significantly during these campaigns and contributed to the massive collective actions during Woodsquat in the fall of 2002.

During the key public forums in 1995 and 1997, the City of Vancouver positioned Woodward’s redevelopment as a non-political decision-making process, one where arguments about the type and quality of life for the existing community would not affect the outcomes of the Development Permit Board hearings. While the bureaucrats agreed that Woodward’s should serve the needs of the low-income residents, they claimed the requirement to include social housing was outside their jurisdiction. They asserted that the development permit could only be decided upon based on the existing policy context. In the nineties there were only policies and planning guidelines for the preservation of heritage buildings in the DTES, not for social housing. Depoliticizing the approval of Fama’s development permit, the City stated the project met the technical requirements, including the retention of heritage details and other matters such as provision of bike storage, parking, and loading zones. Framing the permit decision as technical procedure and heritage as pertaining only to the built environment, the City curtailed the community’s efforts to publicize the need and demand for social housing.

The local mass media has also been central in framing the struggle for Woodward’s. When Woodward’s first closed in 1993, there were numerous articles in the Vancouver Sun that advocated for the entitlements of low-income community to the building, being critical of private developments that could potentially displace the old-timers in the neighbourhood and the low-income residents. However, throughout the 1990s, more and more of the coverage shifted to the necessity of “revitalization,” by dismissing the label of “gentrification” and describing the DTES as a fragmented community, divided by competing demands of property owners and social housing activists. Not dissimilar to today, the property owners’ concerns were overwhelmingly framed as legitimate, while activists and low-income residents’ demands for housing were discredited and marginalized. The media also shifted representation of struggles in DTES, framing the problem as an over-concentration of social housing in the neighbourhood and differential policing that was creating a “ghetto,” which needs to be balanced with more market-housing. This view coincides with the ideology that states that bringing in more condos and people with money into the area, rather than increasing self-determination and social welfare, will solve the social issues of the neighbourhood. This is of course the very process of gentrification that has long been critiqued by local residents. Like the current repackaging of Woodward’s as a progressive social redevelopment, market solutions to social issues were sold to concerned citizens as sound social policy.

The LIC advocates position on Woodward’s redevelopment and claim of rights to housing and self-determination have remained consistent over time, and by going back to the campaigns of the 1990s we can see changes in the broader political and social context that help us to understand the politics of redevelopment in Vancouver as shifting what it means to be a citizen. In particular, the course of Woodward’s redevelopment has witnessed the entrenchment and intensification of neoliberalism in Vancouver and Canada. As a set of political practices, neoliberalism reorganizes social relationships. This has included the dismantling of the welfare system and the closing down of democratic spaces of participation as we all are recast as atomistic individuals responsible only for ourselves. Neoliberalism has hollowed out citizenship, where participation has been reduced to superficial forms of consultation, like that of the City’s various forums on the Future of Woodward’s in 2003-4. Under neoliberalism there has also been the expansion of the state and corporate agenda to make Vancouver a “global city,” evident both in the recent winter Olympics and the international marketing of Woodward’s as a ‘social experiment’ to attract hip urban “pioneers.”

Gentrification is part of this neoliberal movement. Seeing gentrification as part of a regressive social movement helps to remind us that it is not a static opponent that is being fought by low-income community advocates, but one that reacts and actively seeks to create an environment conducive to its goals, like those of tax cuts to increase capital accumulation and state policies that privilege private property rights. However, these are only one set of claims to the use of space in the DTES, and if this conference is any indication, ones that will continue to the resisted and opposed as they have been throughout the history of the DTES.

Looking back over the various campaigns for social housing at Woodward’s and the persistent critiques of its gentrifying force, practices of radical citizenship in the DTES have countered and at times prevented and subverted neoliberal forms of politics by challenging representation with direct action and politicizing spaces of the everyday. Recounting the social history of these struggles for self-determination for the DTES help us to remember stories of resistance that rarely make it to the pages of local mass media and that are often left out of municipals records. Memories of these alternative citizenship practices (contained in the archive of Carnegie Newsletters and the Friends of the Woodward’s Squat Archive) also contribute to the continued mobilizations. Telling these stories of struggles, losses, and successes shape our collective memories and create cultures of resistance that play into movements for social justice, including the one here that claims rights to the city. Exploring the struggle for social housing at Woodward’s as an example of active citizenship helps us to recognize these democratic rights as the outcome of past collective actions and that these rights can only be maintained and expanded through our continued collective efforts to define, challenge, and transform the political spaces of everyday life.



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