I had an emotional and gratifying start to my day recently thanks to my new friend Rob, who told me how the transformation of a downtown Vancouver alley has improved his life on the streets in a meaningful way.
On my walks to work lately I have a new habit of cutting through the Alley-Oop laneway just south of West Hastings between Seymour and Granville to see what is happening in the early hours of the day. This morning was a particularly cold and wet winter day and I didn’t expect to see much action in this transformed downtown alley.
As I entered I noticed three things. To my right was a building maintenance worker hosing down dirt from the yellow and pink paint outside a doorway, I was thrilled to see this ‘pride of place’ behavior in the transformed laneway. Ahead were two men were unloading boxes from a large truck—a typical activity for this commercial laneway. But as I passed the two brightly painted garbage bins near the middle of the alley, I realized that one of them was open and a head popped up from inside the bin.
“Hello there!” said the older man, his broad smile beaming beneath a grey beard. “Look at this, a perfectly edible banana!”
I’ve seen plenty of people living in poverty and on the streets, and I’m an avid supporter of anti-poverty and food security charities working hard to help the most vulnerable in Vancouver. But I confess that encounters with people who literally sort through garbage for food or livelihood makes me uncomfortable. Of course it does. It should, right?
When we began working on the Vancouver Laneway Activation project, we were keenly aware that ‘the public’ downtown includes at risk populations often marginalized or overlooked. So it was important to us that this transformation didn’t result in a moment of thoughtless gentrification, simply driving the unwanted populations away so we can enjoy our colourful new play space.
This was all running through my head as I nodded and smiled at this binner with his banana. After a couple steps something made me stop, turn around, and walk as he climbed out of the dumpster. He was wearing an old brown toque and layers of clothing—the outer layer torn and too big for his thin frame. He looked wet and cold.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Can you tell me what is going on here? What’s with the bright yellow and pink in this alley?” I asked, feeling embarrassed for feigning ignorance as I didn’t want him to know I had been involved in its design.
“Isn’t it great?” he responded with another smile. “A few months ago they cleaned it up, painted the walls and road, and put hoops up for people to play basketball. And look, there’s tables and chairs in the alley for anyone to sit on—including me!”
I offered a handshake and introduced myself, learning that his name was Rob, and that he’d been rough sleeping and binning Vancouver’s streets for many years. If anyone would have an informed opinion on the impact of this transformation—positive or negative—it would be Rob. So I asked him.
“I love it.” He began. “Way more people walk through the alley now. They smile more and say hello to each other. You don’t see people staring at their phones in here.”
I asked him how a bright paint job or people playing sports and drinking coffee in what is essentially his backyard affected someone in his situation. He explained that he’s spent a lot of time in this particular alley, but never had so many people acknowledge him and engage him in conversation. He told me a touching story about a group of children who took a break from their game of basketball to ask him why he lives outside and eats from the garbage bins. “Kids rarely talk to me, and I don’t blame them, but we spoke for 20 minutes. There’s something about this place now…” his voice trailed off.
“Do you think this is a good thing Rob? Or is this mostly just for other people more lucky than you?” I bluntly asked. “It’s awesome and I hope they do more!” He exclaimed. Ugh. Now I felt guilty for pretending I knew nothing about Alley-Oop and that ‘they’ (we) do have plans for additional laneway transformations around the city.
After I said goodbye to my new friend, I remembered that I had a Save on Meats token in my pocket. So I turned back and asked “Can I give you this?” “I know what that is! Yes please!” said Rob with a grin, “Now I can eat a hot sandwich instead of this mangy banana!” throwing it back into the bin.
Rob made my day and I hope to see him again soon. I can’t wait to cut through more reimagined laneways soon, and hope they inspire more people to stop, turn around, and have a conversation with someone who is too often overlooked.