A 1971 radio show explores Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

“So many times by so many people they have been exploited, oppressed, abused and truly fucked.”

The start of 2022 marked the release of more Vancouver archival material into the public domain; among these is a radio program called Skid road special.

The show is an in-depth look at the world and issues along what was Vancouver’s derailment route (also known as the “skid row”): Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside. The neighborhood is well known as one of the poorest in Canada, with many residents facing a variety of health and social issues.

The Skid Road Special, despite being over 50 years old, sees many of the same issues, but from a different perspective.

“Skid Road is known for its dreary beer halls, ramshackle hotels and rooming houses,” the host explains in his introduction. “And it’s generally considered an area of ​​town inhabited by drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes and transients.”

Although this is the stereotypical description of the community, the show aims to educate listeners on the issues facing those who live in the neighborhood and dispel myths. The host immediately notes, for example, that the idea that it is filled with passengers is misguided as there were 7,000 permanent residents according to a 1971 census.

At the time, the area was estimated to be 85% single male, many of whom were former loggers who were unable to work due to age or other reasons. They are described as being “trapped” due to a series of problems.

Religious groups, the backbone of aid in the 1970s

Many of the issues discussed, through interviews with frontline workers and a man who had lived in the area for years, are familiar, though some seem simplified. At the same time, some of the problem-solving mechanisms have evolved significantly over the ensuing years.

While today faith-based organizations are heavily involved in efforts, the religious nature was often quite strong in the late 1960s and early 1970s, says George Marks, who was asked about life the low.

“You see, they have these rescue missions, you know, where a person will sit for at least half an hour or an hour and listen to religious programs,” Marks explains. “And then he gets really, really bad food, or in one case, he gets really, really shocking food.”

Locals feel compelled to do so, he says, because rent often accounted for more than half of welfare checks. As these funds dried up, the missions in the area were the only place to go.

“If they go to the Salvation Army for socks, or something, they almost have to pledge to take Christ to their hearts to get a pair of socks,” he says.

Money, of course, is a major factor, as is rent eating up a good chunk of welfare checks. Marks explains that he received $93.50 a month in welfare and $40 for rent.

DTES residents recall being treated ‘like a fool’

“People on welfare now are worse off than I was then, you know, because they, you know, the government gave them and gave them 40 or 50 dollars more a month to live,” he said. “But in the meantime, the cost of living has gone up so much that they should have been given an extra $100 a month to live on.”

This traps people there, he continues, and makes them dependent on the services concentrated there. At the same time, people often became friends, creating another reason not to leave.

Issues related to the social protection system are also addressed; at the time, an administration system was set up for people who were thought to be wasting their money. It was intended to prevent people from spending all their money on alcohol, but essentially meant that a “responsible person, usually a member of the clergy or a social worker” would control someone’s money. People remember being treated “like fools”.

The faulty system meant people who had been robbed multiple times could find themselves trapped, and one frontline worker tells the story of a woman who was ‘administered’ for nine months after giving birth because she was ill at the time of the birth. she agreed, not knowing what it really meant.

“She was given so much of her check, as much as the administrator felt she needed, not what the woman felt she needed,” the worker said. “If she wanted to go to a show or go somewhere with her baby and she wished she had extra money, that was too bad.”

Another difference in Vancouver at the time is that the Downtown Eastside was no different from other neighborhoods. One of the frontline workers notes that there were similar issues at Fraserview and Grandview. In fact, one of Vancouver’s most popular neighborhoods found itself in a similar situation.

“We have problems in Kitsilano and some of the problems in Kitsilano are obvious because they are exposed, just like the problems in the Downtown Eastside,” she says, noting that it is a good time for people to be aware. involve in helping because the “problems are all so obvious”.

Residents are ‘exploited, oppressed, abused and really fucked up’

However, Marks notes that the situation is that the Downtown Eastside is full of people who have cut themselves off from everyone else.

“So many times by so many people, they’ve been exploited, oppressed, abused and really fucked up,” he says. “Everyone in this community is left out from everyone else because they don’t trust anyone anymore,” he says.

Notably, the show only briefly touches on certain issues, or does not discuss them at all. Drugs are not mentioned once, and addiction is only implied with respect to alcohol. And while one can see where mental health issues may be part of what’s going on, it’s never discussed (Marks was “dumped on Skid Road” after leaving Riverview Hospital).

The show is a half-hour show created in 1971, according to the City of Vancouver Archives; while the creator is listed as Vancouver Co-operative Radio, this organization did not exist until 1974. It was probably a precursor to the co-operative which produced it.

Listen to the entire show via the video player at the top.

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