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April 7, 2015 at 8:00 AM

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SPOTLIGHT ON: Hastings Crossing BIA Living History Documentary

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(Editor’s Note: The HxBIA Living History Indiegogo campaign runs until April 12th. To donate, click here.)

by Jonathan Bleackley

While to many people, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside invokes a particular narrative, the area has been many things through its history: Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood and main street, its entertainment district, an extension of Chinatown, an entry point for new immigrants, a place to go out on the town in the big city for resource workers coming in from remote bush camps, and a site of activism, and political and social awakening. It is this diverse and complex history which the Hastings Crossing BIA (HxBIA) is unearthing and promoting through their Living History Project, an ongoing project to create several short documentaries celebrating the lesser-known histories of the area.

The first of these documentaries, currently under production, focuses on the historic Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, a supper club turned punk dive that operated from the 1950s to the early 1980s and whose history reflects many of the changes, issues and challenges the neighbourhood and Vancouver at large were going through in those decades. The HxBIA is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to fund the final stages of this documentary and provide seed money for the next round. I had a chance to sit down with Wes Regan, Executive Director of HxBIA, to discuss the project and how it fit within the organization’s broader mandate.

Social Enterprise Values & BIAs

While HxBIA conducts many of the same activities as a traditional BIA, such as promoting neighbourhood merchants, negotiating with the city on their behalf and carrying out street maintenance and beautification projects, it seeks to do so through the values of social enterprise – infusing broader environmental and social goals, as well as transparency and community engagement, into the BIA model. At the forefront of this practice is acknowledging the impact that BIA policies and undertakings have on the existing communities and asking how those policies can be used to improve the lives of local residents, such as through providing employment opportunities or by democratizing discussions about the the local economy.

Increasingly, BIAs have adopted the role of placemaker; branding neighbourhoods, not only through banners and advertising, but through promoting a distinct and unified identity for the neighbourhood. Critics of this process argue that these identities are often more marketing than a reflection of reality; an image of what some business owners want the neighbourhood to be percieved as – safe, hip, charming, homogenous, depoliticized – rather than the messy realities of race, economics, politics and activism which creates actual history. The Living History Project is a concerted effort to shift this discussion by unpacking the identity of the DTES through it’s history in order to understand how the neighbourhood has gotten to where it is and to begin a discussion about how that history informs where it will go in the future.

The History: Supper Club & Punk 

HxBIA chose the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret as the first topic in the project because the history of the club reflects many of the issues, forces and communities that have been active in the neighbourhood over the past 60 years. Starting as a supper and dance club in the early 50s and appealing to blue collar and working classes, the club also played a role in the culture of Chinatown and, in the 60s, became part of the touring circle for psychedlic and 60s rock bands. Rumours still persist over whether Hendrix played there or not, even unofficially. By the 70s and 80s, the club had transformed again as an incubator and gathering space for the local punk scene. Punks bands such as DOA, Subhumans, and Young Canadians all got their start there. The rocker and activist Joey “Shithead” Keithley of DOA was interviewed for the documentary, as were members of the band 54-40, who got their start in the club and later recovered its famous neon sign from the trash heap. Finally, after being neglected for over a decade, the club has been reinvented again, as the SBC Restaurant, an indoor skatepark and restaurant. emphasizing local and accessible food.

Wes recalled an early event from the project where photos from the club’s punk heyday were put on display. Members of the public reminsced on the role of the venue not only in supporting music and the arts, but also the social connection in the early Vancouver punk scene, as well as the DIY asthetics and social consciousness of those involved. It was this idea – of how much public life so often actualy happens in private spaces, be they night clubs, coffeeshops or restaurants – which Wes saw some members of the HxBIA grapple with on daily basis. The area the BIA represents, situated just south of Gastown, has been experiencing dramatic changes over the last decade. New businesses and development have come into the neighbourhood, rents have risen dramatically and the gentrification vs revitalization debate has roared. At the same time, issues of poverty, drug use, mental health and stigmatization persist. Businesses in the area, most of which are small and locally owned, many of which desire to provide a space for community and to meet the needs of local residents, have struggled with how to balance the business requirments and the realities of the market with the desire to promote spaces where people can meet, hang out and form communities. The Living History Project celebrates the ability of the Smilin’ Buddha, and other, now forgotten, clubs, cafes and restaurants to negotiate the line between being a business and being an impromptu living room for various communities and reminds us of the need to protect and support local businesses, not only for economic reasons, but also for the important role they can play as cultural spaces.

Looking Ahead

When asked what was next for the Living History project, Wes said that HxBIA was exploring a variety of options, but that there seems to be interest in recording the history of the loggers, longshore and other resource workers in the neighbourhood. These groups drove and influenced the creation of the city and much of their legacy, in the form of SROs, a sizeable concentration of bars and history of labour and social activism, still persists in the DTES.

Besides helping to document an important time in Vancouver’s history, the Indiegogo campaign features impressive perks, ranging from dinner at local restaurants to a chance to skate SBC with rapper Moka Only or to get a guitar signed by Joey Shithead of DOA.

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