DTES Drinkers Parklet Challenges Decades of Displacement

Photo: PHS Drinkers Lounge Community Managed Alcohol Program members celebrate the opening of the site’s new permanent parklet. Program participants and community members who rely on public spaces can drink in the parklet without fear of legal harassment, ticketing, or liquor pour-outs. Photo by George Sedore.

March 2023: Vancouver, Downtown Eastside 

The PHS Drinkers Lounge Community Managed Alcohol Program has at last installed a brand new parklet for drinkers in the DTES. Parklets are small outdoor public spaces that create room to sit, socialize, and walk. They are built where streetside parking spaces once sat, and are created through a lengthy approval process from the City of Vancouver. Whereas drinking alcohol in a public place is usually against the law in Vancouver, curbside parklets and plazas can be made into legal drinking spaces, a designation sought by many bars and restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic. For illicit drinkers – heavy, long-term drinkers who use non-beverage alcohols (i.e listerine) or people who drink in ways that are criminalized (i.e in public spaces due to housing precarity) – the prospect of an outdoor space to escape from the ever present risk of a ticket or potentially dangerous pour-out is especially meaningful.

The long sought parklet at the Drinkers Lounge is not striking – it is a small outcropping of composite decking that extends from the curb in front of 111 Princess Avenue, surrounded by metal rails. It is also not entirely new. Complaints from Strathcona residents and businesses about illicit drinkers gathering on the 800 block of East Hastings, as they have for decades, prompted the City of Vancouver to sanction a section of road as a temporary parklet at the Drinkers Lounge in 2021. Instead, the new parklet’s uniqueness stems from its significance to the people who use it, its permanence, and its relationship to decades of drinker displacement. For over 50 years, public infrastructure in the Downtown Eastside has been targeted for removal at the expense of community residents, especially drinkers. Now, the community considers the Drinkers Lounge parklet to be an act of resistance to policies that have worked to displace many of its most marginalized members for so long.

What does it mean to have a drinkers parklet?

The parklet has had a tremendously positive impact. When the installation was finished, members of the Drinkers Lounge showed their appreciation by immediately running outside to enjoy the newly sustainable area. Importantly, the parklet provides a space where drinkers are protected from legal harassment and liquor pour-outs, which have placed them at risk of withdrawal and criminalization for decades. As the parklet was being set up, a police car happened to park there. When the members went outside, they joyfully called to the constables, offering them drinks and reveling in their security within the parklet. They were free to crack their beers without the threat of police sanctions. We then took the opportunity to ask the members how they felt about the new infrastructure:

“I like the parklet, it makes our Lounge look better. I can see a lot of barbecues happening with the parklet here, and I feel that the community is tidier and neat to look at.”

“I have to agree with T, lookin good!”

“I love it at the Lounge cause we can hangout with family & friends and just drink and get stoned.”

“The parklet looks legit for members, and it appears to be safer for drinkers that may fall.”

“Looks super fun for summer time.”

“It looks ok, maybe it could use a picnic table, a stripper pole, and a bunch of colorful big chairs with umbrellas!”

“Perhaps we could also use a drunk crossing or warning sign for a 30 km zone! For drivers to be aware of drinkers in the area and to be aware of the surroundings.”

“Thank you for the patio. We all, as members, feel good and it’s helping us feel good. I can try to bring more flowers for the patio. Thanks.

For a community of peers that is often overlooked by the harm reduction movement, the parklet represents who we are, steadfast in wanting to enjoy public spaces and keep one another safe, and makes the site itself a landmark. 

The Parklet’s Place in History

This small but momentous win for drinkers is especially significant when set against the extended history of drug user activism in the DTES, a place where outdoor seating areas are noticeably absent as a result of organized, oftentimes City-led displacement and the gradual privatization of scarce public spaces. Following complaints about drinkers and people who use other drugs gathering in public – usually because their housing circumstances prevent them from gathering anywhere else – amenities like park benches, bus stops, and rain shelters have been gradually removed or allowed to fall into disrepair. The result is harm for drinkers; public gathering places and shelters are places for connection, mutual-aid, rest when too intoxicated, peer support, sharing resources, and finding relief from extreme weather. As these places become increasingly hard to find, precariously housed people who use illicit alcohol are becoming more isolated, prone to falls, and placed at risk of exposure.

Illicit drinkers have always been highly visible, and such visibility has historically been viewed as a threat to the potential profitability of the neighborhood. Since the early 1950s, business interests, police, local politicians, and public health officials have dehumanized illicit drinkers as “urban blight” and taken measures to render the neighborhood environment hostile for them. One notable example is the orchestrated threat of capital strike from Hastings Street businesses in 1972, who refused to contribute to a neighborhood beautification scheme unless seating in Pigeon Park was destroyed in order to push drinkers, who had congregated there for years, elsewhere. While we focus on this incident, Christine Hagemoen has written elsewhere on the park’s contested past. Writing in support of the park’s destruction in 1972, The Vancouver Sun columnist Harvey Oberfeld lamented:

Let’s face it, the battle for Pigeon Park has been lost… the park no longer attracts those people who it was meant to serve, instead it has become infested with drunks, prostitutes, panhandlers, and general filth.” (The Vancouver Sun, March 16th, 1972)

There are specific people and groups involved on both sides of this supposed battle, according to Oberfeld. On one side were the aging, increasingly poor, and more frequently Indigenous SRO residents, many among them illicit drinkers and/or sex workers, who gathered in their neighborhood park. On the other were those people it was meant to serve, apparently referring to adjacent property owners, a cartel of large businesses dependent on DTES resident spending but resentful of visible poverty, and the more affluent passersby. Pigeon Park could not remain “a congregating point for loungers’ ‘ because apparently, the wrong people were lounging. The City of Vancouver agreed to the businesses’ demands, and jackhammers were subsequently taken to Pigeon Park’s benches as a condition of its upgrading. The Improvement for the Downtown East Area Association (IDEAS), who had organized the threat that precipitated the move, celebrated. We can assume that drinkers, SRO tenants, and sex workers were simply forced elsewhere: somewhere further away from community and relative safety. The park’s seating was eventually restored by a campaign led by the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) and COPE alderman Harry Rankin. However, organized capital had flexed its ability to shape DTES unilaterally and as it saw fit, using the visible marginalization of illicit drinkers as a convenient justification for the violent reclaiming of space termed “lost” to the community to which it belonged in the first place. The removal of benches from Pigeon Park is a useful example of the historical conditions that EIDGE and Drinkers Lounge members are organizing to resist.

Photo: Workers destroy seating at Pigeon Park at the request of large businesses on Hastings Street. The Vancouver Sun, November 28th, 1972.

In addition to the new parklet, research and advocacy work by EIDGE and Drinkers Lounge members has led to the installation of new benches in the DTES after decades of neglect. The permanence of these new amenities following decades of pressure against spaces created and claimed by drinkers is incredibly novel. Yet conditions in the DTES today are not entirely different from the early 1970s. 

Development pressures continue to drive gentrification in the area, most noticeably through SRO conversion, the opening of new high-end storefronts where community spaces once existed, and the replacement of beer parlors with expensive cocktail bars. Drinkers also continue to face discrimination when accessing services, and revanchist attempts to remove the bus stop from the 800 block of Hastings are still underway. Pigeon Park itself continues to be a site of neighborhood struggle that places illicit drinkers, who continue to congregate there, in conflict with real estate and business interests. In 2021, resident advocates reported that residents’ access to the park continued to be obstructed by private development near the site, leading Jen St. Denis to document that “Developer Millennium has used the north corner of Pigeon Park to store construction material and equipment for the past two years. Around half the park is shut out behind a fence.” More recently, EIDGE members have reported tense interactions with private security personnel hired to monitor the entrance to the new high-end condominiums that overlook Pigeon Park and other areas. The “battle” for the site, to use Harvey Oberfeld’s words, is ongoing. 

Today, however, illicit drinkers are organizing to improve the services they access and to protect the neighborhood they have resided in long before the condominium owners arrived. The new, already beloved, parklet at the Drinkers Lounge is the result of this effort.