Vancouver Province column: Heritage festival battles to survive as Cracktown gobbles up Japantown

The Province
Monday, July 23, 2007

The Powell Street Festival, Vancouver’s annual celebration of Japanese-Canadian culture, is just around the corner.

From tea ceremonies to sumo wrestling to the traditional salmon barbeque, the August 4 and 5 event promises festival-goers plenty of culinary adventures.

But beyond the noodle stands and face-painting tents, this picture of good times quickly takes a turn for the worse.

That’s because the festival’s venue, Oppenheimer Park, lies in the heart of the Downtown Eastside.

The park itself, and the surrounding Powell Street neighbourhood, comprise the area known as Japantown, which used to be the urban heart of the Japanese-Canadian community — until the forced relocation of the Second World War effectively killed the area’s pulse.

Over the years, the shops and restaurants that used to flourish here have either shut down or moved away.

And a culture of hopelessness and homelessness has taken their place.

On a recent jaunt through the area, I saw an improvised squat set up on the sidewalk of Alexander Street, less than a block away from a Japanese school and cultural centre.

Nearby Oppenheimer Park was a depressing scene of drug addiction and vagrancy. On the playground, there was a not a child to be seen — and with good reason.

Apart from a few historical markers, any connection to the past has been lost.

Most Lower Mainlanders have no idea that Japantown even exists. And those few who do have written it off as dead.

So I was as surprised as anyone when it showed up on the Heritage Vancouver Society’s Top 10 Endangered Sites list earlier this year.

Society president Donald Luxton told me recently that Japantown was included because the City of Vancouver continues to overlook this historic site.

“It is historically extremely valuable, but there has been no attempt to review its heritage resources,” said Luxton, who points out that incentives to fix up other old neighbourhoods, like Chinatown and Gastown, have not been applied here.

In spite of this sorry state of affairs, Powell Street Festival organizers are still putting a positive spin on things.

General manager Miko Hoffman told me the festival engages people who live in Oppenheimer Park and other locals to work as staff or volunteers.

However, it’s clear there isn’t a lot to celebrate here.

“It’s a real shame that the park has deteriorated to such an extent, and there are definitely safety and security issues . . .” said Hoffman.

“But we feel that the current neighbourhood is as much a part of the festival’s community as anyone else, and we don’t have any intentions of leaving.” Fair enough.

But it doesn’t take away from the fact that, in 2007, Japantown has been swallowed whole by Cracktown.

For B.C. heritage buffs, any rescue efforts may already be too late.

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Filed under Culture, Heritage, Law and Order, Neighbourhoods, Parks, Vancouver, Vancouver Province Columns

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