Finding Hope in Shadows in the Downtown Eastside

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      Tom Quirk sits on a bench in Crab Park at the north end of Main Street, overlooking the docks. “Everybody basically just needs to be loved, wants to belong, and wants to feel useful—that’s it,” he says.

      Quirk, a 58-year-old former marine worker, is prone to philosophize. In a chapter of Hope in Shadows (Arsenal Pulp Press, $19.95)—a newly published collection of personal stories and photographs from residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—Quirk openly recounts his binge drug use, his recovery, and the deaths of close friends, peppering his tale with references to psychics, biblical psalms, and the workings of fate.

      In conversation with the Straight, he weaves from acupuncture to politics to art. “A lot of what I can attribute my growth to is being involved with community down here and committing to living in the solution,” he says, explaining that he no longer lives in the Downtown Eastside but spends much of his time doing outreach work in the neighbourhood.

      “People go by on the bus here and they shudder. But in fact there is a community here. And what’s amazing is it’s very egalitarian. It took me a while to realize that. Nobody thinks they’re better than anybody else.”¦everybody’s sort of bumping along together. There is a lot of camaraderie and openness.”

      It’s this sense of kinship and peer support that, above all else, comes through in the 32 intimate, engaging stories in Hope in Shadows. Compiled by local writers Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome as a labour of love, the book grew out of an annual photo contest run by Pivot Legal Society, in which Downtown Eastside residents are given disposable cameras, and winning shots are displayed in galleries and reproduced in calendar form.

      Cran and Jerome take readers beyond the photographs, through first-person narratives constructed from interviews with the subjects—or, in some cases, the creators—of the images.

      The stories don’t always make for easy reading—abuse, neglect, and mental illness are common themes—but they crackle with energy, individuality, and often a determination to be heard. From Edie Wild’s comical rant about bedbugs to Skyla’s searing memoir of child prostitution, the voices speak loudly and reverberate long after the book is closed.

      “People told us things that were so traumatic,” Jerome says, in conversation at a coffee shop on Commercial Drive that seems a world away from Quirk’s stomping grounds. “When you’re sitting in front of someone and they’re telling you detail for detail how their child died or how their brother got shot or how they were abused as children in horrific ways, you walk away from that just feeling like ”˜Wow, you’re amazing for being alive. You’re amazing for surviving your life.’ ”

      Quirk would probably agree. “Everyone is a worthwhile person, no matter who you are,” he says as a floatplane hums above. “Self-esteem is a big issue down here. Especially when you’re bumping along the bottom, you’re poor, you’re trapped in addiction, people are going by on the bus looking at you. So it’s important for people to be encouraged and tell their stories.”