On most nice days, Delanye Azrael hops across the street from her apartment building to read in Oppenheimer Park.
Occupying one city block in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the park may not be much to look at, with no pretty flower gardens and dancing water fountains. It actually has quite a rough image, as a gathering place for homeless and often drug-dependent people with dope dealers always close by.
But for many residents in the community like Azrael, Oppenheimer Park is more than just one of the few public spaces where they can sit down on a patch of grass to relax or let their kids loose in the playground. For them, the park is an extension of their homes.
That’s why Azrael considered it an offensive act when a tall fence covered with a dark tarp went up and closed off the entire park on June 15, while bulldozers ripped up the ground, rendering it a jagged bit of urban land.
Using yellow tape and strips of colourful clothing, the community artist immediately went to work, embroidering her outrage in huge letters on the webbing of the steel barrier facing her apartment on the 400 block of Cordova Street.
When the feisty resident spoke to the Georgia Straight on a recent Sunday morning, she was fixing a letter A in the slogan, which reads: “An offence against our neighbourhood.”
“This was completely not what we have talked about in the meetings that I went to,” Azrael said about the total closure of the park. “I expressed a lot of concern, and many other people did too, as to how that would disrupt the neighbourhood. This park is the heart of our community. This is our living room.”
At a cost of $2.3 million, the Vancouver park board is redeveloping the almost one-hectare park bounded on the west by Dunlevy Avenue and on the east by Jackson Avenue, with Cordova and Powell streets skirting its southern and northern sides, respectively. It will have new walkways, improved drainage, and a new field house that will be located at the Jackson Avenue side of the field.
Construction is expected to be completed on February 5 next year, just before the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games open. Until then, residents and regular visitors will have to do without Oppenheimer Park.
Vision Vancouver park board commissioner Sarah Blyth told the Straight in a phone interview that fencing the park is a “necessary inconvenience”.
If the park upgrade were done in phases, according to Blyth, the project might encounter delays and become more costly. “We want to see this project done in six months or as soon as possible so residents can start using it again,” she said.
Ann Livingston lives in a nearby building just west of Main Street, and she used to walk through the park with her son on the way to a nearby daycare centre.
“I go through it at 8:30 [a.m.], back through it at 9, back through it at 4 [p.m.], back through it at 5, and I would count the number of people in the park, and routinely in this month of the year there’s 200 people in the park,” Livingston told the Straight.
Livingston, a volunteer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, noted that the Downtown Eastside is the most park-poor area in the city, and the closure of Oppenheimer Park isn’t helping any.
Worse, according to Livingston, drug users who used to frequent the park are now turning up in alleys south of Hastings Street, potentially creating conflict with residents in the Strathcona community. This, she fears, may just invite intense police crackdowns.
It’s not only Oppenheimer Park that’s under construction, Livingston noted during a weekend walk through the Downtown Eastside. Pigeon Park, a 3,000-square-foot triangular paved plaza at the corner of West Hastings and Carrall streets that is a popular resting spot for locals, is also undergoing renovation. Construction signs have sprouted on various Hastings Street curbs to the west and east of Main Street.
According to Livingston, much of Hastings Street, a major corridor, will be repaved between Carrall Street and Clark Drive. “The whole neighbourhood is in a state of torn-up-ness,” she said.
Vancouver Green park commissioner Stuart Mackinnon acknowledged that some residents aren’t happy about the closure of Oppenheimer Park and wanted a phased redevelopment.
“I understand that the way it was designed, it has to be done all at once,” Mackinnon told the Straight. “It’s just the nature of the design. The park board has asked the city if they would close one of the streets beside the park and allow that to be used by the residents as a recreational area. But as far as I know, we haven’t heard back from the city.”
Mackinnon added that the situation is just unfortunate. “The construction industry is such that we have to be able to construct when they’re available. Summertime is the best time, of course, for construction. It’s one of these unfortunate things that when park redevelopment happens, parks generally have to be closed. We’re hoping that the residents will be happy with the redevelopment.”
Azrael claimed that not much is actually being done at the park. In the week before she talked with the Straight on July 5, she said, the only work that went on was that somebody came in to turn on earth-moving machinery and move some dirt back and forth.
It’s a “tactic” that’s hurting people, according to Azrael. “That is part of moving people,” she said. “This is social control.”