Neighbours decry Oppenheimer Park closure

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      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.”




      Jul 9, 2009 at 10:40am

      This closure is conveniently timed to relocate folks for months before the Olympics, perhaps in the hope they won't immediately come back when it's done? Clever, but not a real solution.


      Jul 9, 2009 at 12:05pm

      EVERYONE has been inconvenienced. So, the city is actually improving things (under the veil of 2010) and people are still bitching. It's not going to change that the Olympics are coming. Why not look at it like it's a good thing and stop whining. The park is being improved, why is that a bad thing? Find another park for awhile. The world doesn't bow at your feet.

      I think people complain just to have something to do. I suggest getting a job.

      Kidding Right?

      Jul 9, 2009 at 12:08pm

      Are you kidding me? It's about time Oppenheimer Park had some upgrades done to it! How it stood before the fence went up was a total disgrace to the City. Why is it okay for this park to be infested with drug dealers and drug users so that no one else can access the park other than these kinds of people? This park should be redone with more money to it so that it becomes a park where everyone is welcomed just like any other neighbourhood in Vancouver. Stop treating the DTES as a ghetto, it'll only continue to act like one.


      Jul 9, 2009 at 1:09pm

      This article bugs me. I live on Powell. The 200 drug users that usually occupy the park have obviously found a voice to the media in Livingston. Would she allow her child to "frolic" in the park amidst spent needles, crack vials and vomit? Maybe her paid job at VANDU demands her support of the drug users that have overrun the area. The drug dealers are the only ones that don't want this area gentrified; stop telling their story, please!

      ray irvine

      Jul 9, 2009 at 1:32pm

      There is just no pleasing drug addicts! They get free rigs, a "safe" place to shoot up, a free pass by law inforcement when they get high on public streets and now the park they go to waste their drug hazzed afternoons is being improved. Oh the humanity! Kick your drug addiction, get a legal job, pay some taxes and maybe society will be willing to listen to you. Until then STFU junkie!


      Jul 9, 2009 at 1:35pm

      I work 1 block away from the park. The bottomline is that it needs an upgrade. Why should anyone apologize for spending millions to upgrade a facility that will be more accessible for everyone in the near future. Stop complaining.
      There is a much larger park with a great view and right on the water 2 blocks away in Crab Park. It's amazingly under used. Use the effort that you would use to protest and complain and walk a few blocks for a different experience.,+Vanc...(Oppenheimer+Park)&daddr=Crab+Park+%4049.285306,-123.102356&hl=en&geocode=FRYA8AId87ap-CEoLXZYQKxp5w%3BFboI8AIdbJup-A&mra=cc&dirflg=w&sll=49.283848,-123.098384&sspn=0.004486,0.009645&ie=UTF8&z=17

      Trash Removal

      Jul 9, 2009 at 3:19pm

      It's about time that Oppenheimer Park is undergoing an improvement project. It's time to take out the trash and clean up the park for society to enjoy. And by society, I mean human beings who are actually part of the community, not the human garbage that seeks to destroy the community, and themselves. These people have opted out of society, and have turned a once beautiful and thriving area of our downtown into a veritable sesspool, turning our city streets, parks, and laneways into a sewer. Why should the drug addicts, the drug dealers, and the low-life criminal elements be allowed to dominate, destroy, and run rough-shod over what does not belong to them? They have stolen our neighborhoods, stolen our safety, and have the audacity to steal our parks. These menances feel the unmitigated entitlement to take what they want and give nothing in return but a steaming pile of feces. These "people" have chosen their paths in life, have chosen to take the selfish, self-pitying, self-indulgent low road, and should not be rewarded for it at the expense of those who have chosen to live a positive, contributory life as part of something greater than their own individual selves. The parks belong to those who build them with their tax dollars, who build them with their contribution of creating a positive safe environment for their fellow human to thrive. Oppenheimer Park should be a safe haven for children to play, for hard-working yet economically disadvantaged community members to relax during their hard-earned time off in a pleasant atmosphere, and for those unable to work due to age or disability to enjoy a place where they can commune with their community in a positive manner, enjoying the fruits of a supportive community, instead of being surrounded by a landfill of survivalist predators, which has long been the case at Oppenheimer Park. It is well past time for change at this park, and if it takes city leaders to oust the criminal element and those hell-bent on destroying and denigrating themeselves and the neighborhood, then so be it. While I feel for the neighbors in Strathcona now having to deal with the migrating menance, the "intense police crackdowns" that this migration will hopefully incite is much needed, and long overdue. Return the streets and parks to the people who've earned them and their place in society. Time to take out the trash!


      Jul 10, 2009 at 11:33am

      It's unfortunate that instead of doing his research, this writer decided to tell the same old DTES sob story. I happen to know some people involved with this project and I can tell you that the goal of the park changes is to make Oppenheimer a safer and more welcoming place for ALL residents of the DTES. What Azrael so acutely describes as "moving dirt back and forth" is actually a complete overhaul of the drainage system so that during five months of rain the park won't continue to be a sloppy, disgusting, ankle-deep-in-mud mess. I can also tell you that when they dug up the "childrens play area" they found hundreds upon hundreds of needles in the sand. When the new play area opens it won't use sand at all, another IMPROVEMENT to make the park safer for people just like Azrael, who take their kids to the park. It boggles my mind as to why this article uses the descriptions of someone who has no idea what is going on behind the scenes instead of talking to those who know what the plans for the park actually are. Sensationalism is one thing, but interviewing an ignorant DTES resident for the sake of some standard quips instead of doing your due diligence as a reporter is another.

      About Time

      Jul 10, 2009 at 2:19pm

      The real news here is that the city is finally cleaning up the park, a job that is long overdue. Thumbs down to Livingston and Azrael's spineless attempts to portray something positive happening in their neighborhood as an instance of social control.


      Jul 10, 2009 at 2:48pm

      Is this woman serious? That park is a complete shitbox! It's been overrun with junkies and their dealers, so, I'm glad to see them pushed out. I only hope the city can keep them out when it's all done because they will just litter it with used needles again. Those of us who live and work in the DTES are sick and tired of the lawlessness and the bleeding hearts who want to preserve this disgusting ghetto as is. Move on!