Arts Burst Forth in City's Heart

Last year's centennial celebrations for the Carnegie Community Centre were the opening salvos of an initiative that's set to revitalize Vancouver's most maligned and misunderstood neighbourhood from within. The 100th-anniversary festivities culminated in a production of In the Heart of a City, a play that brought together hundreds of local people as actors and volunteers. Now its artistic producer, Terry Hunter, is helming an even more ambitious and far-reaching project.

The First Annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is a 10-day explosion of the area's pent-up creativity. "It's all about developing community--economically, socially, artistically--by linking up different groups and individuals," says Hunter, interviewed in his Strathcona home. "So what you get is the Carnegie Centre and Vancouver Moving Theatre, of which I'm the executive director, building up a relationship, and all of us working with the other community centres, the galleries, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen [classical Chinese] gardens, the [local] business-improvement association, and all the artists, dancers, and musicians to create a shared vision of the future."

The festival--which runs from Friday to next Sunday (October 8 to 17)--is a true cornucopia of the arts, with more than 45 events presented at more than 20 locations throughout the neighbourhood. (For complete listings, go to "We've got everything from gallery shows to theatre, music, spoken word, live broadcasts from Co-op Radio, forums, workshops, and a whole gamut of activities wrapped under our banner," Hunter says. "The whole thing will be launched by Mayor Larry Campbell at the Carnegie. It's going to be amazing."

Hunter is particularly pleased that the mayor will also attend the Festival Gala, a showcase of Downtown Eastside artists at the Japanese Hall (487 Alexander Street) on Sunday (October 10), starting at 2 p.m. Among the performers are the all-female drumming troupe Sawagi Taiko; the singers of the Aboriginal Women's Ensemble; and the five-piece SWARM experimental percussion-and-movement group, whose members appear on the cover of the festival program.

"SWARM is like taking taiko drumming, adapting it for the West, urbanizing it for the inner city, and playing on incredible sculpted instruments," Hunter explains. "They're made out of recycled material like exhaust pipe, plungers, and garbage cans by Bill Wallace, who's the group's founder and director. It's hard to believe all the energy these guys release, especially in kids."

The gala lineup also includes the Gospel Experience Choir, a small ensemble that harks back to the early decades of the last century, when the Downtown Eastside had a thriving black community. It was centred on Hogan's Alley, destroyed in the '60s to make way for the Georgia Viaduct. "Not many people know that Jimi Hendrix's grandmother lived here, for instance, or that [Vancouver singer] Lovena Fox's father had a jazz club on Hastings called the Harlem Nocturne," Hunter notes. "A lot of the black people in the city can trace their roots to this neighbourhood, and this is an acknowledgment of all that."

The area's rich heritage is the focus of four weekend history walks, starting from St. James Anglican Church (303 East Cordova Street) at 10:30 a.m. this Saturday and Sunday (October 9 and 10) and next (October 16 and 17). A trio of actors will act as guides. "The text comes from [local resident and author] John Atkin, who's a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the neighbourhood," Hunter says. "We'll circle all around Main and Hastings to Gastown, Chinatown, Japantown, and Strathcona."

The latest addition to Vancouver's roster of festivals promises something for everyone with an open heart and an open mind.