Downtown Eastside demonstrates its love—and artistry—in Heart of the City Festival

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      Terry Hunter has been a witness to history in his 45 years living in Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood.

      The artistic producer of the 17th annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival has seen his neighbours cope with devastating overdose crises at different times, the tragedy of missing women and girls, growing homelessness, and increasing inequality.

      He’s also seen many positive things, including an Indigenous and artistic revival.

      And Hunter vividly recalls when a former Skid Road alcoholic with a brilliant mind—Bruce Eriksen—rallied the neighbourhood in the 1970s to advocate for a community centre. This story is told so eloquently in a memoir by the late Eriksen’s partner, former Vancouver East MP Libby Davies, who also joined the fight as a young social activist.

      If we could wave a magic wand, we would rename the Carnegie Community Centre after Libby Davies.

      So it seems fitting that Hunter and coproducer Savannah Walling would invite Davies to play a prominent role in this year’s festival, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Carnegie Community Centre at the corner of Main and Hastings streets.

      Davies will host an online workshop on how to drive change through existing political structures.

      In addition, the festival will play a recording of Davies reading her book, Outside In: A Political Memoir, at a livestreamed tribute to the Carnegie Community Centre on October 28. It will be hosted by Hunter.

      Pandemic created uncertainty

      These are two of about 100 events taking place at this year’s Heart of the City, which continues for 12 days, starting next Wednesday (October 28).

      But it almost didn’t happen, thanks to the pandemic. That’s because Hunter and Walling considered moving it to the spring of next year. There was also talk of reducing it to three or five days.

      “We even played with the idea that we could move it up into August and do it during the summertime as an outdoor festival,” Hunter told the Straight by phone. “But all those ideas had complications to them.”

      So they stuck to their traditional schedule of holding Heart of the City in the last week of October and first week of November. And much to their surprise, the Downtown Eastside community was incredibly enthusiastic, notwithstanding the COVID-19 outbreak.

      This year’s program guide is 56 pages, the exact same length as last year’s.

      “It’s been a really difficult process because everybody is working differently,” Hunter conceded. “Everyone is working on the phone or via Zoom. And then everybody has to shift to different platforms.”

      This tribute to Bob Sarti appears in the Heart of the City Festival program.

      He and Walling were also saddened by the death of retired journalist Bob Sarti shortly before the program went to the printer. He devoted enormous time volunteering at the Carnegie Centre, as well as writing musicals about the people who lived in the community.

      Walling rushed a tribute to Sarti into the document, including a photo him with Bruce Eriksen, along with this Sarti quote: “I began to understand what Bruce was driving at. He wanted to force the city to extend its own laws in the neighbourhood and respect the people in it.”

      Hunter said that Sarti refused efforts to hold a going-away party for him when he was about to move to the Gulf Islands. Rather than standing on-stage and hearing tributes, Sarti preferred to spend his final day at the Carnegie Community Centre in the kitchen, cooking a huge vat of chilli, which he served to local residents.

      “When the mockup [of Sarti in the program guide] came to me and I looked at it, tears welled up in my eyes,” Hunter said.

      Dalannah Gail Bowen is not only a local blues-singing legend, she's also been deeply involved in neighbourhood issues.
      David Cooper

      Spotlight on the East End 

      This is really what Heart of the City is all about—celebrating the generous spirit of the neighbourhood and honouring its pioneers—as well as promoting arts and culture.

      Among the elders being recognized this year are blues singer Dalannah Gail Bowen on October 29 and longtime head-tax, antipoverty, and environmental activist Sid Chow Tan on November 3. (The complete program is available here.)

      Another highlight will be the Vancouver Cantonese Opera presenting a "virtual party" with a live performance, The Art of Water Sleeves. It will be led by Rosa Cheng on October 29.

      Khari McClelland is the artist in residence at this year's festival.
      David Cooper

      When Hunter was asked which events are his favourites at this year’s festival, he responded: “Oh, my God, which child do I like best? It’s really hard.”

      Then he expressed excitement about a group of five culturally diverse musicians with ties to the Downtown Eastside who were videotaped at Afterlife Studio.

      This October 30 event, called Spotlight on the East End, will feature Khari Wendell McClelland, Rup Sidhu, Hannah Walker and friends, Shon Wong and friends, and Geoff Berner.

      Musician Geoff Berner is vocal advocate for a fairer deal for the city's downtrodden.
      Genevieve Buechner

      Hunter is also thrilled that Heart of the City will present a screening of Susanne Tabata’s 25-minute film, “Survivors Totem Pole”, followed by a question-and-answer session. This takes place online on October 30.

      “The short story is it was created and carved in the neighbourhood and raised in Pigeon Park at Carrall and Hastings streets in 2016,” Hunter said. “It was a huge community effort.”

      Heart of the City helped the residents and the carver, Skundaal (Bernie Williams), obtain support for this initiative from the city.

      “The film really needs to be seen by the wider public,” Hunter said. “It’s a really important story and a really important achievement that this community has been able to realize.

      And on Halloween night, Heart of the City will present the DTES Front and Centre Showcase: All Together Now. It includes a long list of musicians, storytellers, spoken-word artists, singers, actors, and dancers, including Larissa Healey (photographed below), who will be joined by John Wolf and Pavo.

      Anishinabek dancer Larissa Healey will be part of the DTES Front and Centre Showcase: All Together Now at the Heart of the City Festival.
      David Cooper