There aren’t many parks in Vancouver that have a history as politicized as Oppenheimer Park.
The stray block of green space in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) has made headlines over the past weeks for the recently evicted tent city that sprung up within it, but that’s far from the only time that happenings in Oppenheimer have made the news.
From its beginnings as a park in historic Japantown to its later days as the “living room” for the Downtown Eastside, Oppenheimer has long been far more than just green space—it’s also been a crucial setting within the city’s political and cultural history.
Here are just a few prominent examples.
A park in Japantown
Oppenheimer Park initially opened in 1902 as the Powell Street Grounds, but it was later renamed in honour of David Oppenheimer, the city’s second mayor. At the time, the area around Oppenheimer Park was known as Japantown due to the high concentration of Japanese immigrants and businesses around it.
It was in Oppenheimer Park where the Asahi baseball team would practice.
Founded in 1914, the Asahi were an amateur Japanese-Canadian baseball team that went on to win multiple titles and championships during their existence. Most notably, they managed to win the Pacific Northwest Championship five years in a row.
Their success was particularly notable, given the hostile racist climate that Japanese Vancouverites lived within at the time.
“On the streets, we weren’t welcome,” recalled Kaye Kaminishi, the Asahi’s last surviving member, in a Heritage Minute released about the team earlier this year.
“But on the field, we were the Asahi: Vancouver’s champions. Everyone cheered for us. Our people had a voice.”
However, the internment of over 22,000 Japanese-Canadians during Second World War resulted in all of the team’s members being confined to camps throughout the country. The team was forced to disband.
Today, a plaque outside Oppenheimer Park from the national Historic Sites and Monuments Board acknowledges the Asahi baseball team as an event of national historic significance.
Although internment displaced Vancouver’s Japanese population from the area, the park is still home to the annual Powell Street Festival, a celebration of Japanese culture that has taken place every year since 1977. (This year, the festival took place on streets around the park area to respectfully avoid the tent city).
Bloody Sunday protest
A protest at Oppenheimer Park with 10,000 people? At a time when the population of Vancouver was less than half of what it is today? It happened back in 1938, but you need to know a fair bit of labour history first.
During the Great Depression, the federal government created “relief camps” to deal with the vast scores of unemployed men at the time. These camps provided work, food, and shelter, but conditions in them were otherwise dismal.
Pay was low—20 cents a day—and the work was both alienating and physically exhausting. Entry into these camps was voluntary, but since there was no such thing as welfare or income assistance at this time, it was the only way for unemployed labourers to find financial relief.
About 1,500 of these workers went on strike in 1935. They hopped on boxcars headed for Ottawa to air their demands for better working conditions, but their talks with the feds went nowhere. The government cut provincial funding to the relief camps in 1938, which led to the province being forced to shut them down. Relief camp workers responded by travelling to Vancouver and occupying three buildings in protest: the Art Gallery, the Hotel Vancouver, and the Post Office in what is today the Sinclair building.
They left the Hotel Vancouver quite quickly, but the occupation at the other two buildings lasted longer. On the morning of June 20—a day that’s become known as “Bloody Sunday” in Canadian history—the Vancouver Police Department used tear gas to remove the art gallery protesters, while the RCMP raided the post office and attacked its protesters.
Word spread quickly of the attacks, and by 2 p.m. that afternoon around 10,000 demonstrators arrived in Oppenheimer Park to protest against police violence and listen to speakers. The protest was memorably captured by a newspaper photographer in a photo that shows the vast sea of people who came to the park.
A thousand crosses in Oppenheimer Park
As the decades went on, homelessness and drug use in the DTES began to increase. By the 1990s, overdoses and HIV had hit the community hard. The DTES had the highest HIV rate in the western world, and the number of overdose deaths in B.C. had increased from 24 in 1989 to 354 in 1993
The community demanded a stronger government response. On July 15, 1997, a group of activists from the DTES blocked off traffic at the Main and Hastings intersection and held up a giant red banner reading “The Killing Fields” and “Federal Action Now”.
A few blocks away, they had planted 1,000 crosses into the ground at Oppenheimer Park both to draw attention to the needless deaths and pay memorial to those who had died.
Not long after the demonstration, two of its key organizers—Ann Livingston and Bud Osborn—would go on to become cofounders of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), an advocacy group highly involved in lobbying to establish Vancouver’s first supervised-injection site, InSite.
Before VANDU had either its name or a designated meeting place, members would organize meetings in Oppenheimer Park to discuss the issues affecting drug users in the DTES.
Similarly, Oppenheimer Park was also the setting for the Out of Harm’s Way conference in 1998. The event, organized by the Carnegie Community Action Project, brought in a variety of experts—from an SFU professor to a drug policy coordinator from Germany—to discuss how harm-reduction efforts could be employed to address overdoses in the community. About 800 people attended the event, including the city’s mayor at the time, Philip Owen, who would acknowledge that the conference had a big impact on his approach to drug policy.
In 2017, activists returned to Oppenheimer Park to stage a similar protest to the “Killing Fields” demonstration 20 years before. Instead of crosses, they planted 2,224 stakes throughout the park—one for every overdose death in B.C. that had occurred in the three previous years.
A site for Indigenous memorial
Oppenheimer isn’t just a park in the DTES. It’s a park within the unceded traditional territories of three Coast Salish First Nations, located within a neighbourhood with a high Indigenous population.
In 1998, the Vancouver park board raised the nine-metre Memorial Pole in Oppenheimer Park to commemorate all those who have died in the DTES. A pamphlet handed out by the Vancouver Aboriginal Council on the day the pole was raised further explained its purpose.
“Anyone who has spent time in the Downtown Eastside knows that hardship is a part of daily life. Good people die violent deaths here-from drugs, rice wine, diseases like HIV and Hepatitis, or at the hands of a stranger or friend. What most people don’t know about the Downtown Eastside is that we are a family. Despite the hardships that come with addiction and poverty, we love, support and protect each other as if we were blood relations… This pole is not only a memorial to our sisters and brothers who have died unnecessarily in the Downtown Eastside, it is also for those who have survived and continue to survive in this neighbourhood.”
The pole has become a symbol of memorial for the community, particularly for First Nations. Shortly after it was raised, four Indigenous elders held a fast in Pigeon Park a few blocks over to draw attention to the impacts of residential schools. After four days, they travelled to Oppenheimer and gathered around the pole together.
Although its route changes every year, the annual Women’s Memorial March often stops in Oppenheimer Park. The march has taken place every Valentine’s Day since 1991 to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women. Oppenheimer is usually one of the march's later stops, and the organizers often form a healing circle there.
In her book, Speaking for a Long Time: Public Space and Social Memory in Vancouver, now-retired sociology and anthropology professor Adrienne L. Burk recalled her experience watching the march’s members gather around the pole.
“When we arrive at Oppenheimer Park, we are instructed to surround the pole at a distance, so that we can see each other, with the pole in our midst," she wrote. "Something has been said; the circle shifts. A speaker comes near enough to be heard. She asks for those to have lost someone to these streets to move inside, form an inner circle closer to the pole. Until that moment, I realize I have been thinking this is all about adults. But the twelve year old appears — daughter of a disappeared woman. Then a six year old. Some toddlers. Grand-mothers. Brothers, I imagine. Soon, over sixty people. The hush crushes the heart.”
2014 tent city
If this year’s tent city at Oppenheimer seemed like a case of déjà vu, you’re not exactly off base: a nearly identical scenario happened just a few years ago.
In 2014, a tent city popped up in Oppenheimer from July to October of that year. Much like the residents from this year’s tent city, the campers cited a lack of adequate housing and discontent with the city’s notoriously unkempt single-residence-occupancy units (SROs) as reasons for living in the park.
Eviction notices were distributed to the campers near its start, but the tent city only continued to grow. A Vancouver Sun article estimated that there were around 150 people living in the park by August.
However, what makes this year’s tent city different from 2014’s is that the City of Vancouver went to the B.C. Supreme Court in that year to get an injunction order to remove the campers. Many had left by the eviction date and taken shelter spots offered to them by the city, including ones at a former Quality Inn that the city rented to house them. However, over 100 tents still remained after the injunction deadline passed. The tents were eventually taken down, and five campers were arrested for refusing to leave.
Adrienne L. Burk: Speaking for a Long Time: Public Space and Social Memory in Vancouver
Julia Aoki: “Tracing Histories in Oppenheimer Park: An Exercise in Cognitive Mapping” in TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 25.
Michael Barnholden: Reading the Riot Act: A Brief History of Riots in Vancouver