Word of the Street Festival comes to Carnegie Community Centre
// Marja-Leena Corbett

Representations of the Downtown Eastside are, more often than not, negative. Once people have a preconceived notion about something, it seems it can be difficult to shake it. In The Beat, a documentary style television series about the Vancouver Police Department in the Downtown Eastside, the focus is on “the mess down here on East Hastings.” When police enter the area, they are instructed to act as though they’re “hunting—you’re scanning your environment, you’re looking for the people who are breaking the law, which is prey.” While this representation may or may not accurately represent the realities of law enforcement, these are the kinds of images that the public sees.

That is not to say that there aren’t people out there trying to break free of the misconceptions.
As Megaphone Magazine journalist Kevin H. writes, “There’s a truth in this neighbourhood that people are ignoring … If you take time to listen to the people that are building and supporting this community - creating opportunities, building partnerships, working to lift one another up - you’ll see a neighbourhood that is full of spirit, determination, and compassion.” That is simply one glance at an even bigger story that hides just beneath the surface.

On Sept. 24, Word on the Street came to the Carnegie Community Centre, located at the intersection of Main St. and Hastings St. Word on the Street is a national book and magazine festival that, in short, celebrates literacy. This year, it has been expanded to a three day event. The first day took place at both Banyen Books & Sound and Historic Joy Kogawa House, and the second day at the Carnegie. The third day took place in the usual location at the Library Square in downtown Vancouver.

The historic Carnegie Centre was built in 1904, and is commonly known as the “living room” of the Downtown Eastside. It provides many well-used services to the people who need it, such as helping the homeless find housing, financial and health support; offering inexpensive meals; and making learning readily available. All of this is available to the street-involved for an annual membership fee of $1. With this in mind, it was certainly a unique choice as a venue for the festival.

A series of presentations by various writers and magazines took place on the third floor. A beautiful winding staircase lined with stained glass windows depicting Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer lead up to the classroom. One of the presenters was Megaphone, a magazine that is sold by low-income and homeless people in Vancouver. The street vendors buy the magazine for 75 cents and resell it for about $2, with all the money from the sale going directly to the vendor. It is published by the non-profit Street Corner Media Foundation. Not only does it lend a sense of pride to the people of the Downtown Eastside, it helps to develop the writing skills of those who choose to write for the magazine, and gives them a voice.

A few writers read their work aloud, giving the audience a feel for the magazine and what it’s like to be a “marginalized” writer. One writer, Melita Carlsen, shared her emotional and heavy life story. She spoke of “the bars of [her] own personal jail”: After a traumatizing sexual assault, she found herself involved in the sex trade. To her, the Downtown Eastside is a place “where people give up, walking around with only death in their eyes.”

However, her life has taken yet another turn; this time for the better. WISH, a drop-in centre that offers various forms of assistance to women in the sex trade, has helped Melita to find her true self. Since finding help at WISH, she has completed the Healthcare Assistant course at Capilano.

Sean Condon, the Executive Director of Megaphone, had some interesting insight as to why Carnegie was chosen as a venue for Word on the Street. First of all, he pointed out that although it might not be completely evident, “there are still many families living in the Downtown Eastside.” He made it clear that people have preconceived ideas of what it’s like in the area, and “they are unaware of the friendly and loving community that thrives.”

“It is generally quite a safe area, despite what people may assume,” he explains. As for the literary aspect, “there are plenty of talented writers in the area, and the depth of their writing is profound … Holding the festival at the Carnegie Centre brings people out of their comfort zone.” Mostly, Condon spoke of the people who are brought together at the festival. “I think it shows people that they’re not as different from each other as they might think.”

Jessica, a festival assistant, shared her opinion on the subject. “Word on the Street is all about community and bringing people together. There is such a strong sense of community in the Downtown Eastside. People who would never normally have a chance to connect are able to meet and talk.” Another volunteer suggested that “it was a natural partnership between two Vancouver Public Libraries.”

Everyone was in agreement: the decision to expand was definitely a good one. It was worth the extra efforts involved, and it fit right in with the other events taking place. Having the Word on the Street festival at the Carnegie Community Centre was also chance to bring perspective to many people attending. It brought more than the celebration of literacy to Vancouver: it brought together a diverse group people, all with a common ground of wanting to learn something new. To say that the festival’s expansion was a success is an understatement.

// Marja-Leena Corbett

// Artwork by Stefan Tosheff

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