“The Dope Craze that’s Terrorizing Vancouver”

Hastings at Columbia, 1958, by Fred Herzog. At the time, this intersection was the epicentre of Canada's largest drug scene.

Hastings at Columbia by Fred Herzog, 1958. At the time, this intersection was the epicentre of Canada’s largest drug scene.

I recently heard a senior city planner say that economic decline in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside preceded the drug problem now associated with the area. The point he was making was valid – that the drug trade didn’t cause the decline – but his history was nevertheless skewed. Similarly, mayoral hopeful Peter Ladner recently contrasted today’s 100 block of East Hastings with the one depicted in Fred Herzog photos from the ‘50s and ‘60s, lamenting that this used to be a “normal neighbourhood.” The open drug scene, according to Ladner, “shouldn’t happen here. We shouldn’t be putting up with it.” The Odd Squad, a cop-run video production company, also promotes this misleading history by blaming harm reduction policies for today’s drug problems in the Downtown Eastside.

Not only are these distortions of history, but coming from such influential folks, they also have significant implications for revitalization policy for the Downtown Eastside. If the drug scene is standing in the way of economic renewal, it follows that the junkies will have to go in order to attract new business and make it a “normal neighbourhood” once again.

The Downtown Eastside has always been the centre of Vancouver’s hard drug trade. In fact, Canada’s first drug prohibition law originated here, introduced a century ago after Mackenzie King investigated compensation claims stemming from the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Chinatown and Japantown. Some of the claims happened to come from opium manufacturers and King became especially alarmed when he learned the opium scourge was spreading to white women and girls.

The drug scene never left this area and by the 1920s drug use across the country was concentrated in poor urban neighbourhoods, something police did not discourage because it made tracking and arresting addicts easier. Beginning in 1939, Vancouver police were making regular inspections of skid road rooming houses looking for drugs and related paraphernalia.

Photos illustrating "The Dope Craze that's Terrorizing Vancouver" in Maclean's Magazine, 1 February 1955.

Photos illustrating “The Dope Craze that’s Terrorizing Vancouver” in Maclean’s Magazine, 1 February 1955.

The Downtown Eastside was also the largest drug scene in Canada. According to Catherine Carstairs in Jailed for Possession (University of Toronto Press, 2005), half of all drug convictions between 1946 and 1961 occurred in Vancouver. Chief Constable Mulligan estimated in 1955 that 70% of all crime in the city was connected to the drug trade. By that time, there were 20 RCMP and 14 VPD officers dedicated to policing fewer than 1500 addicts, a third of whom were incarcerated at any given time.

A 1955 MacLean’s Magazine article entitled “The Dope Craze that’s Terrorizing Vancouver” estimated there were more like 2000 addicts in the city. The writer calculated that this amounted to “one addict for every two hundred and fifty citizens. This not only gives Vancouver the highest rate of drug addiction in the Western Hemisphere,” he continued, “but means that if the city’s rate of addiction continues to increase as at present, the crop of addicts now being born will constitute one in every sixteen Vancouverites.”

The main strip for the drug trade in the 1950s was the 100 block East Hastings, just as it is now. A young lawyer named Harry Rankin described the view from his Main and Hastings office in 1958 as “a scene from Gorky’s Lower Depths.” This intersection is infamous today as the epicentre of the drug trade, but in the 1950s that distinction belonged to Hastings and Columbia, one block to the west.

According to Maclean’s, Hastings and Columbia was known by the “drug racket” as far away as Montreal simply as “the Corner.” The Broadway Hotel (now the Sunrise) did more than its share in cultivating the Corner’s ill-fame. “It is just as easy to buy drugs at this hotel,” bemoaned Police Magistrate Oscar Orr, “as it is for a child to buy candy at a store.”

"The Corner" today, Hastings at Columbia. The building on the left was the Broadway Hotel in the 1950s.

“The Corner” today, Hastings at Columbia. The building on the left was the Broadway Hotel in the 1950s.

The owner of the Broadway, Paul Ehman, resented criticism about drug activity in his hotel because he went out of his way to cooperate with the police. During a sting operation in which a Mountie spent two months posing as a junkie on the Corner, Ehman had the drapes removed so police could see inside from their lookout across the street in room 33 of the Empire Hotel (now the Brandiz). Drug dealers had been allowed to set up shop in the ground floor bar, where the Radio Station Café is today. Ehman also installed peepholes and a secret rear entrance “through which the police could rush in to nab a suspect.”

The operation ended with 28 low-level dealers and addicts in custody and Ehman boasted that afterwards he chased the remaining addicts out of his establishment. The police were not as impressed with their apparent success. “The main street for drugs is still Hastings at Columbia,” said one Vancouver police officer. “It never gets far from there. Between ourselves and the RCMP there’s always someone watching it.” Fifty years later and they’re still watching.

The Empire Hotel (now the Brandiz) on the 100 block East Hastings, 1951 and 2008.

The Empire Hotel (now the Brandiz) on the 100 block East Hastings, 1951 and 2008.

There were also places outside the 100 block to score dope. Jimmy’s Café, just west of Ted Harris Paint, was a popular one in the ‘50s. All the dope-crazed hippies in the 1960s knew about Steamies at 50 East Hastings. It was still going strong as Kim’s Kitchen in 1990 when Vancouver police Sgt. Bill Warwick described it as the city’s “largest illicit-drugs drug store.” The nostalgia-evoking Blue Eagle Café neon sign marks another spot where heroin could be bought for most of the café’s 56 year existence.

The Downtown Eastside drug scene has gone through a number of significant changes over the years, notably with the rise of crack and HIV/AIDS. As areas such as Yaletown and Granville redeveloped, police helped by pushing street-involved people to the Downtown Eastside, which further intensified the concentration of the street drug scene. The loss of large numbers of low-income housing units in the last two decades has rendered a large portion of the Downtown Eastside addict population homeless, resulting in much more drug activity being conducted outdoors.

A parallel development was even more instrumental in pushing the drug trade outside, which is the single most conspicuous change since the supposed good-old-days when Herzog was snapping his famous photos. In the 1990s, the City of Vancouver went after “problem premises” with a vengeance, beginning in 1994 when it launched its award-winning Neighbourhood Integrated Service Teams to, among other things, coordinate enforcement resources and find creative ways of dealing with troublesome businesses.

After 56 years in operation, the Blue Eagle was closed down in 2000.

After 56 years in operation, the Blue Eagle was closed down in 2000.

At the end of 1999, Mayor Owen was able to boast that 20 business licenses were revoked in that year alone. The Blue Eagle, Kim’s Kitchen, Jimmy’s, the Broadway, the New Station, and numerous other places where the drug trade used to be conducted discreetly and indoors no longer exist. Instead, derelict storefronts permeate the neighbourhood and give it its blighted appearance while users and dealers fill the streets and alleys. This is what makes the area scary for tourists and why businesses are reluctant to set up shop in the Downtown Eastside.

For its part, the NDP government passed Bill 50 in 1998, allowing the City to restrict the hours Downtown Eastside businesses are allowed to operate. The curfew imposed under Bill 50 followed a long history of failed initiatives designed to curb substance abuse in the neighbourhood, including the closure of the liquor store at Main and Hastings and the removal of pay phones because they were being used for drug deals in the pre-cell phone era. Ironically, there’s now little to do in the neighbourhood that’s not drug or alcohol related after the city’s only non-24 hours Waves Coffee closes at 10:00 pm.

The Downtown Eastside has been the country’s most notorious centre for illicit drugs for a century now. During most of that time, the drug scene co-existed with legitimate business activity. Recent law enforcement campaigns have either been ineffectual or have simply shuffled drug activity onto the streets, creating the disorder we see in the Downtown Eastside today. It remains to be seen whether the current gentrification wave will succeed in pushing the drug scene elsewhere, but if it does, let’s at least hope history doesn’t become yet another casualty in the drug war.

8 thoughts on ““The Dope Craze that’s Terrorizing Vancouver”

  1. Excellent essay. Although we may never know the true numbers of addicts, this should come as enlightened reading to even old-time Vancouverites who go on about how the area was a family utopia at one time.

    Certainly the closing of Woodward’s played a role in further solidifying its “open air” reputation. It is interesting though to note how shoppers from other neighbourhoods who frequented the area co-existed with the illicit activities described above. The vestiges of that co-existence dissolved through the late 80s and early 90s. The litany of reasons, some of which you touch on, should be cited for the “problems” they have created.
    Well done.

  2. This is a great article.I used to work at the sunrise cafe though and believe me the police are doing sweet
    F..k all about the dealers on Columbia and Hastings.Its really confusing as to why they have been getting away with it for so long.It’s seems as long as it stays on this corner they’ll ignore it.Those dealers are brutal and are completely profiteering off the suffering of the addicts .So sad and frustrating.

  3. P.S…..what i’m refering to is this by the way.

    “The main street for drugs is still Hastings at Columbia,” said one Vancouver police officer. “It never gets far from there. Between ourselves and the RCMP there’s always someone watching it.” Fifty years later and they’re still watching!

  4. oooh, where do I start. Look, with your eyes open, at the Fred Herzog photo. See any drug dealers? See any addicts who are about to steal anything not bolted down? You bet there were drugs. But I was there, and I could walk down the street without being hassled, jostled, or assaulted. A kid could go to Crak-a-Joke, a couple doors down from the Washington Hotel. Will you let your kid walk there?What about the Four Star, or Paris Boots, or Heads? What about Fields? What about London Cutlery, and Woolworths? Did all their customers fear going in to the Woodwards parkade? And Mulligan? Isn’t he the cop that split for California when people started looking a bit close? Or the fabled Blue Eagle – who drilled holes in their teaspoons – so the junkies wouldn’t steal them. I also remember City Hall wanting to ‘eliminate’ Pigeon Park, and the VPD wanting it right there, ’cause that way they knew where the junkies were. I lived in Gastown, on Hastings, and on Pender, and you know I never once saw a syringe. Not once. Nor did every single thing get stolen – and guys didn’t die stealing copper wire. And “shoppers from other areas” didn’t have co-exist with addicts all over the streets. And I notice that ‘police’ figures seem perfectly acceptable when they bolster your argument, but perfectly unacceptable when you think otherwise. I agree with giving dope away, but I’d bury anyone selling the dope so deep they’d be piping in sunshine. But there are too many poverty pimps whose kids get horse-riding lessons off the backs of the damned down here. And why do the un-addicted poor seem invisible to people who only want to defend the addicts, and their behaviour? The un-addicted have to live with people thieving, screaming, fighting, and acting like oversized 3-year olds, but no one seems to notice. What about being able to buy the same goods that suburbanites could buy – like a decent magazine – but no we’ll surrender everything for an addict or two. A pity that the essay is as ‘wrong’ as any planner’s history might be.

  5. urbanwriter: thanks for your comments and perspective, though it’s not that clear what exactly the point of contention is.

    Your specific point that shoppers didn’t have to co-exist with addicts in the street is consistent with my point that the drug trade was much more discreet and indoors than it is today. As for the Herzog photo, how can you or Peter Ladner tell that none those folks are drug dealers? Dealers don’t wear fedoras?

    Yes, it’s the same corrupt Mulligan, but quoting him isn’t the same as vouching for his integrity. Nor does it say his numbers are correct (others did disagree with him at the time), but it does illustrate that perception in the 1950s weren’t necessarily any less alarmist than they are now about the drug scene in the neighbourhood, whatever the reality.

    For the record, I walk down East Hastings almost every day, occasionally with my kid, and I’ve/we’ve never been assaulted, mugged, jostled, or otherwise victimized by drug addicts. Sure there’s a lot of tragic and unpleasant sights and lots of solicitation, but my impression and experience is that violence related to the drug trade is pretty much contained within the drug scene.

    If you accept the Odd Sqad’s line that harm reduction is largely to blame for the mess we see today, I don’t see any evidence for that in your comments. If you’re suggesting my argument is that there are no differences between now and the ’50s, you might want to give this another read.

  6. The east end is a different world than 60 years ago. Heroin was sold in #5 caps, a bundle was 25 and people actually went to jail for selling.
    Why there were no syringes laying around in the 50's & early 60's is simple..an outfit then consisted of an eye dropper, needle and a cigarette paper folded up and used to seal the dropper to the needle. One went straight to jail for possession of an dirty outfit. so they were always concealed and reused. Generally jail time was anywhere from 6 months to 3 years for simple possession including a dirty outfit.
    Thanks for the great article brought back some memories of the old Broadway, Eagle even the old BC Electric tram station.

  7. Pingback: Dealing with Drug Addiction « Past Tense

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