DTES Street Market points way to better answers on “survival vending”

The old Mercantile Bank at Carrall and Hastings is literally falling into Pigeon Park,  now the scene of weekly DTES Street Market, a project that is showing how the community can harness its own talents to make change.

The old Mercantile Bank at Carrall and Hastings is literally falling into Pigeon Park, now the scene of weekly DTES Street Market, a project that is showing how the community can harness its own talents to make change.

Ten proud Downtown Eastside Artists each unveiled a major 10 foot by six foot painting at the DTES Street Market Sunday to create a Greenway Gallery along the Carrall St. edge of the bustling “survival vending” project.

On the west side, the market is bounded by construction fencing to keep people out of the way of masonry falling off the facade of the old Mercantile Bank building that flanks Pigeon Park.

If the bank’s problems are signs of the challenges facing the neighbourhood, the DTES Market is a strong signal of the Downtown Eastside’s capacity for renewal.

Created to bring some order out of the chaos of informal flea markets that have sprung up along Hastings St., the DTES Market is pointing the way to practical solutions to the concerns raised by “survival vending,” the sale of cast-off and recycled items from the cities waste bins.

As DTES Street Market supervisor Rollie Clark explains, the provincial government’s refusal to raise welfare rates for many, many years is forcing many low income city residents to take on “survival vending” to make ends meet.

The market, by registering the sellers, providing weather protection and tables, and setting firm but friendly boundaries, turns the confusion and disorder of sidewalk selling into social enterprise. Careful steps are taken to keep stolen goods out of the market and the organizers strive to leave Carrall St. cleaner than when they found it.

The result is about $10,000 in business every weekend, adding $500,000 year to Downtown Eastside Incomes. The market, in operation since 2010, now provides space for more than 150 low income residents every weekend.

A move to a new site at 58 West Hastings would allow expansion, says security supervisor Loretta John, increasing community benefits by increasing the number of days when sales can occur. (That move is under review by the city.)

The painting project is designed to raise funds for the move. Underwritten by a grant from the City of Vancouver’s Great Beginnings Program, the art program will see each canvas sold at auction to raise money for the DTES Street Markets operations.

On the west side of the park, however, the Mercantile Bank building, now a century old, raises different challenges. Once owned by the Portland Hotel Society, the building was taken over by Concord Pacific, which is moving as fast as it can to stabilize the facade and get Pigeon Park back in full use.

But water damage is deep in the building’s bones, according to those who have been inside recently, raising fears that the bank, like the old Pantages Theatre, will collapse before ways can be found to retain it.

If the DTES Street Market is any indication, however, the community could find solutions to that problem as well.