Downtown Eastside poets: Bud Osborn

Osborn at the 10th Anniversary of Insite, Vancouver's legal safe injection site
Osborn at the 10th Anniversary of Insite, Vancouver's legal safe injection site

Bud Osborn was a poet and social justice activist much beloved in the Downtown Eastside. His death in May this year is loss to the community. Osborn was a founding member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), a collective advocating for harm reduction policies in the City. Harm reduction views addiction as a medical issue, with users having rights to access health care such as safe injection sites. Begun in 1997 in response to escalating pandemic and overdose rates, VANDU’s work on harm reduction is globally recognized, and they were piviotal in the opening of Insite in 2003, North America’s first and only legalized safe injection site, located on the north side of the 100-block of East Hastings Street. 

Hundred Block Rock (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1999), Osborn’s fifth poetry book, is a powerful collection of poems about the Downtown Eastside. The title refers to the geographic centre of the neighbourhood. In the dominant media, the 100-block of East Hastings at Main is frequently depicted as the “epicenter” or “ground zero” in Vancouver’s “notorious” Downtown Eastside. To the hundreds of low-income people who everyday use the Carnegie Community Centre at the south west corner of the intersection, the 100-block of East Hastings and Main is the heart of the community and the fight to protect it from gentrification is fierce and ongoing. I love the quick rhythm and precision of the title poem, which maps the block and the people on it:

blue eagle cafe
     hotel balmoral
           blood stains
                                               flashin cash
                                                    smashin locks
                                                          no detox
                                                                hundred block rock

need a place
     say the faces
              senior citizen
                   leanin and dealin
                        flyin and dyin
                             welfare bribe situation

blue teardrop tattoos
    what’s the plan
         tear it down
             let ‘em drown
                too much reality
                    fixin in the alley
                        blood streamin
                            naked girl tweakin
                                 hundred block reelin
                                      vancouver’s first
                                            western world’s worst
                                                      public health emergency

The concluding stanza of “hundred block rock” identifies the City’s tactics in their war on the poor:

                don’t forget
                     hundred block rock
                                                      hundred block


Osborn’s integrated practice of scholarship and poetry and activism is a powerful model for meaning making and making change. Like a scholar, Osborn cites the experts in the field of knowledge before joining the conversation; poems like “Raise Shit: Downtown Eastside Poem of Resistance” and “Take Back Space” begin by quoting academics on gentrification, but do so in a way that is accessible to those without postsecondary education. 

Osborn read “Raise Shit” at workshop at the inaugural International Conference of Critical Geography held in Vancouver in 1997, situating gentrification in the City within a global context:

here is a planetary resistance
against consequences of globalization
against poor people being driven from land they have occupied
in common
and in community
for many years

and while resistance to and rapidity of global gentrification
differs according to specific local conditions
we in the downtown eastside
in the poorest and most disabled and ill community in Canada
are part of the resistance
which includes
the zapatistas in chiapas mexico
the ogoni tribe in nigeria
and the resistance efforts on behalf of and with
the lavalas in Haiti
the minjung in korea
the dalits in india
the zabaleen in Egypt
the johatsu in japan
and these are names for
the floor
the abandoned
the outcasts
the garbage people
the homeless poor
and marginalized people

and gentrification has become a central characteristic
of what neil smith perceives as
“a revengeful and reactionary viciousness
against various populations accused of ‘stealing’ the city
from the white upper classes”

Two months before he died, Osborn published “Take Back Space” in the Carnegie Newsletter, a bi-weekly community paper that has been operating out of the community centre since 1986. An astute analysis of the lessons activists can learn from the harm reduction movement regarding the reclamation of space, it begins:

I was talking last week with libby davies, member of 

parliament for the downtown eastside of vancouver, 

and libby told of a star trek episode she’d seen   - a 

futuristic situation in san francisco - an enormous wall 

had been constructed dividing poor people from every-
one else .. and outside this wall     

in super consumerist upscale society 

there was almost no awareness of who was struggling 

to survive on the other side of the wall 

nor how wretched their living conditions were 

and libby said “that’s not our future 
it’s happening right now”

north america’s anti-panhandling bylaws and other 

prohibitions against the presence of certain people 

in what was formerly public space is a central objective 

in the global and local writ against the poor

to put this situation in perspective I’d like to quote 

from an excellent book “geographies of exclusion” by 

david sibley; he says

“power is expressed in the monopolization of space 

and the relegation of weaker groups in society to less 

desirable environments .. the boundaries between the 

consuming and nonconsuming public are strengthening 

with nonconsumption being construed 

as a form of deviance 

at the same time as spaces of consumption eliminate 

public spaces in city centres, processes of control are 

manifested in the exclusion of those who are judged to
be deviant imperfect or marginal - who is felt to belong 

and not belong contributes in an important way to the 

shaping of social space 

it is often the case that this hostility to others 

this anxiety is reinforced by the culture of consumption 

in western societies
the success of capitalism depends on it 

and a necessary feature of the geographies of exclusion 

the literal mappings of power relations and rejection 

is the collapse of categories like public and private and 

to be diseased or disabled is a mark of imperfection 

the fear of infection leads to erection of the barricades 

to resist the spread of diseased polluted others 

there is a history of imaginary geographies
which cast minorities ..  imperfect people .. 

and a list of others who are seen to pose a threat 

to the dominant group in society as polluting bodies 

or folk devils who are then located elsewhere
this elsewhere might be nowhere 

as when genocide or moral transformation 

of a minority like prostitutes are advocated 

the imagery of defilement which locates people 

on the margins or in residual spaces 

is now more likely to be applied 

to the mentally disabled  the homeless  prostitutes 

and some racialized minorities”

the downtown eastside of vancouver, where I live, is 

by any statistical measurement of poverty and disease 

a third world area 

besieged by upscale developmental greed 

of truly genocidal proportions 

the highest rates and numbers of hiv/aids .. suicide .. 

hepatitis c .. syphilis and tuberculosis 

in the western world 

and close to the lowest life expectancy

Close to the lowest life expectancy, Osborn’s poetic research informs me, the reason why I get a seniors card when I pay the $1 membership fee for the community centre even though I am in my early 40s. 

Osborn’s memorial began in front of Insite, taking the street amd momentarily suspending traffic on one of the City’s busiest arteries, and ended at Oppenheimer Park. In 1997, the year VANDU formed, the year that, as a director of the Vancouver/Richmond Health Board Osborn was able to have a motion passed declaring Vancouver’s first-ever public health emergency, the year that 14 women from the neighbourhood were murdered, Oppenheimer Park was also the site of a memorial: the 1000 Crosses demonstration. DTES activists blocked traffic on at Main and Hastings then marched to the park to plant 1000 crosses to represent and honour the lives lost in the war on the poor. It is heartening to observe the manifestations of Osborn’s rallying calls to raise shit and take back space today at Oppenheimer Park, where a 2–months strong tent city stands to protest homelessness in Vancouver, one of the world’s most liveable cities.