Remembering the Beautification of Pandora Green

This text is adapted from a fall 2013 presentation given by Seb Bonet, VIPIRG Research Coordinator

This presentation discusses the process, spanning 2007 to 2011, by which the 900-block of Pandora Avenue, known to most as Pandora Green, came to be ‘beautified’. It also attempts to derive lessons about who has the power to shape city space and what ends that serves. The presentation is in four parts: First, I contextualize the process within broader changes to urban poverty. Second, I describe the process that led to the City of Victoria’s commitment to ‘beautify’ the block. Third, I describe an amendment the City made to the Streets and Traffic bylaw to clear Pandora Green of a tent village that was impeding the beautification from going ahead. Last, I give an overview of how activists attempted to make Pandora Green a contested political space. The presentation is supplemented by clips from alternative media coverage of the story by a collective called B-Channel that was active at the time. I think the video clips are able to capture some of the feel and language through which Pandora Green was constituted as a political space. Please note that although I have quoted passages I refer to directly, the clips are not sub-titled and a transcript is not available.

Part One: Context

For those of you not familiar with Pandora Green, many services for people who are poor or homeless have been concentrated on this block for over 30 years. As such, one can probably trace much of the history of changes to urban poverty and homelessness in Canada through this city block. An inescapable aspect of this history is the radical increase in the number of people who are homeless or street-involved. It’s beyond the scope of this presentation to dwell on this, but as we all know, elites in Canada have been capturing an ever-increasing proportion of the social product, and the various levels of government have played their part in facilitating this process. We’ve seen increasingly stringent criteria introduced to access employment insurance, welfare and other forms of income assistance at the same time that we’ve seen reductions to what these programs pay out. We’ve seen the elimination of a national housing program, waves of cuts to more targeted social programs, and increases to the cost of vital services like public transportation. Federal and provincial governments have also introduced sales taxes that hit the poor disproportionately hard. The cumulative effect for people living in poverty, I think, is quite brutal.

If I could offer a single statistic that best encapsulates, to me, how people in poverty have been marked by the redistribution of the social product to the wealthy, it comes from a recent report published by the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) on the policing of poverty in Victoria. VIPIRG interviewed 103 people living in poverty on their experiences of policing, and all but one of these 103 interviewees reported living with a disability, chronic or mental health condition. If part of the neoliberal project has been to eradicate the welfare system, this statistic speaks to the success of that project; nowadays wellbeing is permanently compromised by poverty.

But it would be too simplistic to say that government has simply abandoned people living in poverty. Instead, the various levels of government have worked to shift responsibility for poverty to non-profits, municipalities, communities, and the poor themselves. In fact, as we’ll see, the Pandora Green case study bears out this delegation of responsibility, as the main players are neighbourhood associations, the City, the private sector, and OurPlace, a large service provider on the block.

At the municipal level, we’ve seen increases in police budgets, together with the introduction of bylaws that target people with no home and make their survival activities criminal or impossible. In Victoria, we have the Chattel Bylaw that makes it illegal to put belongings on the sidewalk. Thus, the municipal response has been to treat poverty and homelessness as a criminal issue, or an issue of maintaining the flow of pedestrian traffic, as city planners like to put it, rather than an issue to be thought of according to the distribution of wealth, or to political rights, like the right to access goods necessary for well-being.

Part Two: Beautifying the Block – Who Governs?

Moving into the more immediate context to Pandora Green;, the city block became a focus of City attention, and intensified property owner concern, owing to the completed construction of a new, expanded facility for Our Place in April, 2007. It was at this time that the City paid a private consultant to bring together all the property owners on the block, with Our Place, to facilitate a Good Neighbour Agreement, and lay the basis for the City’s eventual commitment of $510k to beautify the 900-block.

I want to give you a little background, first, on Good Neighbour Agreements. I haven’t researched the forms these take in other cities, but in Victoria they started to appear in 2007. Leaving aside the rhetoric of the agreements, they work to make service delivery agencies responsible for protecting property values, for involving the police “when they are required”; and, (for?) proactively dissuading congregation of people who are poor. For example, in the case of Cool Aid, which is a shelter some blocks away, it was placed under the obligation to install security cameras, lighting, and discourage loitering and sleeping in the area. Our Place,has to pay someone to promptly remove graffiti and collect garbage on the block.

This clip actually begins with the private consultant referring to this aspect of the contract. I don’t want to interpret the clip too much for you, but there’s lots of euphemistic language worth paying attention to that fits squarely within the logic of neoliberalism:

Private Consultant (7:32 – 10:32)

I want to draw your attention to McBain saying “the groups decided to pitch in to buy a cleaning cart so some of the family members could work and keep the street clean – now, when 6 or 8 or so agencies chip in a few dollars together it’s done. It had a real positive effect right away – you see people out keeping the street clean; a community breakfast where participants in the good neighbor agreement volunteered to serve breakfast. It’s real things that build community, not just talk or we have to wait for the province or the feds to give us money. It’s all about practical things”

It’s worth dwelling on this quote in detail because you won’t get a better description for how neoliberalism operates. What McBain euphemistically calls “communities coming together” is actually a project for entrenching class power. Whereas in the period of the welfare state higher tax rates for corporations and the wealthy were redistributed it in the form of social programs, we now have corporations contributing a pittance – a cleaning cart and flipping some pancakes – and social service agencies taking on the rest.

How do they do this? In the case of OurPlace it means taking money out of the budget for services and putting it into paying someone minimum wage to clean up the block, because the good neighbours have made it a contractual obligation to maintain property owning standards of cleanliness. In order to make up for the budget shortfall, OurPlace tries to recruit volunteers, which represents another knock-on effect of neoliberalism: people do for free what otherwise is waged labour. So what is, in miniature, the plunder and destruction of the welfare state by corporations and the privileged gets inverted and called communities pulling together to help the needy.

This is one small example but it shows exactly what has happened during the neoliberal period. We could name hundreds of examples of social programs that no longer exist. The needs still exist and have only intensified, so how does that gap get filled? To be blunt: it doesn’t. Needs intensify and take the form of chronic health conditions, mental health issues, drug use, trauma, abuse, suicide and violence. So what was once the welfare system has been totally inverted and turned into its opposite, a poverty trap that produces a lack of wellbeing, and that is responded to with criminalization and further marginalization.

Next is a clip from an interview of the City’s manager for the parks department. This one is seven minutes long, but it gives an idea of the authorities brought to bear on re-designing Pandora Green, and the spatial gaze brought to that work, most of all around the implicit production of desirable and undesirable people and practices:

City Planner (0 – 5:00; 14:38-end)

As the manager states, fire, police, and engineering departments are the authorities whose priorities are incorporated into the initial design. It leaves me wondering why social service providers or people who access the services on the 900-block are excluded from being allowed to imagine a streetscape that would also meet their needs.

In the clip, the overarching vision that informs the city planner’s work is to “send a signal to the greater community that the City of Victoria is very confident in the future of the street.” The need to send this signal arises because “many people feel unsafe using this street. They feel intimidated. They don’t feel like there’s anything to draw them into this area.” The means to achieve the vision comes from “introduc[ing] different kinds of uses to the area…like outdoor concerts and markets,” which he labels as positive uses, “along with some other things” like policing, bylaw enforcement and the Good Neighbor Agreement.

To translate, when the planner refers to “the greater community,” he means people with privilege. The vision is to make them feel at ease by producing a streetscape that soothes the middle class eye and by offering more consumption opportunities. Around the safety concerns he cites, the planner does not consider how calling for bylaw enforcement, police presence and the imposition of the marginalizing Good Neighbour Agreement affects the people who are accessing the services on the 900-block. In fact, the city’s intentions become embarrassingly clear at the end of the clip when the planner discusses the lengths the city went to “subtly disperse” unprivileged people from congregating on the green, ultimately deciding on a wending walkway after considering deterrent paving, fencing, and a rock garden. In this sense, marginalization is worked into the city’s built environment.

Part Three: Dispersing the Pre-Contemplatives

The city’s commitment to beautify Pandora green got more complicated in 2008 for two reasons. First, the Vancouver Island Health Authority closed the Cormorant St fixed site needle exchange, which suddenly meant a lot of people no longer had a place to get safe drug use supplies; and second, the Supreme Court ruled that people have the right to erect temporary shelters, contrary to the bylaw the city had passed in 2005 to disband a tent city in Cridge Park. Together, these changes led to the erection of tents in the boulevard immediately in front of OurPlace, and to a real spatial concentration of homelessness. This brings us to my second focal point, which is how the City went about dispersing the tenters, as a necessary condition to bring in the beautification crew.

Because of the Supreme Court decision on the right to erect temporary shelter in parks, the City was not in a position to simply ban people from sleeping there, even though it did pass a bylaw to restrict the right to sleep in parks to overnight hours. Instead, what the city did in September of 2010 was remove boulevards and medians from having a park designation, and made it illegal to sit, stand or kneel in these spaces between sunset and sunrise.

The next two clips show the Governance and Priorities Committee Meeting where City Council heard presentations from two authorities on whether to amend the Streets and Traffic Bylaw to remove boulevards and medians from having a park designation. The first is a 4:00 minute clip from the Director of Engineering and Public Works. It doesn’t make for thrilling viewing but it’s another entry point into understanding who is brought to bear in constituting and authorizing political action in the city.

City Engineer

Where does the City Engineer start in constituting this space? He says his presentation is “to address safety concerns associated with unauthorized activities on city road allowances and in particular city boulevards and medians.” So the survival activities of the homeless are produced as “unauthorized” and brought in relation to roads and drivers whose activities are not brought into question.

The dates the City Engineer chooses for presenting his data are very convenient for his argument. Using 2005 as a baseline works for him because it marks the year in which the old Our Place facility was closed down, meaning there was an unusually low amount of people in the area for that year (and therefore probably fewer accidents). Moreover, his presentation stresses the rush hour period as particularly unsafe, which is hard to argue with. And yet, at the time the City was playing its part in producing unsafety by not funding Our Place to open earlier than 9:00AM, and forcing people out of tents at 7:00AM, meaning people were milling about for the two busiest hours of morning traffic.

The last clip is of an Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) with the Ministry of Health and Social Services. Her presentation paints an institutional picture where homelessness disappears as a reality. There can’t possibly be people living on the 900-block because either the institutional status of these people negates their right to be there (government is subsidizing their rent somewhere) or there are shelter spaces available (like mats on the floor):

Ministry of Health and Social Services ADM (9:58 – 14:28)

Note the point in the presentation where the ADM inserts an anecdote into her otherwise technocratic presentation. She says: “I was talking to one of the outreach workers yesterday: I asked, ‘have you been out today?’ ‘I’ve been out six times’. ‘Six times because when I talk to people they are so high they aren’t able to engage with me’. I can’t tell you impressed I am with people who deal with this population. They have the patience of saints.”

This is such a classic construction of people who are street-involved. In order to legitimize never consulting people, and never giving them a say over the conditions that affect their lives, it’s very important to produce them as incoherent and incapable of reason. This is precisely what this ADM does when she says that the outreach worker goes out over and over again in a saintly bid to save these lost souls.

And every time I watch this clip I can’t help but think of the announcement made in 2012 by the very same ministry, along with the Vancouver Island Health Authority, that it would conceptualize the most marginalized as “the hard to reach.” I wonder if this ADM ever goes back to her presentation at city hall to think of the role she played in making people hard to reach in the first place by authorizing displacing them from somewhere they felt relatively safer.

The City ended up going ahead with the amendment to the Streets and Traffic Bylaw, approving the amendment with only one dissenter. Shortly thereafter construction started on the Green, and was completed in September of 2011.

Part Four: Activist Counter-Narrative

Finally, I want to give a brief overview of the way activists tried to make Pandora Green a contested political space. The group I was a part of, the Victoria Coalition Against Poverty, with the support of other community groups like the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users and the Committee to End Homelessness Victoria, tried to write a counter-narrative to the City’s beautification plan for Pandora Green. Together, we engaged ina participatory action research project. Over the course of three food servings on the green in the summer of 2010 we interviewed 100 people and asked them what changes, if any, they would like to see on the Green. The outcome was a People’s Plan for Pandora Green. Also, given the extensive consultation process the City had facilitated, we asked if any of the street-involved people had been consulted about the plan; all but one had not.

We brought the results of our survey to city hall, got press coverage, and tried to delegitimize the City’s process. As part of that we also organized a sit-, stand- and kneel-in on the Green the night that the amended bylaw went into effect. By then all the street-involved people were long gone, and of course the cops didn’t hassle the mostly privileged activists who showed up for the potluck.

Last, just to make sure the Mayor didn’t get his ticker-tape photo op, we crashed the party at the music conservatory commemorating the completion of construction. At that action we impersonated bylaw officers and handed out fake bylaw infraction tickets to all the people sitting, standing and kneeling on the boulevard, while someone delivered a satirical address from a megaphone to an upset mayor and angry audience at the party.

Conclusion

I want to highlight who controlled this process and who made decisions. One thing this case study shows is that democracy is working great for business owners. The way the city hired a private consultant to bring all the owners into a room to facilitate an agreement on how to police Our Place, and how to beautify the block, in a sense represents a deliberative ideal. Of course, none of this included the people most affected by the project, and none of the decisions occurred in council. As far as this gentrification goes, decision-making about public funds was made in private spaces by very privileged people.

Second, I want to highlight what authorities are brought to bear in shaping city space. This is a process dominated by administrators, from managers of engineering, parks, police and fire departments, to provincial authorities on the management of populations that are “pre-contemplative for detox.” To a significant extent Pandora Green is shaped by the gaze of administrators, so paying close attention to the logic of these gazes gives us a better understanding of the production of dominant political space.

VIPIRG ADMIN