It’s 8am on Commercial Drive and I’m walking to the community centre when I realize halfway there that it’s Labour Day, and the pool will be closed. That’s fine. This becomes a morning walk instead. It’s uncharacteristically quiet, except for the hiss of the number 20 and some restaurant prep cooks blasting music so loud you can hear it from the street. I grew up on the Drive, and there’s no place in the world that feels as much like home. This was the neighborhood we landed when my family moved North from Rodney King-era East LA – away from the highways and riots and tucked into the quiet greenery of East 3rd Avenue.
I’m at the age now where if I close my eyes, I can tell you what things used to be as easily as I can tell you what they are now. I remember the little Vietnamese bakery where my friend and I used to buy 69 cent spring rolls, burning our fingers and tongues to eat them before they soaked through the paper bag they were delivered in – gone. I remember playing foosball at Joe’s Café with my friend and our dads, screaming ourselves hoarse and getting calluses on our palms from the cracked handles of the table – still there. I remember the exact moment, as a young teenager, that I walked past Café Roma and realized the men were looking at me in that way – still there, but different than I remember. And even now, the smell of chlorine, chocolate milk, and white chocolate raspberry scones are inextricably linked by years of afternoons at the pool for swimming lessons followed by a trip to Uprising Bakery. I am becoming a regular again at that same pool, swimming laps under the watchful eye of the tiger mural, unchanged from when I learned to swim two decades ago.
This is a community born from resistance. Early in the twentieth century, speculation failed here. The neighbourhoods instead filled with immigrants from Italy, Portugal, and later Vietnam, Latin America, and beyond. The sidewalks hum with banter in more languages than I can count. Next to posters of Fringe shows and big-name concert are pasted posters announcing protests, anti-oppression workshops, political actions. I remember the year that a Subway opened up (near Charles, if I remember correctly,) and I remember it shutting down, no competition for the real Italian subs available just across the street. But the chains are coming and staying now, each two-year-lifespan gastropub replaced by another one. The co-ops and subsidized housing that my classmates grew up in are threatened by the arrival of new and shiny condos. Gentrification. Inevitable – and yet to me, inconceivable in this scrappy corner of our increasingly homogenous city. I now live two blocks down from the house I grew up in, the one my family was renovicted from when I was a child. Sometimes I wonder if I am now part of the problem. But when I get a notice of a rent increase and my heart squeezes so tight time stops, when my roommate and I get our taxes back and fall to the floor laughing because we fall so far below the poverty line, I think no, not me. Then I look at the low-income housing across the street, and wonder if they’ve stopped laughing about it.
One night, as I lay in bed, I heard shouting in the street. First, the familiar intonations of a regular who walks the length of the Drive with his little dog, singing and speaking to himself. Second, the clicking of high heels and the cruel millennial bleat of a woman following him, mocking him, drunk and mean. Rage stiffened my body as I prepared to hit the streets and intervene, because some resistance comes with its fists up. And then: the man’s terrifying roar, then silence: the sound of heels clicking quietly away. This neighborhood knows how to defend itself.
In the chilly morning air, I walk past the primary school where my mom helped our neighbor with 6 adopted and foster children walk to school, where my teacher first taught me to write my own books; I walk past the elementary school that collected giftcards and donations to help my family when our house burned down; I walk past the swimming pool where an instructor taught me to resist the urge to panic when I put my face underwater; I walk past a person sleeping on the street; I walk past a steel and glass storefront selling $80 throw pillows; I walk past an elderly woman in a track jacket going for a run; I walk past an old man smoking on the patio of the Italian coffee shop; I walk past a pile of wet abandoned clothes in the park; I walk past the spot where yesterday I ate tamales outside and listened to a man sing in Spanish, my heart quivering with blood memory; I walk past stores and homes that are, that were, and that will be.
This is what we’re fighting for. The unbelievable complexity of co-existence on this Coast Salish land that was never ours to begin with. Deeply imperfect, but essential all the same. With every force that seeks to make us fear the other and each other, to guard our resources, to get what’s ‘ours’, we resist. We fight for community centres and rent control, for our schools and shops. We fight oppression in all its forms. We are not all the same. We are not all fighting the same fight. But resistance lives in the met eyes of neighbors, in ‘good mornings’ and ‘do you need help?’ It lives in hot coffees for strangers and signed petitions, in your feet on the ground at protests and rallies, in solidarity. In the quiet streets of the Drive on Labour Day.