Tent City Commons

Oppenheimer Park, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, is currently being occupied by a tent city. The homeless and housing activists, led by indigenous activists, have taken the park amidst an ongoing housing crisis. Vancouver’s annual homeless count recently found its highest number of homeless people ever, and the city’s definition of “affordable housing” is, to put it mildly, a farce. This is quite simply a city in which living on welfare (or even being on employment insurance or being underemployed) is untenable. So—people have taken the park.

The city has served an eviction notice, and park rangers and police officers arrived early on the morning of July 21. In an interesting turn of events, First Nations representatives in turn served the City of Vancouver with their own eviction notice—to leave these unceded territories. Post haste.

When a city cannot, and in fact refuses, to deal responsibly with its most marginalized peoples, and when the very nature of “public space” becomes the heart of the discussion around social sustainability, I am reminded of the commons. Private/public becomes a dichotomy that the commons escapes—because the commons is neither public nor private—it’s common. And that means it’s part of the provisioning of life we collectively depend upon and are responsible for, and to which we all should have access as a human right (a right to decent housing, a right of access to the satisfaction of basic human needs). When neither the city’s private nor its public space is adequately providing for people, the absence of the common is most acutely felt.

In writing on the history of the commons and enclosure (the theft of the commons from people whose livelihoods depended upon it), Peter Linebaugh notes that the city was always at least in part enclosed already. Of necessity, it was the place of markets and potential profit making, of private homes and “stores” of “goods.” Linebaugh, in Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance, writes,

“The walls which once defended the city from enemies coming from the countryside now were interiorized to enclose urban wealth from the creation of commons in the city by workers who had lost their commons in the country” (26)

The Downtown Eastside has a disproportionate number of indigenous people who have indeed been thrown off their traditional lands “in the country”—suffering the enclosure of their territories for purposes of resource extraction—only to find themselves doubly enclosed in the city, where adequate jobs are scarce and rents are sky-high due to the generation of massive wealth through property speculation (often in waves of gentrification, displacing the marginalized from formerly “affordable” neighbourhoods). Where is the space for the commons in a city like Vancouver? That is, what can we share here, and what can we, collectively, have a share in? What space is there for such sharing, and for maintaining ourselves and our communities through such acts of mutual aid?

Or, as too often seems the case, is this a city for the rich only—a city in which no one shares, unless they can pay the exorbitant price of elite membership?

Day by day, the camp at Oppenheimer Park grows. There are more than 30 tents now. In the heart of this, one of the least affordable cities in the world, the demand for the commons has been raised again. Now, as the old saying goes, whose side are you on?

(Updated Wednesday July 23)

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