City enforcement of basic health and safety regulations at Pantages is the result of persistent community organizing

NOTE: I’ve kept this empty blog for quite awhile and have been meaning to start posting with article and thought-pieces processing my political thinking. I’ve decided now to just jump in with an entry on my organizing work in the Downtown Eastside. This reflective work is useful for me and it might be for others too.

June 28, 2011

Today Downtown Eastside (DTES) residents scored a minor but significant victory at the Pantages demolition site on the 100-block of East Hastings: City building inspectors came down and shut down the worksite until the contractor can assure basic health and safety conditions for neighbours of the demolition site and passers-by. Like other community victories for the upholding of rights that are standard and expected in other areas of Vancouver, the Pantages demolition story is a saga of Downtown Eastside community persistence.

When the owner of the Pantages theatre was awarded a demolition permit in April he had already hired local crews of workers to illegally strip and rip at the abandoned buildings adjacent to the Pantages on the 100 block on East Hastings. His fly-by-night demolition project was held up by community advocates with the Carnegie Community Action Project who called the city daily and reminded them that the demolition was not permitted, and that it should not be happening. Their phone calls held up the illegal demo work for a day or two and then it started up again. And the advocates at CCAP called the city again.

Once Marc Williams had his demolition permit he got crews busy ripping at the interiors and back walls of the two-story buildings alongside the distinctive theatre. On May 26 community activist Robert Bonner came into the Carnegie centre angry that he had almost been hit by a piece of falling brick when walking past the 2-story demolition project. There was no tunnel on the sidewalk, he said, not like he’d seen in other neighbourhoods. When he complained the site supervisor swore at him.

Robert and I called the city and took turns on hold. First we called 9-11 and asked the police to come shut the building site down. They said there was nothing they could do. I had the direct line for the city building inspections manager Ron Dyke and I left a message for him. I called property use inspectors too, and Robert called 3-11 over and over, speaking to different operators each time. They said that they would pass our concerns on to the building inspections department. In the meantime, they said, there was nothing they could do.

The result of the two of us standing outside the demo site and constantly complaining was that the supervisor just shut down early for the day.

City building inspections showed up at the site two days later but did not return my calls to let me know what they found. I found out through another city inspector weeks later that they found ‘nothing unusual’ at the jobsite.

After they finished the demolition on the adjacent lots the Pantages demolition site sat still for awhile. But when the Vancouver Sun published an article calling the DTES a “Pig Sty” it was hard to not think of the open doorways of the Pantages demolition, windows smashed out and moldy rubble pouring out onto the sidewalk. The gates in the doorways remained locked and the smashed out windows barred, declaring that it was Marc Williams’ private property that was laying there in disrepair. The property’s poisonous fumes and demoralizing decay can touch the low-income residents who live around it but they can’t touch it. A perfect allegory for private property in the DTES.

This changed last week when the demolition of the Pantages theatre itself began. The dangers of the demolition at the adjacent sites were higher at Pantages because Pantages itself is six stories high and the walls of the building are all 100-year old bricks. The demolition job is being done as antique “handmade” brick reclamation. Workers are being paid mostly through piece-work and the health and safety conditions of their workplace were substandard. On Friday Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) organizers noticed that men were working on the roof with pick hammers, leaning over the edge of the building and breaking away bricks without fall protection, safety glasses, or respirators. Other low-income men, DTES residents, were working in the demolished lot beside the Pantages, cleaning individual bricks by chipping at them with pick hammers. They did not have eye or any other protections. We were worried that there might be asbestos in the brickwork. Worksafe BC confirmed that Pantages tested positive for asbestos, but they were not sure exactly where all the asbestos was. We were also worried that the paint over the bricks was lead based. Worksafe BC was not sure about that.

Even more significant, and more difficult to remedy, than the working conditions were the poor health and safety conditions that the demolition job imposed on the rest of the neighbourhood. A DNC press release summed up these conditions:

Rather than the full plywood tunnels common beneath construction sites in other neighbourhoods, the 100-block of east Hastings got only a cobbled together scaffold and a precariously balanced fence that cuts off part of the sidewalk. Rubble from the demolition falls on the scaffold, fractures, and bounces into the street. The site supervisor told a DNC complainant to shut up, saying, “It’s just little bits of rock.”

The doors of adjoining buildings had been torn off in previous days’ demolitions and rubble poured out onto the sidewalk. The rubble is a mixture of brick, lead paint, rat droppings, cockroach casings, and ancient dust. There could even be asbestos mixed in. On each side of the open demolition site, without even a fixed fence on the back side of the open lot, are the open windows of the Regent and Brandiz hotel rooms. The only windows for tiny rooms look out on a site that reeks badly of mould, mildew, and rot.

On Friday I repeated my calling routine. I called 9-11 and they told me they would send an officer. No cop ever arrived. I called 3-11 and they said they’d pass the complaint on to the building inspections department and call me. They never called me. I left a message again for Ron Dyke, the manager of inspections. I also called Worksafe BC and spoke with an inspector there who promised to send someone first thing Monday morning.

On Monday morning there was no inspector. I called Worksafe back and they said there would be someone there for sure on Tuesday. At the DNC board meeting on Monday night we decided to organize something to pressure the city departments to act:

We sent out a press release and action announcement late Monday night calling for a gathering Tuesday morning to meet and pressure the Worksafe inspector into protecting the health and safety of residents, workers, and pedestrians in the DTES.

Tuesday morning there were no inspectors, but there was some media and around a dozen cops. They approached me and said they wanted to be sure that we weren’t going to cause trouble. I asked them why they never came when I called them over the past weeks when poor peoples’ health was in danger. I asked whether they were only dispatched to protect the private property of millionaire developers and investors. They (patiently) repeated that they were there to ensure that we didn’t cause any trouble.

Finally at 11am all the inspectors showed up. The Worksafe BC inspector said that he would make sure the workers were provided with fall, eye and respiratory protection. He said that was all he could do. He said that the contractor was a respected and regular city contractor. I asked him how workers were being paid less than minimum wage through piece work with a respected contractor. He said that if someone doesn’t like the wage then they can quit.

We spoke with one of the workers and asked if they want us to advocate for them to get better wages as well as conditions. They said that they’d check with other workers and get back to us.

Two city inspectors came. They said that they agreed with our complaints and said that he would enforce them:

– To hang a construction net over the front of the Pantages to stop debris from falling into the street
– To build the hoarding out over the whole sidewalk with a break to stop stray rubble from bouncing off the top of the pedestrian tunnel into the street.
– To regularly spray down the rubble in the open lot so that dust and mold spores are held down and don’t blow so easily up into the open windows of the residents in the Regent and Brandiz hotels.
– To order an inspection of environmental and health contaminants to ensure that workers and residents are not exposed to black mould, asbestos, and lead paint, and;
– To hire a second flag person to marshall pedestrians through the sidewalk hoarding safely from either direction.

Then they closed down the job site until these basic health and safety conditions can be fulfilled.

We had a minor victory with these little actions. While it’s frustrating that basic things like city enforcement of health and safety regulations require fights… it is also encouraging to see that we can make a difference when we do engage and fight back.

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