The Carnegie Celebrates 40 Years as ‘Sandstone Mother’ to Downtown Eastside

·4 min read

“The sandstone lady — she’s like a mother to us all.”

The Heart of the City Festival kicked off Wednesday night with a tribute to the Carnegie, which opened its doors as a community centre 40 years ago.

The Carnegie was completed in 1903 and initially used as public library, and then as the Vancouver Museum. But by the 1970s the building had fallen into disuse and was being considered for redevelopment as a restaurant, recalled Libby Davies, a longtime advocate for the Downtown Eastside and a former NDP MP.

It would take six years of political activism from the Downtown Eastside community to get city hall on board with the idea of using the building as a library and community centre, Davies told Am Johal in an interview livestreamed on the Heart of the City website.

At the time, the Downtown Eastside was the only neighbourhood in Vancouver that did not have its own community centre.

Davies recalled a city hall committee meeting convened in the empty building to discuss those plans, and that workers had to clean decades of dust and cobwebs out of the way before the meeting.

There was also a struggle to get a full library branch in the Carnegie. Davies said the board of the Vancouver Public Library thought a small reading room would be sufficient, stocked only with “mysteries and westerns” and without borrowing privileges or reference materials.

“Part of the mythology about Skid Row, the Downtown Eastside, is that you don’t read, you’re not interested in literature,” Davies said.

“We were so outraged by that, that there was this double standard for the neighbourhood, this idea that people didn’t have the right to the same resources that every other library in the city would have.”

Gladys, a Carnegie Community Centre patron who spoke during the event, said the first word that comes to mind when she thinks about the centre is “knowledge.”

“You can go to the Carnegie and if you have a question and you need answers, that’s one place I know you’ll get an answer,” she said.

“They’ll try their hardest to find an answer: ‘How do I get an education? How do I get my birth certificate?’ I like that.”

Donald MacPherson, who served as a director of the Carnegie in the 1980s, recalled the huge sense of ownership and empowerment community members have when they walk through the doors.

“Having worked there as a city staff person, you get corrected many times at Carnegie,” MacPherson said. “You might have great ideas, but unless you work with the people who inhabit the place, you’re SOL.”

The Carnegie’s kitchen, where low-cost but tasty and nutritious meals are prepared, is a central part of the community centre. While the Carnegie mostly shut down in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the kitchen continued to run and operations shifted to serve food to people lined up outside.

During the Wednesday night discussion, several Downtown Eastside residents paid heartfelt tribute to the kitchen, including a seven-minute poem in its honour, written and recited by Richard Tylman. Tylman described the food program as “one of the best-kept secrets of our inner-city squalor.”

“One of the main ingredients in the kitchen is love,” said Naomi, another Carnegie patron.

The Carnegie has fostered decades of activism, including meetings to organize tenants of single-room occupancy buildings, to advocate for Canada’s first safe injection site and to protest cuts to welfare and other social services.

The Carnegie also became a hub for writers like poets Bud Osborne and Sandy Cameron and journalist Bob Sarti, who helped other residents find their voice and express their experiences and point of view.

“The role of staff is to get there early in the morning and make sure the food’s been ordered, the soup pot gets started and the coffee is on,” MacPherson said.

“Then they become backstage stagehands to an amazing drama that plays out…. A lot of spirit, a lot of feeling, a lot of hope.”

James, a Carnegie patron who spoke during the event, summed up his feelings about the community centre.

“Carnegie? Can’t do without it. In one word? Vital — vital to the community.”

Jen St. Denis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee