Nearly six years after the iconic firehall at 8585 Hudson St. suffered significant damage from flooding, the newly renovated heritage building now houses the Marpole Neighbourhood House.
The community space officially opened its doors May 28, although the programming and character of the Neighbourhood House, Vancouver’s first in more than a decade, is still coming together, says Zahra Esmail, executive director of Marpole and South Vancouver Neighbourhood Houses.
“We really don't want people to look at a list of activities and for us to have all the control –– we want it to be in partnership with the community,” said Esmail on the phone, a day before the community space opened.
Over the summertime, she says, the Neighbourhood House will open its doors during the day from Tuesdays to Fridays to get to know the community better and figure out what activities and volunteer-led programs neighbours want or could organize.
Before the firehall flooded in 2013, the building housed Marpole Place, a long-serving community resource that provided free meals as well as a range of activities for seniors, disabled and homeless folks, from computer training to knitting and crafts.
According to Esmail, the City of Vancouver played a crucial role to ensure Marpole once again had a place for the community to meet. The city renovated the building following the flooding and now rents the space to the Association of Neighbourhood Houses of BC (ANHBC) for $10 per year plus operating costs. The city and ANHBC split the building’s maintenance costs.
As for programming, Esmail acknowledged taking a slower, more inclusive approach has created confusion among some seniors who are afraid the Neighbourhood House may not offer them much. At the opening celebration for the community space on May 22, the Courier spoke to one elderly woman who believed the new space would mainly cater to “new immigrants and young families.” But Esmail insists there will be plenty for older folks.
“We're really just hanging back to hear from the seniors what it is that they want,” she said. “But we do intend absolutely for the first floor to be, during the day, where the seniors hopefully in the neighbourhood can just go and hang out and run some programs and partake in activities."
While the Neighbourhood House’s programming is still in the works, several local organizations have already signed on as service providers. The YWCA WorkBC will offer employment support for those who need it. Marpole Oakridge Family Place will run a family drop-in program for parents with young children. Meanwhile, Little Mountain Neighbourhood House will provide language instruction for newcomers to Canada. Marpole will also offer two to three low-cost meals a month to help out neighbourhood families facing food insecurity, says Esmail.
Diversity front and centre
As an organization that supports reconciliation, Esmail conceded how “extremely awkward” it was for ANHBC to open a new Neighbourhood House on un-ceded land.
“Our mandate is to strengthen the neighbourhood, and it's inappropriate to talk about strengthening neighbourhoods when we haven't fully engaged in the reconciliation process,” she said.
That’s where the idea for the building’s so-called reconciliation room came from.
“There needs to be a dedicated space where everybody who comes through the house can recognize and remember the history of the land and a space that's reserved for our Musqueam neighbors or other Indigenous folks that live in Marpole for them to make their own,” said Esmail.
This effort at reconciliation reflects the inclusionary culture that ANHBC says it’s hoping to foster in Marpole, one of the city’s most diverse neighbourhoods. According to recent Census data, nearly 46 per cent of households in Marpole said they spoke an Asian language as their mother tongue, almost 20 per cent more than the rest of Vancouver.
At the opening celebration May 22, Bob Prenovost, CEO of ANHBC, went as far as saying Neighbourhood Houses are “the frontline pushing backing against some of the divisive rhetoric we’re always exposed to.”
All of the politicians who spoke that day echoed this thinking, though in slightly less dramatic terms, including former Liberal attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, Mayor Kennedy Stewart and B.C. Liberal MLA Michael Lee.
“When we welcome and embrace the diversity in our community, we get stronger,” said Wilson-Raybould.
“We need places like this,” added Lee.
This story has been updated since first published.