Heart of the City Festival shines light on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Annual arts festival runs Oct. 30 to Nov. 1

At a time when there is a lot of darkness surrounding Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, the annual Heart of the City Festival aims to hold up the light of the community.

“We really want to come up from underneath and hold the light of the community and let the community hold the light, too,” said Terry Hunter, executive director at Vancouver Moving Theatre, which produces the annual festival along with Carnegie Community Centre and the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians.

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“It’s a very metaphoric theme but it really enables us to express a lot of things about this community that we’re able to shine a positive light but also grapple with the darkness,” he said.

This year marks the 16th edition of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival. This year’s event, Holding the Light, which runs Oct. 30 to Nov. 10, features 12 days of music, stories, theatre, cultural celebrations, films, gallery exhibits and history walks. There are more than 100 events taking place at more than 40 locations throughout the Downtown Eastside.

The festival’s mandate is to promote, present and facilitate the development of artists, art forms, cultural traditions, history and stories of the neighbourhood. It involves a wide range of professional, emerging and student artists, and art lovers. More than 1,000 local artists and Downtown Eastside residents took part in last year’s festival.

This year’s edition features Opening Doors – Vancouver’s East End 2019. Directed by Donna Spencer, Opening Doors features the dramatization of selected stories from Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter’s book Opening Doors. In the late 1970s, Marlatt and Itter collected and penned 50 oral histories of the Strathcona neighbourhood. Opening Doors was first published as a double issue of Sound Heritage in 1979. 

Other highlights of this year’s festival include:

  • SRO: a play by Middle of the Sky (also known as Brenda Prince), which tells the story of an Indigenous woman trapped in a Downtown Eastside SRO and her efforts to escape her circumstances. The play is presented in parallel with the SRO Indigenous Women’s Project, a week-long residency featuring visual art, ceremony, discussion and live performance led by Renae Morriseau and Sophie Merasty.
  • ūtszan: a passionate story about language and how it forms identity following the journey of a woman and her quest to reclaim her language. ūtszan (to make things better) is written and performed by Yvonne Wallace (Lilwat) and directed by Jefferson Guzman.
  • Home, Homelessness and the Culture In-Between: a week-long residency exploring the challenges and hopes of residents of the single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside. Led by Renae Morriseau and Sophie Merasty, it features an array of activities including visual art, facilitated discussions, ceremony and theatre.
  • Survivors Totem Pole: In 2016, the Survivors Totem Pole was carved by Downtown Eastside resident and activist Skundaal Bernie Williams and then raised at Pigeon Park in a pole raising and potlatch witnessing ceremony attended by more than 1,000 residents and elders. This film by Suzanne Tabata follows the extraordinary community-led journey to create and raise a monument to survivors.

Many of the Heart of the City Festival events are free, or admission is by donation. Visit heartofthecityfesitval.com for more information and a full event listing.



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