A stone’s throw from the modern city, the native quarter, known as the Casbah, stands like a fortress above the sea. It’s population includes many tribes and races, drifters and outcasts from all parts of the world — and criminals who find this a safe hiding place from the long arm of the law. ”Algiers” 1938
When most people talk about Vancouver’s “Casbah” district, they are referring to the core area around Hastings & Main, in the heart of what before the ’54 earthquake was referred to as the Downtown Eastside. However, the current geography of the Casbah stretches east from the False Creek Canal as far as Highway 1 and is bordered in the south by 12th Avenue and the West view Highway.
It is a huge area encompassing what were once separate, idiosyncratic neighbourhoods that merged together during the reconstruction. And whereas the recent island of Downtown Vancouver proper was rebuilt bigger and better than its pre-earthquake self, the areas around the Downtown Eastside were left largely to themselves, due to financial hesitations from downtown political bureaucrats. It is a place of narrow back alleys and wide boulevards — of abandoned buildings, leaning against one another for support, and yet of isolation and overcrowding.
The Casbah is built up in a series of layers, with older structures serving as the foundations for newer ones without being torn down first; resulting in there being three levels of living space:
i) Street Level: consisting of all the normal day-to-day stores, clubs, bars, restaurants, shops, parks and other polite businesses.
ii) Terraces: most of the tops of the buildings are connected via sturdy causeways & rickety bridges, and this network of supports sustains an entire self-contained infrastructure for a population whose feet never need touch the ground – and whose minds are similarly elevated.
iii) Underground: beneath the city streets lie a network of sewer and maintenance passageways, cracks and caves opened during the quake and in some areas entire buildings and sections of streets that collapsed into the earth in ’54. The less said about the people who call this home, the better
The one concession afforded by the city fathers was to include the new district when construction of the elevated train network linking Downtown to the far-flung suburbs began. Due to the tremendous rattling noise and shaking produced in nearby buildings when the trains run through the Casbah, it is referred to by locals as the Jangler.
What distinguishes the Casbah, even more than its physical make-up, is the average way of life for the inhabitants within. For one thing, it’s the home of the largest population of Bohemians since late-19th century France, employing thousands of off-beat artists, writers, dancers, musicians and actors, who work, live, and play there. It is widely recognized as the hub of the contemporary arts scene, having surpassed both Europe and the United Sates during the 1970′s. It can now easily hold its own compared to Cotton Club era Harlem, and the San Francisco of the Beat Generation.
The Casbah is also one of the most multi-cultural societies in existence owing to its proximity to the Port of Vancouver and the constant influx of foreign visitors to Kanadian shores. Many of these decide to stay and experience life in one of the most open cities on earth with little in the way of official regulatory oversight. As a result it has also become a refuge for many of the criminal class who are wanted on serious charges in countries all over the world.
Majick use is also widely accepted in the Casbah. Down there, the term carries with it none of the usual social taboos that come along with it. While the majority of majick practiced is of the cantrip variety, scrolls are also readily available for those with a taste for something more potent. For those with darker tastes, most chat it up with those shadowy-jacketed figures in the alleys…
Besides the members of the Bohemian population; those who run and work in the galleries, coffee shops, flop houses, & night clubs that support them; the tourists who flock by the tens of thousands to see them; the criminals who prey on them all; there is another class of Casbah society – the John & Jane Dee’s.
Most, but not all of them are majick addicts; what they have in common is that they are suffering from a majickally-induced loss of personal identity. Vancouver law restricts them to living in the Casbah until either they remember who they are or until such time as they are identified by family or friends and released into their custody. Social services exist to help the JD’s obtain food and shelter and some even hold down jobs. Some have been here for decades.
Relationship With Vancouver
The Casbah, in its present form, has had a rather unstable relationship with the rest of Vancouver ever since the devastating earthquake of 1954. However, to a certain extent, this divisive relationship traces its roots back when it was still known as the Downtown East Side. It has always been a community of the impoverished, the pariah, and the fringe-dweller.
The Casbah serves as a necessary pressure valve for the residents of Vancouver and the surrounding suburbs. Outside the Casbah, open majick use of even the most basic cantrips carries a certain communal stigma that many may wish to avoid. Once inside, however, the shackles of life in the ultra-conservative atmosphere can be momentarily cast aside, and life can be lived to its fullest, free of confining social conventions.
While the city fathers would rather simply be done with what they consider at best, an eyesore, and at worst, an embarrassment, they cannot refute the fact that the Casbah is one of the Top Ten tourist attractions in the entire world and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region annually. Nor indeed would they wish to stop collecting the millions of dollars in tax receipts they procure from Casbah businesses.
However, City Council and attendant Social Services inject as little funding and infrastructure into the Casbah as possible – just enough to avoid causing open riots in the streets and criticism in the local media – although a little bit of each sprouts up now and again. Policing, emergency services (fire dept. et al.), and hospital care can range from adequate to non-existent at any given time, depending on the whims/funds of the current administration.
Considering the reality that the Casbah is also home to thousands of majick addicts (majick-users, or “jickies”) and dozens of John & Jane Dees – a situation that creates unique and challenging social issues – the short-sightedness of the City of Vancouver in its Urban Planning strategies is nothing short of astounding.
Of course, the downside to having a release valve on a pressure cooker is obvious — if the valve fails, then it’s pretty likely that the entire pot will simply blow up in your face.