Course:GEOG350/2012WT1/Oppenheimer Park

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Introduction and history

Oppenheimer Park is located in central Japantown, an area partly comprising Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and constitutes one of city's public urban spaces. Bounded by Jackson Street, Dunlevy Street, Powell Street, and East Cordova the park is named after Vancouver's second mayor, David Oppenheimer and was opened in 1898. The area immediately surrounding the park represents one of seven areas comprising the DTES and is known as Oppenheimer. The early 1900's brought about a shift in the surrounding community's demographic: employment opportunities came about in the city's fishing, forestry and rail industries, drawing in a substantial number of Japanese immigrants, and bringing about the outflow of Vancouver's well to do, who had previously occupied the Powell Street area. By 1914 the now solidified Japantown community had created a baseball team, the Asahi, and the park's primary function was to host this athletic club. Thus, the original use of the park was quite typical in nature. The fall of 1936 represented a milestone for Oppenheimer Park as it was then that the park was designated a public forum site, the first in the city. Free commentary could be made on political, social and religious matters, and the park came to know public rallies concerning various pertinent topics (2). It is also famous for being an area for demonstrations of striking workers in the events of Bloody Sunday in 1938. Bloody Sunday marked the end of a month long sit down strike of unemployed men and is named as such for the police brutality which took place during the event. Up until the second world war the park and surrounding area knew relative prosperity and cohesion, but Japan's involvement in the war sparked significant change. Authorities revoked the civil rights of Vancouver' Japanese community, and many were interned and denied access, ownership, and usage of the area. When the war ended they were not allowed back. By the late 1950's the city had rezoned the area surrounding Oppenheimer as industrial. With the park's primary users gone and its immediate community broken apart its future darkened (2). By the 1980s, despite efforts on behalf of the city, the park became a gathering ground for many of Vancouver's marginalized community. Drug use was commonplace in the park, and dominated its usage for decades. These issues remain today, although to a lesser extent. The park now hosts events such as the Powell Street Festival (1977) during the BC Day long weekend and several smaller, sometimes spontaneous festive gatherings. In 2008 local media sources described the expansion of a homeless persons setting up tents in the park, at times in numbers upwards of 100 people. The Vancouver Police originally intended to remove these individuals, regarded as ‘squatters’, but upon further consideration rescinded the order. Their decision stemmed from the main reason for squatting in the first place: these marginalized persons had no other place to go, and living in the park created a community. This event made clear the pressing needs for improved care for the homeless, and in some sense the park represented such care. In 2010 the park underwent significant renovations intended to reestablish the park with a cleaner, newer image: new washrooms, patio spaces, and, a children’s playground (3). Despite these attempts, the number of homeless persons is only somewhat reduced.


As of 2012, Oppenheimer's population is approximately 6,000, with a male contingency accounting for 62% of the population's make up. The average age of residents is approximately 45, and most of the housing infrastructure is low-income and single residency. Because this is the case, many residents spend much of their time outside of their small homes, which partly accounts for the park's usage. About 28% of the Oppenheimer's population are immigrants, mostly Chinese. Because the park falls within the DTES there is also a strong First Nations presence, comprising approximately 10% of the local areas' population (1).

Central Issues

As discussed above the central issue of the park is its use by marginalized members of Vancouver's DTES. This is because the park is situated at a crossroads between low income housing, various social welfare institutions, and drug dealers. For precisely these reasons the park is worth considering: it not only reflects problems characteristic of the larger area, but it also encourages an understanding of what these problems mean and how they impact the local community. Because Oppenheimer Park is a space that is easily be observed (it can be easily observed and entered) it offers insight.

The primary issue is to reduce the illegal activities it has become accustomed to and to return the park to a ‘wholesome’ and ‘safe’ place for the general public. Causing these issues is clashing social ideologies of how to use the space in the DTES. On one hand the existing population is very social and sharing. This heavily contradicts the intentions and tendencies of the ever more privatized, globalized Vancouver which wants to invest, develop and gentrify the existing poor population. The argument is that this urban decay and relative poverty in the DTES has lead to a culture of sharing and inclusiveness. This trend of ideology stands up to the city's efforts to develop the land by privatizing it and therefore making it exclusive (6). With this, it easy for the existing underprivileged population to justify sharing the park as a residential living space and with it a centre for drug use. To the untrained eye, the park, once a place of rich culture and historic value, has been reduced to a human dumpster of the addicted when the problem is a combination of neglect from the city and a clash of ideologies.

A secondary issue is to give the park a voice with which it can communicate its past. Oppenheimer park has a significant role in the up bringing of post war Vancouver and should be important enough to be rectified. It once was a community gathering place for wholesome activities which ought be made clear. Also, because the history is so radically different, making it known would help prevent people from simply assuming it has always been laden with problems.


In 2010 a major redevelopment of the park was undertaken. The primary aim was to make the park accessible to the entire community and eliminate opportunities for drug related activities. The landscape firm space2place Inc. and architectural firm McFarlane Green Biggar worked together to reestablish Oppenheimer Park as a safe place for all to enjoy, to reinvent the park into a place for families and other good natured community activities. In total, the project costed $2.3 million. A new elliptical park-events building was constructed, lacking any sharp corners so as to deny drug users places to conceal themselves. A playground was also constructed, walkways built, and sports courts included (3). Further actions were taken intended to reify, or make real, the park's colourful history. The original cherry trees were kept to reflect the Japanese history of the park and area and totem pole carvings were installed given the strong contingent of First Nations in the area's demographic. Thus the new design of the park made it more physically observable and easily policed and monitored. But these efforts have only brought about some success; another key to restoring the park lies in the overall condition of the DTES. Milner writes about two distinct ways to clean the area up. "The first is to legalize and regulate the sale of drugs… and most of Vancouver's gang problem disappears in a flash." Conceding the fact that this is a far-fetched reality, he goes on to provide an alternative in rewarding the DTES residents for leaving the area. We do not necessarily agree with the legalization/regulation of drug use yet the rewarding of residents who leave DTES is an idea we can stand behind. Milner also goes on to propose a series of solutions all centralized around getting people to move away from the DTES. He states that social services should not be introduced unless they are aimed at getting people to move and new housing in the DES must replace an equal number of existing units. "You cannot clean up the Downtown Eastside by treating people who live there. It's like trying to empty the ocean one cup at a time. The water runs back in." (5).


1.	City of Vancouver. DTES Local Area Profile 2012. 2012. (accessed June 10, 2013). 
2.	Ellison, Simon. Oppenheimer Park: A study of interconnectivity in the public realm Dalhousie University, 2007; ProQuest, (accessed May21, 2013). 
3.	Harris, Michael. “The New Oppenheimer Park” Vancouver Magazine. 2010. 
4.	Hill, Mary Frances. “Homeless Gather in Oppenheimer Park” Vancouver Sun, August 9, 2008. 
5.	Milner, Arthur. “Fixing Vancouver's Downtown Eastside” InRoads Journal, 2009. ProQuest, (accessed June 17, 2013).
6. 	Blomely, Nicholas "Unsettling the City in Vancouver" Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2004.,+Unsettling+the+City+in+Vancouver&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HsPTUb-_A9DwiQKfrID4DA&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Nicholas%20Blomley%2C%20Unsettling%20the%20City%20in%20Vancouver&f=false (accessed July 2, 2013).