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Celebrating 20 years of the Heart of the City Festival

This enduring vision works with and for the Downtown Eastside, carrying forward the community’s stories, ancestral memories, cultural traditions, lived experiences and artistic expressions

Priscillia Mays Tait
Writer, Visual Storyteller

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As Vancouver’s autumn deepens and the rain settles in for its relentless seasonal siege of the city, a celebration begins in its most vulnerable neighbourhood. This year marks the 20th consecutive time that the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival will take place as October transits into November in this soggy northwest Turtle Island city.

Dozens of our community’s artists and culture preservers will shine their light through the darkening days, as events presented free or by donation release a wave of creative energy that will help carry us through to the gift of another spring. Since they met in 1971 and “became a going concern pretty darn quick,” Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling have been mixing music and dance and theatre — from their Mime Caravan troupe through Terminal City Dance (with Karen Jamieson), to Special Delivery Dance Music Theatre, which was founded in 1983 and changed its name to Vancouver Moving Theatre (VMT) in 1992. (Thus 2023 can be considered to be VMT’s 40th anniversary).

The building which became Carnegie Community Centre was constructed in 1903, and VMT was approached by the centre to help celebrate its 100th anniversary by co-producing a big community play that would be for, about and with the DTES. It was called In the Heart of a City: The Downtown Eastside Community Play and was a big success, with James Fagan Tait directing a huge cast of community members. One result was a desire for more arts activity in the area, which led to Carnegie and VMT collaborating to give birth to the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival in 2004.

“I started in theatre as a little kid and just kept going,” says Teresa Vandertuin.

She remembers meeting Hunter and Walling in 1985 when the couple created a show for Expo ’86. Over the years, Vandertuin worked with them, and they all got to know each other better.

At Hunter’s suggestion, Vandertuin joined their housing co-op, and worked with them on the Strathcona Artist at Home Festival (1998-2004), which she describes as “like a mini version of the Heart of the City Festival that had performances, and talks, and walks, and panels, and workshops… real multicultural work bringing storytelling and music together.”

After the first Heart of the City Festival, Hunter told Vandertuin he needed help as he felt he couldn’t produce it on his own.”

Terry said, ‘So do you kind of understand what I’m talking about?’ And I remember this, I said, ‘Yes, you’re asking me to give my life.’ And he laughed, but it’s true,” Vandertuin recalls.

She took on the role of associate artistic producer for the festival, supporting Hunter and Walling as executive artistic producer and associate artistic director, respectively.” 

“Nineteen years later, my world has expanded, in terms of understanding the arts, understanding the community,” Vandertuin says.

Providing the stage

The mandate for the Heart of the City Festival is, as Vandertuin says, “to give a platform to folks who don’t usually have access.”

She says the festival demonstrates that the neighbourhood is more than just the “four blocks of hell” that the public may at times perceive it to be. It may not be an easy matter to find the space to live, work and play in the DTES, but there are more than a few highly creative people who are doing so successfully — thanks both to their own efforts and to the support received from the larger community.

Making the Heart of the City Festival happen is always a great endeavour. It has been able to function thanks to a web of relationships with a host of partners throughout the community: arts and nonarts organizations, knowledge keepers and cultural centres. Passionate artists from all walks of life have been brought together by a dedicated, hard-working team helped by a supportive board of directors, and Lucy Lai, “a crackerjack of an accountant to keep us on budget,” according to Walling.

Having to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic kicked the challenge up a notch. The festival adapted with small, intimate in-person events, window displays and outdoor performances, presentations and ceremonies. Viewing rooms were provided to present online shows to those without computers. Operations Manager Lalia Fraser had sufficient experience to create a communicable disease plan which met public health and safety requirements. Policy was developed that artist and staff had to be vaccinated, since staff worked at various venues and interacted with different bodies of people. All this, of course, was to ensure that everyone would stay as safe as possible.

The DTES has been home to many cultures with many stories, such as those of the Chinese, Japanese, Eastern European, Italian and black communities. When the 2003 community play sketched the region’s history, it was natural to recognize those who had canoe landings in the area and used it for their summer grounds before all those newcomers arrived. The intent to honour the Indigenous Peoples who preceded all those others was carried forward into the Heart of the City Festival and maintained over its two decades of existence, as is evidenced most easily by quickly glancing through the covers of the festival programs that have been produced through the years, and emphatically confirmed by the continuing commitment to provide space for Indigenous artists to present their work in the festival.

The theme of the 2023 Heart of the City Festival is “Grounded in Community: Carrying it Forward.”

There will be many amazing events, and festival-goers can hone in on the ones that most interest them by perusing the program guide that will soon be available. Carnegie will have lots of them.

Sometimes members of the public may be invited to participate, such as during the three days of Spontaneous Street Poetry on the sidewalk outside Carnegie, when people can find out what a poet might do with an idea they have! What is the future of the festival?

“We never run out of ideas” Vandertuin says. “We have three times as many ideas and three times the amount of interest than we could ever fit into the festival. Even now, as we’re planning this year’s festival, there are things that we’re saying we can’t do it this year so let’s plan it for next year. So I have no doubt that there is support, there is interest, there is impetus for the festival to continue into its third decade.”

Fall skies continue to darken. Winter is coming. Suffering in the DTES seems to keep increasing, mocking all efforts to make things better, challenging our faith in ourselves and our universe. But here in the heart of the city, there are those who refuse to let the flame of their creativity be extinguished, knowing and remembering that it’s always darkest before the dawn.

For full information about all the festival events, visit heartofthecityfestival.com 

Priscillia Mays Tait is a Megaphone vendor, writer and photographer, and a member of The Shift peer newsroom.

Filed under: Arts | The Shift Peer Newsroom

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Priscillia Mays Tait

Priscillia Mays Tait

Writer, Visual Storyteller

Priscillia Mays Tait is a proud Babine, Gitsxan, and mostly Wet'suwet'en mother, as well as a gifted writer, photographer, performer, artist, dancer and community activist. She has been a vendor with Megaphone for nearly 10 years, Her work has been published in Megaphone’s monthly magazine, annual Voices of the Street literary anthology and yearly Hope in Shadows calendar numerous times. Her frequent motto: Hug a tree.

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