Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival breaks down cultural and economic barriers

Community stories will be highlighted through music, poetry, workshops and visual art

Terry Hunter on stage with Kat Zucomul'wat Norris, Terry Hunter, Louisa Starr, Nicole Bird at Downtown Eastside Heart of the city's festival. (Submitted)

Terry Hunter on stage with Kat Zucomul’wat Norris, Terry Hunter, Louisa Starr, Nicole Bird at Downtown Eastside Heart of the city’s festival. (Submitted)

Terry Hunter and his partner Savannah Walling have been residents of the Downtown Eastside area since 1975. Hunter graduated from Simon Fraser University in the early 1970s. He is an artist, producer, and co-founder of the festival alongside Walling. 

Their organization Vancouver Moving Theatre partnered with the Carnegie Community Centre, a central and vital community centre in the Downtown Eastside, to produce the festival in 2004. This year is their 18th festival. 

In 2003, Hunter and Walling had put up a play with the residents of the community. They invited professional artists who worked with people from the community to a play held at the Vancouver Japanese Hall. They did eight shows, and every show sold out and had a standing ovation. Due to the positive experience they had in the past, they wanted to continue annually, so they founded The Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival

This year’s festival’s theme is about “the stories we need to hear,” reflecting the community’s struggles during the pandemic, the fentanyl crisis and the impacts of systemic racism over the last couple of years. 

Pre-pandemic, the DTES community held over 125 events happening throughout the community. Some of these events take place in community centres, coffee shops, libraries, on the street, or in studios and galleries. Most of these events are free or admit people by donation. 

“It is essential that this event is accessible to people, and their economic situation is not going to be a barrier to them [being] able to participate. A lot of people don’t have access to computers,” Hunter says.

“The festival has challenged the perception of the Downtown Eastside community being a drug-rattled community. It has brought a positive light that shows the layers of the community, but at the same time recognizes the difficulties members of the community face.”  

This festival is considered a model of community development, and seeks to bring people together and reassure them that their stories are valid. 

It also gives people who don’t consider themselves artists an opportunity to participate in the arts and put together shows that tell their stories. 

“The mandate of the festival is to promote all the cultures, all the stories, all the art forms, and support the professional artists, and the cultural treasures, but also important, to give people who don’t consider themselves to be artists an opportunity to participate in the arts,” Hunter says.

The 2021 festival will take place from Oct. 27 to Nov. 7, both online and in person. It will feature music, poetry, different kinds of talks, workshops and visual art exhibitions.

“It was such a positive experience because it brought people together to have a positive experience through arts and culture. It gave the individuals a sense of pride in themselves and a sense of meaning,” Hunter says.

“It is important we listen to their stories and learn from them and their lived experience because they have something to tell and something to teach.”