photos: Karen Jamieson Dance and the Carnegie Dance Troupe performing Metamorphosis. Photo by Chris Randle.

Vancouver's beating heart

Arts Preview: The Heart of the City Festival puts a spotlight on the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, featuring plenty Megaphone talents

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The 13th annual Heart of the City Festival will be held this month in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, giving community members a chance to celebrate the many facets of the city’s “most talented neighbourhood.”

From Oct. 26 to Nov. 6, more than 40 venues around the Downtown Eastside will host about 120 events, featuring 1,200 artists taking part in visual art performances, poetry readings, musical performances, gallery exhibits, historical talks, and more.

The festival’s mandate is to promote, present, and facilitate the development of artists, art forms, history, people and stories about the area. For Megaphone vendors involved in the festival, it gives the opportunity to celebrate the different aspects of the Downtown Eastside, and to express themselves.

Celebration of survival

James Witwicki has been involved with the festival since 2015 with the Thursdays Writing Collective (a neighbourhood weekly writer’s group) and this year will also take part in the Karen Jamieson Dance project. He feels the festival celebrates and reflects the many amazing aspects of the neighbourhood, from its diversity, to the way it accepts and supports people overrepresented in the area, including those with mental illness, disabilities, and sexual identity crises.

“The Heart of the City festival provides a forum where people that have barriers can express themselves in really amazing ways...that they may not necessarily get an opportunity to do elsewhere, simply because maybe they can’t afford to, or maybe they can’t go there, or maybe they don’t feel accepted,” he says.

A Downtown Eastside resident since 2010 who was partly drawn to the area due to its creativity and the way creative endeavours are received, Witwicki says there is talent waiting to be discovered in the area and people with stories to tell.

“I feel in some ways that that corner at the Carnegie Community Centre, it really is the beating heart of Vancouver,” he says. “There’s a lot of struggle, there’s a lot of bad things that happen but I mean there’s also just a lot of celebration of survival, celebration of success, celebration of people being able to stand out for a moment.”

The festival allows community members the basic resources they need to perform, he says, including facilitators and equipment. Witwicki says receiving the audience’s approbation and acceptance is “transformative” and highlights from last year include interacting with “extraordinarily talented” teachers and presenters at a day of poetry during which he was an MC and artist.

Celebration of people

For vendor Priscillia Tait, who has been involved in the festival since 2007, it allows her to express herself and her life journey artistically. It is inclusive, she says, and allows the community members to share their talents with those outside the area.

This year, Tait is taking part in several events, including the Hidden Stories project, a dance performance where she will play the Owl, expressing three emotions: hope, fear, and need. Her hope, she says, is “nurture,” her fear is “losing family,” and her need is to “let go.”

“I chose the Owl because [of ] the quietness of the bird because I’m the opposite, I like to chat, and I figured this owl would help me, I guess, calm myself...and with this project, it kind of helped me ground myself,” she says.

Vendor Mike McNeeley says the festival is a celebration of people in the Downtown Eastside, and a way to share what life is like living and working in the circumstances of the area, including the common thread of the pain of past traumas and the realization that people can be healed as a community. It gives participants a voice, and an opportunity to express their negative and positive experiences, he says.

“For a lot of the people in the Downtown Eastside, they’ve been separated from their family, so in a sense, we become a family for each other, and the festival is probably part of that.”

McNeeley, who previously lived in the area, first took part in the festival in 2003, and will this year be performing in The #20 with the Much Ado About Something theatre group. The festival brings people together and offers some hope, he says.

“People see, ‘Oh, this person has this talent, or that talent, maybe I can do something with my talent.’”

Megaphone writing workshop participant Jan Tse participated as an artist in the festival for the first time in 2014 and this year, she is pitching Laughter Yoga to festival organizers, a series of acting exercises involving laughter. The media often shows Downtown Eastside members as victims, she says, but making it in the neighbourhood is already a badge of honour.

“Everybody comes in there with a story. And the fact that they got to the Downtown Eastside, it’s a sign that they want to help themselves.”

A resident of the Downtown Eastside from 2009 until January, Tse says the festival highlights the diversity that mainstream media does not show. It is affirming, she says, to have your story being played out in front of you, to feel you are seen and heard.

“Otherwise, you feel you don’t exist, you don’t belong. Whereas, hey, you know, I do deserve space, I don’t have to apologize for my very existence. I do exist, I’m not a ghost,” she says.

Celebration of voice

The festival is a celebration of creative energy, she says, and the stage allows people to express a lot of things without being a “sad story.”

“Just because you have experienced this in your life, it doesn’t mean you don’t have full human expression. You’re still somebody’s brother, sister, mother, father, uncle, or auntie.”

The festival gives participants the opportunity to pause, reflect, and look at the hard evidence, Tse says.

“You do have something, you are somebody, your voice does matter, you are here, you are part of the fabric of the community.”

The festival's artistic producer, and Vancouver Moving Theatre executive director, Terry Hunter says the festival allows community members to share their voice, culture, history, and artwork with each other and with the larger community.

“It’s driven by the community’s need to have a voice but also by the need to alter the often negative perception people have of this community,” he notes.

Organized by the Vancouver Moving Theatre in association with the Carnegie Community Centre and the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians, the festival pays its artists and operation assistants, and for most events, entry is free or by donation, Hunter says.

A resident of the Downtown Eastside since 1995, he says many people in the area do not have the means to put on a show or have access to equipment for their art, he says. The festival provides this, and there is a sense of community ownership about it. Acts are booked through a community development model, where organizers talk to the neighbourhood throughout the year, and at least half of the events are pitched by the community.

“We provide them with the platform so they can step onto it and break our hearts with the beauty of what they are doing, the power of what they are doing.”

The theme for this year’s festival is “Living on Shared Territory,” recognizing that settler communities are living on unceded First Nations land. As such, the festival will include the installation of an eight-metre (27-foot) tall Survivors Totem Pole in Pigeon Park.

Other events include the Carnegie Jazz Band and Realms of Refuge, described as a gallery project that brings to life miniature worlds and explores the different ways people find sanctuary in the places they live.

From feedback, Hunter knows the festival is important to artists, and people come from all over the Lower Mainland and further to see them and take part in workshops. It is something he looks forward to every year, he says.

“It’s the most talented neighbourhood in the City of Vancouver.”

For more information and for tickets, visit

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