Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park remains closed more than a year after an 18-month tent city was cleared as part of the province’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and community leaders are pitching a unique proposal to get their greenspace back.
The park in the heart of the densely populated Downtown Eastside (DTES) has been fenced off since a costly remediation effort began in May 2020.
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While no one may be grappling with a lack of green space amid the lush lawns and plentiful parks on the city’s west side, the Carnegie Community Centre Association (CCCA) says Oppenheimer Park is the only backyard for some 10,000 low-income residents – many of whom don’t have access to living rooms, communal spaces, patios or yards.
“This is our green space,” said Carnegie Community Centre Association president Gilles Cyrenne.
“This is our park in the Downtown Eastside. You know, those of us who live in SROs have nowhere else to go.”
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“With it fenced off, there’s nothing,” one female neighbour told Global News on Sunday.
“We’re sad, we’re sad,” added a man who lives one block away from the park.
“At the same time, they have to do something about it. I don’t know maybe, they make a gate,” he said.
The CCCA said neighbours are asking that the fence be kept up, with access during the day and the park shut down at night.
“We want our park back,” wrote Cyrenne in a letter to city officials earlier this year, in which the CCCA insisted that Oppenheimer be reopened such that it doesn’t “immediately become a new tent city.”
“The park must operate as a park, not just as a campground and a stage for social protest,” states the Feb. 12 letter to the Park Board and the Vancouver mayor and council.
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Oppenheimer has been the site of four homeless camps, according to former Minister of Social Development Shane Simpson, and Cyrenne said the community doesn’t want to see recent history repeat itself.
“It costs millions to rehabilitate the park,” Cyrenne told Global News.
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The CCCA partners with the city and Park Board to operate over 30 programs and projects in Oppenheimer Park which provide social, cultural, recreational and food opportunities for DTES residents.
Those personal connections between volunteers, area residents and staff were a “vital component for enhancing people’s health”, Cyrenne said.
Because the field house had to be closed due to the latest encampment and recent vandalism, many of the services the Carnegie Community Centre has offered for a quarter-century are no longer available.
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“We want the community to have access to the park and to the services,” said Cyrenne.
“It’s really important for the neighbourhood.”
The CCCA is also strongly recommending that any reopening plans for Oppenheimer include having housing staff at the park on an ongoing basis to quickly help find solutions if individuals arrive with camping gear.
The concept to have the park open during the day and closed in the evening would borrow from New York City, where park gates are locked up after dark.
It would also be a first for a public park in Vancouver, where only Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park – next door to the private Classical Chinese Garden tourist attraction with the same name – is currently gated at night.
Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry thinks the idea has merit and said he’s spoken to many people who are looking forward to Oppenheimer opening up again, and who don’t want to see it destroyed.
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“The Carnegie Community Centre services some of the most vulnerable folks in our city and for them, Oppenheimer is an incredibly important park,” Fry told Global News.
“To lose it for, going on two years now, is taking its toll.”
Cyrenne said the Park Board acknowledged receipt of his letter, but he’s received no further response.
Vancouver Park Board plans to partially reopen Oppenheimer Park in June
A board spokesperson told Global News that its operations team and partners are in the process of finalizing the June reopening date for the west side of the park, but did not say whether a gated park is being considered.
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