Kim Jong Il Dies and the World Looses a Cartoon-like Villain

Kim Jong Il, crazy tyrant of North Korea, has finally kicked the can and as REM might say, “I feel fine.”

The real reason for his death is still unclear. Most reports seem to point to “exhaustion”. Obviously he was very busy looking at stuff on his latest orientation tour. Note to world leaders – don’t look at too much stuff or you may die of exhaustion.

While it may seem mean to mock the dead, it’s hard not to think this guy got what he deserved. After all, here’s a guy that continued in the footsteps of his father, ramming a once industrious and powerful country into the ground with famine, obsessively paranoid politics, poor planning and ongoing poverty.

After sparking numerous conflict, his legacy is leaving North Korea armed with nuclear weapons and in an incredibly isolated position. His nation is such a gong-show that the country’s own big brother on the block (China) seems frequently embarrassed and frustrated by its neighbor’s outright aggressiveness.

Enter his son Kim Jong-un (cause appointing your son leader of the country is a totally people-oriented “democratic” thing to do ), who is now not only North Korea’s “Respected General” but also its “Great Successor”. The guys in his 20s with barely an undergrad under his belt. I don’t know about you, but I was definitely ready to run a nuclear armed nation in my mid-twenties. I mean how different is running a country and running the local Subway? Not much, right? He’ll be fine!

Not only is the guy super young, but he’s also got no political, military, economic or leadership experience to speak of. On top of that, his people barely know him. It’s like a blind date, but instead of a casual Friday night, you’re stuck with this guy for the rest of his natural life. Score one for the North Korean workers.

The good news is that he’ll have to make a lot of pretty awful and frequent mistakes to screw up the country as badly as his dad did. The bad news is that he’s already gotten off to a running start. Word on the Pyongyang street is he’s the little architect behind the unprovoked and deadly attack against a small South Korean island earlier this year. The attack, which killed several South Koreans and injured over a dozen others. It was ordered undoubtedly for a number of nebulous and evil reasons. However, some Korea watchers have speculated one such motivation was to give the young “General” some work experience.

The result of all of this makes me sad. Sad for the poor North Koreans who are going to have deal with another few decades of horrible misrule and sad for Korea’s Asian neighbours who’re going to have to continue to “manage” (like sober bar patrons trying to talk down a loud, mean and aggressive drunk) their crazy nuclear weapon-armed neighbour. While I can’t say I’m not a little smug our own cartoon villain has (finally) bit the dust, I won’t be too optimistic.

It’s likely the Korean peninsula will continue to be under a dark cloud long into the future, at least if Kim Jong-un has anything to say about it.

Olympic Neighbourhoods: The Downtown East Side

Your Olympic Neighbourhood this week is…The Downtown East Side (with special appearances by Chinatown and Gastown)!

As a key media outlet for the 2010 Olympics, the Daily Gumboot is excited to bring you our “Olympics Neighbourhood” segment. Here’s how it works: each week, Managing Editor, Kurt Heinrich, and Editor-in-Chief, John will profile a different Vancouver neighbourhood with a specific focus on things that might interest out-of-town visitors who arrive in The Couve for the Olympics. We will do this between now and the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver and the story will be told be the Gumboot’s editors asking and answering the five questions below. These are the straight goods that you can’t get from VANOC, the Ministry of Tourism or the City of Vancouver. Let’s get to it!

1. Where is this neighbourhood exactly and how do I get there?

JOHN: Well, I will once again leave it to Kurt to create and deliver an amazing Googlemap. This neighbourhood is part of the “Olympic Corridor,” so you will be walking to it, my tourist friends. As mentioned in the video, many a tourist has aimlessly wandered or bicycled into “Canada’s poorest postal code” while trying to navigate their way from Gastown to historic Chinatown. Many tourism bloggers will tell you to be wary of such misadventures. We say “explore all communities” and “talk to strangers” here at the Daily Gumboot; just be sure to bring common sense along during your exploration.

KURT: Here’s the map. The big red icon  (surprise, surprise) shows roughly where the neighbourhood is.


2. Why should a tourist/traveler be interested in it?

JOHN: Well, there are a lot of problems in the Downtown East Side; addiction, abuse, poverty, neglect, violence, and injustice are right out in the open. In spite of many political and business leaders’ best efforts to “clean up” the DTES before the Olympics, the homeless remain in this neighbourhood. And so does hope. Believe it or not, a lot of good people do a lot of good things in this neighbourhood. From Tradeworks, a woodworking cooperative, to United We Can, a collection of social enterprises that create employment for disadvantaged folks, to the Potluck Cafe, see the video, the DTES possesses some fantastic stories of human innovation. Look. Go to the West End, Yaletown and Kits and strike up a conversation. Then go to the Downtown East Side and have a chat with a local. Which conversation is more interesting and memorable? Yeah…that’s what I thought.

A tough life on the streets.

A tough life on the streets.

KURT: There are also a lot of terrific places to see. Some of Vancouver’s best heritage sites exist in the Gastown area (right next to the DTES). There you can see dozens of turn of the century (and older) buildings. The brick buildings with wood ceiling beams are fascinating to see and not duplicated anywhere else in the city.

3. What good and/or unique things are there to eat?

JOHN: Chinatown is full of unique things, such as duck, which is a favourite of my editorial partner, Kurt Heinrich. With the delicious restaurants of Gastown just a stroll away, you will be in position for good eating.

KURT: Good places to check out include Nuba (for healthy middle eastern and Mediterranean food), the Potluck Cafe (mentioned in our video), the Carnegie Cafeteria (if you’re all tapped out after paying thousands for Olympic tickets and want to buy a meal for just 2 bucks), the Cambie (great for burgers and really cheap beer), and Hons (a Chinese cuisine experience like no other).

4. What can I do for fun in this neighbourhood?

Gastown - chock full of heritage...

Gastown - chock full of heritage...

JOHN: People watching is always a good bet. Many Canadians affiliate altruism with fun, so lending a hand and helping out at one of these fine establishments would certainly add an interesting and meaningful chapter to your Olympic visit.  I also highly recommend taking in some kind of performance at the Firehall Arts Centre (if you have time you can check out the Vancouver Police Museum, too). And, if you’re lucky, you will be in the ‘hood on a day when the Portland FC street soccer team is playing a game.

5. What are your three favourite things about the Downtown East Side?

1. Holy crap, this is hard. I will forgo one answer to just say that, in the eyes of the world, what does it say when a country as rich as Canada lets people become marginalized in such a way? It doesn’t say much. And we can do better. We must do better.

2. Bus rides on the Number 20. A return trip on the last bus to my neighbourhood, Commercial Drive, from Downtown is, well, an experience. I’ve had my fortune told. Been asked to sell my girlfriend. Intervened in what was possibly a gang fight. Held a baby. Sang carols. Debated the meaning of life. Been educated about micro-lending and community currencies. And had my hair brushed. If you really value personal space, perhaps take a cab.

EastHastings3. The DTES Bazaar. Nice try, Marrakesh, but Vancouver has a pretty darn good street bazaar where you can find all kinds of stuff – sure, mostly none of it is obtained legitimately and the whole bartering economy serves to provide temporary fixes for people who are holding on to some sort of life by the skin of their grubby and malnourished fingertips. Or something less dramatic. Besides, where else in Vancouver can you come across this delightful – and possibly not hypothetical – scene?

DTES BAZAAR WHOLESALER: Anyone want to buy a bike? Nice bike here. Good price.

DISTRESSED TOURIST: Hey! That’s my bike!

DTES BAZAAR WHOLESALER: No. No it’s not. It’s my bike. But I’m selling. Wanna buy it?

DISTRESSED TOURIST: I’ve had this bike for three years. My wife and I rode over from Victoria yesterday. I left it for a few minutes outside while I went into a grocery store to buy some fruit. That scratch – right there – that happened riding the Galloping Goose trail in Saanich! It’s mine!

DTES BAZAAR WHOLESALER: No, that didn’t happen. And these two guys say that it’s my bike.

FIRST BAZAAR BYSTANDER: Yeah, it’s his bike.

SECOND BAZAAR BYSTANDER: He rides it all the time. I seen it.

DTES BAZAAR WHOLESALER: So, do we have a deal?

[and scene]

So there it is. In 2006, when I landed at the airport in Nairobi, a gentleman named Mohammad gave me some good advice; he called it the Two Rules of Africa: “never underestimate peoples’ kindness and don’t trust anybody.” The same might apply for your visit to this Olympic Neighbourhood, too.

A Story of the Working Poor

Shhhh! This is a dirty secret that nobody likes talking about. Well, it’s not really a secret, because there is information about the issue everywhere. More accurately, we are – as we should be – embarrassed by the glaring fact that, in our great nation of Canada, 1 in 10 people (nearly 3.5 million of us) live in poverty.These findings come from a report recently released by the Salvation Army, and the document also outlined the unfortunate statistic that 35% of homeless men in British Columbia are employed. Infuriated by such a grim forecast for our Olympic Nation? Not sold on the data? Well, you can email the Salvation Army’s Territorial Public Relations Director, Andrew Burditt, at andrew_burditt(at) if you have any questions, comments or concerns.

Moving on…

Wow. 3.5 million. People. Canada. Employed homeless people? No wonder people from the developing world are so staggeringly disappointed by our Canadian communities when they visit. According to the Human Development Index, Canada is tied for fourth (with Luxembourg and Sweden – take that, Switzerland!) as the overall most desirable country in which to live. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the United Nations think we’re doing a pretty good job of, well, being a society. Here’s a pretty key problem with our society, though: according to a 2007 Statistics Canada report, “the income gap between rich and poor has widened over the past ten years and income inequality is greater in Canada than it is in most other developed countries.” No kidding. When a quarter of Canada’s homeless receive income from paid employment and an astounding 57% receive income from other sources like welfare (37%), disability (16%) or a pension (4%), I wonder how bad things have gotten in places around the world, such as Switzerland, the UK and the United States, where the income gap is even worse. What will it take for us to create a just and inclusive society – in Vancouver, Canada and beyond? Or do we even really want one?

Here’s a breakdown of how some resident experts think things are going:

The Big, Fat, Stinkin’, Global Picture: I dunno, Bill Maher doesn’t usually steer me wrong, and he has some pretty important things to say about our global, American-influenced addiction to greed.
It turns out greed is not good. Too many people in Britain today are “professional, single and poor.” In fact, a recent story by the up-and-coming news agency BBC suggested that the number of people living in poverty – the working poor – has increased by 300,000 since 1996. Someone who retires in Britain today is more likely than their parents to live out their days in poverty. With stats like these, should we really be “internationally developing” and offering advice to the developing world?

The Canadian Picture: Look, Canada. Recent findings show that 89% of wealthy Canadians do not want hungry peasant mobs with pitchforks overwhelming their gated communities (the other 11% love a good fight, apparently). Chuckle if you like, but also be mindful of history. In my third year at Bishop’s University, I wrote a paper called Whoa Buddy, where you goin’ with that pitchfork? (Peasant Rebellions in Seventeenth Century France), and, while we’re not quite at a pitchfork stage yet, some of the data and stories from my paper are unfortunately similar to some of the situations today – 42% of homeless men in the prairies are employed; many of them have pitchforks, I reckon. And if you think that putting an idea of poverty into context using seventeenth-century examples is ridiculous, well, I have some Somali pirates that I’d love to introduce you to…

“The homeless population is disturbingly large and even more disturbing growing in size, in scope and in its connection to mental illness,” said The Honourable Michael Kirby, Chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. “Recent research shows 1 in 7 users of emergency shelters across Canada are children and almost a third of Canada’s homeless are youths aged 16-24. Street counts of homeless people indicate their numbers have increased at an alarming rate.” And keep in mind, statistics show that nearly a quarter of these people have jobs.

The BC Picture: A recent study by Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMA) estimated that in British Columbia, the current financial cost to taxpayers for services to homeless people with severe addictions and/or mental illness is $55,000 a year per person. In contrast, providing these people with adequate housing and supports costs $37,000 a year per person. This saves taxpayers $211 million dollars a year in direct costs. A British Columbia shelter user put it in personal perspective: “In my case, I get enough money each month to live. I get over twelve hundred dollars a month – Old Age Pension, Canada Pension and supplement, so that should be enough for me to live on, but I’m having a terrible time trying to find affordable housing.” Whether it’s the Salvation Army report or a statement from the Ministry of Community or the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, the consensus opinion on how to tackle homelessness is with affordable housing.

The Vancouver Pre-Olympic Showcase Picture:
Recent findings show that homelessness in Vancouver has grown by about 250% since 1994. According to a 2008 “homeless count” by an SFU-led group of students, faculty and volunteers, there are nearly 15,500 homeless people in the Lower Mainland. If I were a businessperson in Vancouver, I’d demand affordable housing – and lots of it. Here’s why: I strongly doubt that my employees who might pay between $650-$1,100 per month in rent are going to work for $8 an hour. I also don’t think that employees who live in shelters or on the street are going to be incredibly motivated or engaged in my business. After all, it’s in our business community’s best interest to have affordable housing.

The 2010 Olympics are going to be the greatest advertisement for the city of Vancouver in the history of, well, the city of Vancouver. We even have a sexy, charming and downright nice Mayor! First, I hope this month-long ad is not a Harper-style attack ad. Second, when the world sees how beautiful it is here, I hope we have a strong enough commitment to social justice and not sell our city to the highest bidders from around the world who arrive, take-in the Olympics, drink the water, and commit to staying here no matter what the price. Vancity, we’re less than a year away from a watershed moment – a tipping point – in our community’s history. Let’s not screw it up by being greedy…

So what are the next steps?
Well, I’m no expert like the high-paid staff at The Tyee, but it might be a good idea to explore some o
f the following five ideas:

  1. Get students and young people involved through SERVICE LEARNING initiatives early and often. By linking academic learning outcomes to personal and professional development within the context of community service, well, our young people will grow of leaders with a more comprehensive understanding of the social problems that, clearly, continue to cripple our supposedly sparkling communities.
  2. Talk about the problem.We need CITIZEN JOURNALISTS who have no loyalty to corporate sponsors to hit the streets with pens, paper, cameras, and good intentions (not to mention a sprinkle of idealism) to tell the stories of Canada’s homeless in a way that will engage our entire community and motivate us to collaborate on all levels and solve the problem together. Or be vocal in a different way and wear a white Make Poverty History bracelet, just like in the picture!
  3. Put hippies, land developers and oil barons at the same table. Like I said, we need to solve the problem TOGETHER. Growing up in Merville, British Columbia has given me a soft spot for hippies, mostly because I’ve got some in me. But I kinda sorta don’t really like them most of the time (editor’s note: mostly, they are frustrating, as the staff at The Weekly Gumboot makes it a point to be positive and see the good in all people, places and things; even cannibals in Winnipeg watching American Idol). Ironically, hippies rarely compromise – with each other or with those they deem worthy of “enemy” status. They also aren’t very well organized. Oil barons are very well organized. For the most part, so are developers. We all have a common interest for prosperity and the betterment of our community. They’re just subjective perceptions of a different sort. Working against each other in silos isn’t going to solve anything, though. We need ideas from everywhere to build community. Now pass the bong, man…
  4. VOLUNTEER. Barack Obama recently passed the Serve America Act. Rwanda has compulsory community service one Saturday per month. A recent pole in 24 Hours found that 65% of Lower Mainlanders do not want to volunteer. People. We can do better. And, as it turns out, we kinda have to if we want to be a global role model.
  5. Make SOUND CONSUMER CHOICES. From global to local, purchasing products that are made by people who make a decent, livable wage is still the greatest way for us to make a collective and powerful impact on how things are done in our local, regional, national, and global communities. Have you seen how amazing the architecture, food and service at the Convention Centre? It reveals our potential…

A final thought. The Human Development Index has three symbols that put a ranked country’s position in context: a green, upward triangle means it improved from the previous survey, a blue line means it stayed the same, and a red, downward triangle means it got worse. In the rankings, there are a lot of green triangles, indicating that, on the whole, things on are planet are getting better. No matter what the panic mongering media tells us.

Things are getting better, sure. And yet we still have 3.5 million people living in poverty in, according to the Human Development Index, one of the best country’s on the planet. Things could be a lot better a lot faster if we all get a little more involved. So there it is. The next move is yours, community


The Gangs and Community of Chicago

When outright chaos exists, it’s easy to forget that there is still a community of people who are connected by thousands of individual strands of commerce, dependency and power.

Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the Robert Taylor Projects of the late 1980s – the height of the crack epidemic. During that time, gangs ruled the people’s world and the chaos of crack addition, homelessness, endemic poverty, and frequent violence turned the place into an inferno that defies the imagination of many middle-classers like yours truly.

It’s a world where over 50% of people admitted to frequent or occasional crack use. Where young gangsters participated in voter registration drives financed by crack money. Where drive-bys during the community BBQ were a not-all-together infrequent experience. Where the local cops signed up at the precinct to participate in “raids” on gangster parties where they literally rob the thugs blind.

Where just about everyone was on some form of social assistance, the average take home yearly salary is $10,000 and it’s not seen as uncommon for women to use sex as a way of keeping the heat on during the winter.

It’s also a place where crack addicts, prostitutes, teenage gangsters tatted out and perpetually high and drunk intermingle with grandmas who cook collard greens and mac’n cheese next door to tenant hustlers constantly out to make a buck.

In his fascinating sociological study Gang Leader for a Day Sudhir Venkatesh explores this world and evocatively illustrates the depths of a vibrant and self-sustaining communal system which offers many of the same services we take for granted everyday.

One of the most interesting aspects of Venkatesh’s story connects to the interdependence of community leaders, gangsters and residents. Due to the corruption of the Chicago Housing Authority and the general disinterest of many Chicago police in entering the area, many residents were reliant on the gang organization and local powerbrokers (like tenant housing presidents) for their well being.

Door falls off its hinges during a subzero Chicago winter? Better have a good relationship with Ms. Bailey (the well connected favor broker and building president) – otherwise you’ll be freezing till the cows come home before the CHA processes your request.

Beat up your girlfriend cause your high on crack and think she’s cheating on you? You don’t need to worry about the cops if you live in Robert Taylor, but you sure as hell need to worry about the local gang members who’s business, along with selling crack, monitoring (and taxing) the area’s prostitutes, and all sorts of other illegal activity, is to also to keep law and order. Why? Because a safe environment is just good for business.

One of the most fascinating things about all this is the way that community forges itself out of anarchy to deal with people’s most basic (and sometimes more complex) needs. The veritable and diverse black market and underground economy featuring the sale of everything from children’s candy to car repair, from babysitting to crack processing facilities (read – your kitchen stove) shows just how people adapt to their environment’s economic demand.

Most interesting of all is Venkatesh’s examination of pooling of resources among young un-wed mothers who’s partners were either involved in the local Black Kings gang and not around or had been involved in the Black Kings until a rival gang member had gunned them down.

None of the women had enough money to maintain all the necessities of running water, electricity, childcare, and (unsurprisingly in North America I guess) television. To solve the problem, they formed a collective – eat your heart out Lenin – whereby each paid for one thing and then pooled the resources with the others.

The result? You woke up in your apartment, sauntered over to Shironda’s place to get your food from the refrigerator and eat breakfast, then skipped down to Lisa’s apartment several doors down to have a shower. Finally you ended up at Clarisse’s apartment where you plunked yourself in front of a TV. Indeed these communities were so vibrant and tightly knit that according to Venkatesh, when the buildings were all slated to be torn down by the Clinton Administration, many families’ main priority was to find a new home close by their neighbors to allow the effective continued pooling of resources.

Ultimately, the Robert Taylor projects were torn down and replaced by middle class condos. Their population dispersed to other poor and working class-black neighbourhoods in and around Chicago. However, their example of how community can survive in even the most hellish areas should give us a little hope – particularly when we’re staring at the our own Robert Taylor in the streets and buildings surrounding Main and Hastings.