Downtown East Side: one week in

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We’ve recently moved the Mozilla Messaging offices, for a variety of reasons, to our cool new digs. Partially so I have something to look back in a few months, I thought I’d write down my thoughts about the new space and neighborhood.

Mozilla Messaging Office (credit: Mark Surman on flickr)

The office itself is pretty much what I was hoping it would be. It’s much bigger than the old space, which means we can continue to all be together, for the vibe that it generates, and to facilitate communication. It’s even big enough for Bryan’s Love Sac, which is a huge draw for visiting kids and executive directors. The internet service rocks, especially compared to the ISPs we tried at the old place. (it’s a fascinating world when residential internet service is head and shoulders above what you can get in an office tower). We have still to install some more lights and another desk or so, but there’s no rush. There are some definite oddities to the space, like the bathtub in the open space, Andrew’s laser and fog machine, but I’m sure we’ll find interesting uses for all of that. It’s been also really easy to have people stop by and hang out, which I think helps us build connections with other Mozilla folks, other Vancouver tech, design, & open source people. Some of that was a bit awkward in our previous space.

Miniature Downtown Eastside (credit: joannaforever on flickr)

Miniature Downtown Eastside (credit: joannaforever on flickr)

What is more interesting than all that “inside” stuff, though, is the neighborhood outside. For people not familiar with Vancouver, we’re located in the “notorious” downtown east side — a weird neighborhood with its own unpronounceable acronym: DTES. It’s a neighborhood with a long history, much of which I don’t know, and for much of the recent decades, not very healthy. It’s easy to simplistically describe it as skid row, which is certainly part of the truth. In particular, if you look at how the press covers it, it might seem a bizarre place to choose for an an office. A center of chronic drug use, the place where people go when they can’t go any lower, a money-pit for well-intentioned but ineffective social programs, all the headlines are bad.

If you go past the headlines and read the globe and mail reports, and more importantly, if you spend a bit of time here, the picture gets far more complex. I know I don’t know nearly enough about the social crisis to pontificate about it. All I can report are my impressions after a few days.

six lives (credit: SqueakyMarmot on flickr)

six lives (credit: SqueakyMarmot on flickr)

The first impression clearly centers on “the people in the street”. During the lunch hour in particular, the number of people idle in the streets is stunning. In most of Vancouver, like in most healthy cities, the people you see in the street are going somewhere — they have a place to go, something to do (the few stationary folks are usually smokers escaping the no-smoking rules, and geeks wondering where to go for lunch). Around here, the number of people who just seem to hang out with nothing to do is startling. It’s expected and undeniable that there’s despair, sorrow, drugs, and mental illness in these streets. But what I didn’t expect was to see this much idleness and boredom, states which my friend Jen correctly characterized as toxic. The ill-informed manager in me feels that part of the answer has to be identifying some activities that “these people” could do which would give some energy and impetus for action in their lives. Then I realize I have no idea what I’m talking about and keep moving.

Woodward project (credit: Beach650 on flickr)

Woodward project (credit: Beach650 on flickr)

The second recurring thought is that this world is possibly about to change radically. First, because Vancouver is a city with a growing population and a fixed size (there’s water almost all around), and this kind of economic black hole feels unstable. More specifically, there are some developments that I wouldn’t be surprised to see push the economics past a tipping point. The Woodward’s project is a huge tower about to accept tenants, which will include 536 condo units, a university campus, a grocery store, a bank, etc. People sometimes focus on the 40% of those condos that will be below-market (i.e. subsidized) housing. Those units will likely help relieve some pain, but I doubt the people sleeping on the street will qualify. I’m predicting more change from the influx of people to the market-priced units, the university, and other businesses that move into that building (and likely the neighboring buildings, whose property value will likely rise). All of the demographics will change (age, income, race, health, etc.), which I expect (and hope) will change the feel of the neighborhood. A thousand students means a lot of young, healthy, ambitious and optimistic people in the streets, faced with a situation that needs people as much as it needs money. People with incomes and property will mean more people who care directly about the neighborhood.

The Irish Heather (credit: urbanmixer on flickr)

The Irish Heather (credit: urbanmixer on flickr)

The third thought is that the street scene you get at first glance is highly misleading. The restaurant scene, for example, is nothing if not high end. Across the street is Boneta, which serves $79 prime rib. Around the corner, the Irish Heather and its Shebeen whisky bar in the back, has 4 columns of whiskies. The related Salty Tongue is a great place to have work lunches, and Salt is hip enough to be a tasting room, not a restaurant. Even our building houses a fancy teahouse which serves pastry flown in from my home town. More reasonably, my friend Sally told me this morning about Deacon’s Corner, a diner that’s two blocks away, so I headed out there for lunch. The place was packed with 30-somethings wolfing down burgers, all hipper and more web-two-oh than each other. Food aside (although food is crucial), if you slow down when you walk in between “scary” people, you notice that behind the glass fronts are banks of young architects hacking on laptops. That that strange storefront is actually open, and selling cool art/crafts stuff. You notice that in fact you’ve seen quite a few friends in the neighborhood, and that’s not counting the social activists. You reflect on the fact that there’s a facebook group for the building you’re in, and that their apartments all look pretty swank and nice.

This is the downtown east side?

Which brings me to the fourth thought, which is that these neighborhood labels are awfully fungible. Looking north, we’re one block away from Water Street, which is the epicenter of Gastown, “tourist central” (it’s a bit funny when some of the tourists try to explore and end up on the “wrong” street). Two blocks south and you’re in Vancouver’s older chinatown, complete with yummy cheap steam buns (thanks Avi for the rec). Three blocks west, and you’re in the no-name neighborhood with hip clothing stores and (just to bring food back in), So.cial, Brioche, Nuba, and the awesome Greedy Pig (which is itself a few blocks away from the fanciest bits of Hastings St, complete w/ Cartier & Hugo Boss stores. What this makes me feel as well is that as catastrophic as the situation is for the individuals involved, from a city planning point of view, it’s extremely punctate, unlike the sprawling suburbs of so many urban centers. Surgical, small scale interventions feel more appropriate than large scale urban renewal.

That’s likely more than enough words after just a little bit of living here. So far, I’m enjoying it all. Do come visit, I’ll take you on a tour. I have yet to try the Guiness at the Heather…

A nice Guiness sign (not in Vancouver) (credit: xb3 on flickr)

A nice Guiness sign (not in Vancouver) (credit: xb3 on flickr)

Thunderbird-friendly SOGo reached 1.0

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An open-source project that I pay a bit of attention to is SOGo, aka “scalable OGo”. It’s a project w/ a long history, much of which I don’t know well, but what’s interesting to me is that they’re trying to be the Yin to Thunderbird’s Yang. SOGo includes a web frontend, which is designed to look like Thunderbird, which is a fascinating choice.

The folks at Inverse, who are the primary drivers of SOGo, as far as I know, are also doing Thunderbird & Lightning add-ons (SOGo Connector and SOGo Integrator), including adding support for CardDAV, Free/Busy, etc. They’re also helping with patches to Lightning, for which we’re definitely grateful!

SOGo reached the 1.0 milestone yesterday, which is always worth celebrating. If you’re interested in the groupware space and looking at software that plays well w/ thunderbird, check it out.