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The initial idea for the project was very much influenced by two others: the New York Times’ One in 8 Million and the National Film Board’s Highrise. I wanted to do a multimedia project that told “ordinary” people’s stories — which are often anything but.
Around the same time, another idea came to me on a bus ride through the Downtown Eastside: Moving past SROs, small restaurants, shabby storefronts, etc., I thought it would be neat to create a digital directory of the stories of people living or working inside each building. And so the project idea was born.
Chris Parry, Deputy Digital Editor:
At The Sun, we’ve long invested a lot of sweat, persistence and creativity in coming up with ideas that can showcase not only what is possible in the realm of online journalism, but also the amazing things that make the city we live in so unique.
The Sun’s digital team have often found that the stories that really hit home aren’t necessarily the big picture, front page controversies and catastrophes, but the personal tales of a small segment of life in the Pacific Northwest that so often go unheard: the teacher buying groceries for the families of starving students or a single mom’s personal battle against a hitherto unknown disease – essentially, the little guy fighting against the world and somehow winning where many of us may have long ago surrendered.
So when Andrea raised the possibility of taking our cameras down to street level and look deeply at an area that is so often described in cliche terms, it seemed a perfect chance to let some of those personal stories out into the sunlight.
For some, these may be unspectacular tales that don’t move the needle in terms of personal importance but, for others, these are the stories we live every day, the issues that matter – the real life tales of real lives lived. Everyone has one but rarely are they shared, so our aim is for the Gastown Project to show you the Gastown only local residents know.
- Q?Why focus on Gastown?
Andrea Woo, reporter:
Gastown was the first neighbourhood I considered for the simple reason that I love the area, but it is also an incredibly interesting story to dig one’s teeth into: It is the city’s oldest neighbourhood, Vancouver’s original downtown core. It is simultaneously very old and very new; drenched in history yet hip and “urban.” It looks, and is, nothing like the rest of the city.
As well, the disparity between income levels in Gastown is notable: While about 70 per cent of Gastown residents live below the low-income cut-off (“poverty line”), it is not nearly as visible as it is on, say, nearby Hastings Street. Instead, you have these cool boutiques and pubs and uber-high-end furniture stores that sell gazillion-dollar chaise longues, spurring the heated debate of gentrification vs. revitalization.
Throughout it all — the good and the bad — is a fabric of authenticity: It’s not a lame, crummy neighbourhood trying to be “urban” and it’s not a sanitized, yuppy neighbourhood trying to be edgy. The good and the bad feel real. We went into the project hoping to get a diverse mix of people with a wide range of opinions, and I think we accomplished that.
Bev Wake (Sun Special Projects Editor) and Chris Parry (Sun Deputy Digital Editor) at The Sun have suggested expanding not only The Gastown Project after the launch date, but spreading into other neighbourhoods as well, which is something I’d love to do, if possible.
- Q?Did you encounter any challenges or difficulties?
Andrea Woo, reporter:
It was at times difficult to get people to open up — comfortably, naturally and succinctly — on camera. I think after the initial explanation of what we were aiming to do, mostly everyone understood the project required their candidness for it to be successful, and they opened up. But once you have bright lights beaming down on you and a camera in your face, the whole thing can become nerve-wracking. I hate being on camera and clam up about 99.998 per cent of the time that I am, so I know what it’s like.
In the end, I think (hope) we got most people comfortable and relaxed enough to tell us their stories properly.
There was one subject we had to cut entirely that I think probably had an incredible story, but he just couldn’t articulate it, no matter how hard we tried. And we tried. That sucked.
A couple others weren’t comfortable spilling the heavier details from their lives on camera, which is totally understandable, but it took away from the overall impact of the profiles, but hopefully we’ve done them justice.
Mark Yuen, videographer:
I think Andrea did a great job getting the people to open up about their lives. On the visual side, I had to find a balance with the visual feel of the videos, mixing urban low-income and high-end businesses in Gastown. I wanted to remain true to the gritty street feel of Gastown so I spent a lot of time wandering the streets to gather footage. The difficulty encountered is finding enough footage for each profile and not have a talking head for the entire duration – thankfully Gastown is pretty packed full of visual interest.
- Q?What were your personal highlights working on the project?
Andrea Woo, reporter:
Meeting so many new and interesting people and being able to exercise a level of creativity that I don’t typically get to with everyday news stories.
Mark Yuen, videographer:
I love working with people and this project was the gateway to meeting a diverse mix of East Van residents. People fascinate me and hearing their stories – from the history of Gastown to why they chose to make it their home – sparks my creativity. I am very grateful the subjects allowed us into their home and made us feel like family.