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COVER STORY: Free Speech

Irwin Oostindie is nothing if not a man of vision. We are both sporting hard hats standing in a dust-filled rectangular room separated from the Woodwards atrium by a thin layer of glass covered in brown paper.
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Irwin Oostindie is nothing if not a man of vision. We are both sporting hard hats standing in a dust-filled rectangular room separated from the Woodwards atrium by a thin layer of glass covered in brown paper. But its clear the two of us are gazing at very different scenes.

Whereas, to me, the future home of W2 Community Media Arts is a mere run-of-the-mill construction site, Oostindie, W2s 44-year-old executive director, is in another world entirely.

Gesturing excitedly to the exposed drywall and heavy steel beams looming overhead, he lists the technological bells and whistles that will eventually enliven the space: multiple TV screens; interactive touch-screen computers; DJ booth; and, casting a glance at what is currently a fairly mundane staircase, a multimedia portal he calls the video cube.

Youll walk up the stairs and the sensors know there could be a piano note or your movements could trigger video or lighting in the space, he says, a little breathless. So its meant to show people what is typically in a university research lab and bring it into public space.

The cool factor will hopefully draw people into W2s social enterprise café on the main floor of its 8,800-square-foot space in the Woodwards complex. This is to be the permanent home for W2, which for the last year has been occupying the city-owned Storeyum space across the street. While the cavernous former museum has been a popular venue for W2-hosted conferences and parties, such as the Utopia Festival earlier this month, it will be here, at Woodwards, where the organization can finally start delivering on its mandate: creating a space where everyone Downtown Eastside residents, immigrants, students, working-class people and other marginalized individuals can access communication technology and learn how to use it.

Once completed, Oostindies video cube will lure visitors up the stairs to a public common area flanked by a technology suite, public washrooms, admin offices, editing bays, free phones and computers, even an original Woodwards letter press. In the basement, construction is underway on a community TV and radio broadcast centre with satellite stations for SFUs CJSF and Co-op Radio. Itll also double as a 200-capacity event space.

W2 believes communication is a human right, says Oostindie, a Gen-x-er whose salt-and-pepper hair picks up the silver glints in his multiple ear piercings. Its that philosophy, blended with a bit of a punk-rock edge, that led Oostindie along with W2s co-directors Lianne Payne and Will Stacey to conceive of a drop-in media centre back in 2003 when the then-unbuilt Woodwards development was Ground Zero for class conflict in Canada. Not a day went by when squatters werent clashing with city officials, developers and police over their tent city, a protest against the gentrifying influence of development. The ongoing saga provided regular fodder for the mainstream media. Oostindie and many other anti-poverty activists felt and still feel they didnt portray the community fairly.

A resident of Chinatowns Lore Krill Housing Co-op with a long history of living and working in the DTES, Oostindie recognized a gap in communication technology services for area residents. He and his cohort rallied other community organizations to support their bid to secure city-subsidized community amenity space in the controversial development and won thanks to the support of a community advisory council.

Its critical that we have our own communication infrastructure, Oostindie says, as we continue the tour. Considering the history of Woodwards in the Downtown Eastside, he says W2 has even more responsibility to provide real accessible community space that will empower residents to create and control their own images and messaging.

When you look at the Vancouver Suns headline Four Blocks of Hell, and thats our neighbourhood, you really have to question whos representing the Downtown Eastside, he says, referencing a 2006 news story. Were a town of 21,000 people and we dont have our own newspaper. We need a more in-depth forum for our neighbourhood: We need storytelling, we need distribution of information from and by residents.

Technology-wise, a lot has changed since 2003 to advance W2s goal. With smaller, cheaper and more powerful gadgets, Oostindie sees DTES residents not only producing newspapers, but live blogging, streaming TV and radio, and disseminating community happenings on social media. But some things have remained the same. Woodwards is still a lightening rod for controversy and a divisive force in the Downtown Eastside. And W2s impending presence there is raising eyebrows.

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For Wendy Pedersen, an anti-poverty activist with the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), W2s new digs represent a conflict of loyalties. Its unfortunate that W2 is in there, because we dont want to make that model work, she says, in a phone interview. Many of the feared impacts of the Woodwards development have come to pass, Pedersen notes: rent has gone up, Single Room Occupancy hotels have closed or upscaled, and DTES residents havent received many of the promised benefits and amenities. Of the four organizations chosen for amenity space in Woodwards (the others are AIDS Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House and a womens trades program) W2 is the only one to actually move onto the site. It was like dropping a bomb on the community, in terms of gentrification, says Pedersen. I understand W2 does good work, but at the same time its a bit of a conundrum.

But Sid Chow Tan thinks all will be resolved once W2 proves it will better the community. I think were gonna get over it, Tan, a genial 61-year-old, tells me over tea in his East Vancouver home. A longtime anti-poverty activist and media-maker in the Downtown Eastside, Tan regularly produces video for CCAP, Shaw Community TV, and various neighhourood organizations. He also sits on the DTES Neighbourhood Council and has been instrumental in heading up the fight against the areas newest threat: increased building heights in the DTES and Chinatown. Tan has also been with W2 since its inception in 2003 when hed regularly film the goings on at Woodsquat. (His videos can still be found on his page on the W2 site.) That the community is standoffish about W2 is understandable, but misguided, says Tan, partly because it hasnt been able to fully deliver its mandate in the Storeyum space. The model we have now at W2 Storeyum, is party, party, party, un-conference, meeting space, he says. If I was Wendy, Id be nervous too. But what needs to be pointed out here is the community media centre was asked for. It was a local residents advisory committee that wanted our project versus all the other projects that were there, and we are not displacing any social housing.

Once W2 is up and running as a truly public drop-in amenity, Tan figures the neighbourhood will come around. Give us a chance, before you slag us he dares nay-sayers. I will look forward to them coming to our door in a year and asking us to teach them the skills that we are doing now with media. I have no doubt we will win them over.

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Winning them over isnt just desirable; its essential for W2s success. Sitting down at JJ Bean the soon-to-be competition Oostindie fidgets with his tea bag as he takes stock of all thats at stake. With Vancouver Film School set to take over the Storeyum space on May 1, any delays in construction will render W2 temporarily homeless. Not only that, the change in location will also have an unknown impact on the organizations finances. Though Storeyum wasnt ideal for W2s intended programming (the building has been broken into nine times during its tenure), the money earned from hosting large-scale parties and conferences contributed significantly to their bottom line. Last year, Oostindie says W2 offered nearly $500,000 in programming, without the help of major funding bodies like the Canada Council, B.C. Arts Council or any provincial gaming grants. And Woodwards isnt free; W2 will be shouldering an $85,000 yearly lease.

Oostindie smiles sheepishly when asked if hes nervous. Its a very ambitious project for a grassroots group without core funding or capital funding in place, he replies after a long pause. Hes come this far with his vision now the final challenge for W2 lies in getting people in the door and uniting the community on the very site that divided it. Its far too important that people not abandon Woodwards. Its critical that all of Vancouver embrace this site as one of the most high-profile cultural heritage landmarks. W2 represents the future of Woodwards and we need Vancouverites to come onboard with that, he says, his fingers literally crossed.

reporter@westender