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Saving Carnegie: former MP looks back at effort to protect Downtown Eastside landmark

Last Updated Oct 28, 2020 at 1:39 pm PDT

The Carnegie Community Centre. (Courtesy Vancouver Public Library)

2020 marks 40 years since a group of activists helped save the building that would become the Carnegie Community Centre

The story of how will be told tonight in a livestream event with activist and former Vancouver East MP Libby Davies

The event is set for Wednesday evening, as part of the 2020 Heart of the City Festival

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — It is the beating heart of the Downtown Eastside. 2020 marks 40 years since the old Vancouver Public Library at Main and Hastings was given a new lease on life. The story of how that happened is being told tonight.

It’s hard to believe now, but before 1980, the Downtown Eastside didn’t even have its own community centre. The former Carnegie Public Library, built back in 1903, was being eyed for demolition. It had served as the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library until 1957 when the VPL relocated to a new building at Robson and Burrard streets. It would take a grassroots effort to save the old stone building at Main and Hastings streets from the wrecking ball.

It was led by an effort by the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, an anti-poverty association co-founded by Libby Davies. “Folks on the Downtown Eastside had no place to go to sit, to read, to hang out, to have a bite to eat in a community centre setting,” she recalls. “So, it became a very important campaign and it took a lot of effort to finally get the city to cough up the capital funds [for it].”

RELATED: Former MP Libby Davies looks back in Outside In: A Political Memoir

Davies says the Carnegie is much more than just a library. “The library has always been a core for people to use, but there’s many other programs there, recreation programs, there’s a seniors centre, there’s learning programs, there’s a food program on the second floor [that] has always been very critical.”

She agrees, the building remains the heart of the community. “The building has really been a place for people to gather, to learn, to find that, sort of, sense of community spirit and solidarity. So it’s always played a very, very important role but I think what probably surprised all of us [at DERA] the most was the sense of arts and culture and theatre that came out of the place.”

Davies points to neighbourhood figures like the late Bud Osborn and Sandy Cameron, poets who were both based out of the Carnegie Centre, as symbols of the building’s importance as a cultural hub.

The activist and former Vancouver East MP will talk about the effort to save the Carnegie during a livestream event Wednesday evening, as part of the 2020 Heart of the City Festival.