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Spaces: The Vancouver Public Library’s newest branch welcomes everyone

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FrontmatterApril_VPLRenderingThe newest addition to the Vancouver Public Library system will be more than a valuable lending institution and hub of community services – it will be the first major public building in the city to carry an aboriginal name.

The VPL’s nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona branch, due to open in the fall, was designed as a reflection of its Downtown Eastside surroundings. Its name incorporates both the hǝn̓q̓ǝmin̓ǝm̓  language of the indigenous Coast Salish peo­ple, who hold traditional territory claims to the area, and the surrounding neighbourhood’s modern name. The choice of the phrase “nə́c̓aʔmat ct” – which means “we are one” – was inspired by the theme of the city’s recent Year of Reconciliation activities. “I think some of the things that make this name less straightforward, in a way, make it a bit more meaningful,” says Beth Davies, manager of the VPL’s neighbourhood services. “It’s appropriate that it needs us to do some work [to pronounce] it.”

The Downtown Eastside is where the formerly industrial, now-fashionable Railtown meets historic Strathcona, one of Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhoods. It’s where the city’s poorest and most marginalized people – a disproportionately high number of them aboriginal – shop the same Chinatown market aisles as wealthy young urbanites. The 700 block of East Hastings Street, where the nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona is located, is home to the storied Astoria Hotel bar, popular with both hipsters and bathrobe-clad pensioners. A couple of doors down is the Finnish sauna house, where you’re as likely to sweat it out with an elderly Chinese man as a young Hootsuite executive. There’s also a motorcycle shop, a Vietnamese deli, and a couple of single-occupancy hotels. There’s even an urban farm, which supports those struggling with addiction. It’s a block that welcomes anyone – especially those who may not be welcome elsewhere.

The VPL wanted its new branch to symbolize this area in more than name only. To achieve this, it partnered with the YWCA Metro Vancouver and the city of Vancouver to create affordable housing for single mothers and their children within the new structure, while also offering a hub for community services. The library will boast 11,000 square feet of space, a huge meeting room, a fleet of public computers, and a creative lab for teens, equipped with a sound booth and computers for audio and video editing. The collections will reflect the neighbourhood’s diversity, and Davies hopes there will be an aboriginal-language component. The library’s Chinese collection will be particularly large, as will the children’s section. “We’re conscious of the lack of space that many of the kids in the neighbourhood might have at home,” Davies says. “We want a space where kids can come and learn to read and just hang out with friends.”

The nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona branch will replace the nearby library located in the Lord Strathcona Elementary School and Community Centre. “This is a wonderful branch, but it’s not full service,” says head librarian Els Kushner. “We’re tiny. We only have three computers. We’re not open in the evenings. We don’t even have a book drop.”

Kushner says there’s much excitement in the school community about the coming move. The partnership between the VPL and the Vancouver School Board has been wonderful, she says, and it’s been of benefit to students and teachers alike. “It seems like a really basic thing, but I think a lot of people are looking forward to having a visible library,” says Kushner. “People who have lived here for years don’t even know we exist. I think it feels like just a children’s library to a lot of adults in the community. I hope people will feel the new branch will have a space for them.”