By Yasmine Shemesh
It’s a crisp February afternoon. Inside Gordon Neighbourhood House, which is tucked away on the tree-lined Broughton Street in the West End, it’s warm and bustling. A menagerie of people — some young, some elderly, at least one in drag — are sitting and standing, chatting to each other. Smiling staff flits in and out the doors carrying boxes and there’s someone in the back stirring a steaming pot. Indeed, this is an average day, but it’s defining of the House’s heart and soul, as a refuge for community, connection, and eating well.
Paul Taylor, executive director of GNH, beams as he speaks about the people that frequent this place. There was one woman, Faye, he says, who used to meet with friends here for meals. After she passed away last year, the friends she had made at the House scattered her ashes at English Bay. “It just speaks to these lifelong relationships,” Taylor says, “and I can’t imagine what Faye’s life would’ve been like without the Neighbourhood House — and the lives of so many folks who come through these doors everyday.”
GNH celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. One of BC’s first Neighbourhood Houses, it was founded in 1942 by the Gordon sisters as a space that would serve and respond to the needs of the community. Ever since, GNH has stood sturdily as a mechanism to articulate a collective vision for the people. By 1985, it had moved to its current location on Broughton. Prince Charles even came to honour the occasion.
“I think what makes a Neighbourhood House so unique is there’s quite a bit less of doing for,” Taylor explains. “I think there are a lot of services out there that provide for people, and there’s a time and a place for that, but I would say the bulk of our energy is really around the doing with.” An example of this is Young Ideas — an initiative formed after research showed that many people on both sides of 25 were feeling disconnected to their community. “It started from six people around a table at the Score [On Davie] to a committee, a group of people, just under 60 people, who organize events, initiatives, programs, workshops, and things for folks in that age demographic who either live, work, or volunteer in the West End,” Taylor says.
The Attic, GNH’s resident thrift store (which has grown from a clothing rack to a second, brick and mortar location on Davie), too, does its part, making clothing and household items accessible to those who struggle to afford such things otherwise. “We have pretty much the same prices that we had 21 years ago when the thrift store opened upstairs, where pants are $3, shirts are $2-$3, and things like that,” Taylor adds. “And regardless of the brand, it’s the set price.”
Perhaps GNH’s main focus, though, is its work around food. When Taylor, formerly the executive director of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, first moved to the West End, he was struck by its lack of food security. Within what many assume to be a more affluent neighbourhood were people rummaging through dumpsters for scraps. “That formed a lot of the underpinning for a lot of our work,” Taylor says. “How do we create opportunities for people to come together, have food that’s good and healthy, that they can feel proud about consuming?”
He continues, “We engaged folks in our community, we engaged local dieticians, activists, and developed something that we’re really proud of — our food philosophy — that really, one, recognizes that we all have a right to food, it’s part of the universal declaration of human rights, but that we all don’t have the equal opportunity to access the right to food.”
GNH works with a three-stage food security continuum that ensures charitable food donations are more nutritious; helps people recognize how they can grow or preserve food within the context of their lives; and challenges the systems that perpetuate inequality. The House has both a chef and a farmer on staff, with farm sites and herb gardens scattered throughout the West End. Cooking classes and balcony farming workshops are offered. An annual Food Summit encourages critical thinking on how to create a more inclusive food movement.
It all functions together to help cultivate a relationship with food that’s celebratory, social, and dignified, while simultaneously building meaningful social connections.
“[In] my office, I can kind of see the doors where people are coming in and leaving,” Taylor says, leaning back in his chair. “And I remember one woman a couple of weeks ago turning around and saying, ‘Bye everyone! See you next Friday!’ And I just thought, ‘that is what food is all about. That’s what community is all about.’”
Gordon Neighbourhood House celebrates its 75th anniversary with their fundraiser, Spring Forward, held on March 10 at Gordon Neighbourhood House.CITY, Gordon Neighbourhood House, Gordon Neighbourhood House Vancouver, Paul Taylor, Vancouver