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Downtown's Denizens

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He was born in Vancouver General Hospital in 1943 and grew up with three brothers in a solid, working-class family, first in Port Moody, and then in East Vancouver. Restless, though, he dropped out of school when he was 15 and became a deckhand on tugs in Vancouver Harbour.

Later, he drifted east, first to Montreal to work on grain ships in the St. Lawrence and on the Great Lakes, and then to New York City to crew freighters. He was a 19-year-old merchant seaman when he visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, curious to see what real painters did.

"It scared the hell out of me," says Mr. Cummings, now 66. "Here I am with this little sketch pad I carried around, looking at Rembrandt."

It shook his confidence, but it didn't kill his art aspirations. He continued to sketch as he sailed the world's oceans as a merchant mariner, for so long that he was reluctant to return to shore.

"In this odd way, I felt I didn't want to go back to the complexities of life."

Life on land had its difficulties. He married and had a son, but after three years he and his wife divorced and he never tried again. In 1987, his older brother, Bob Cummings, a founder of Greenpeace and a well-known Vancouver journalist, committed suicide.

But eventually he left the sea, moving back to Montreal, Toronto and then British Columbia to work construction and lumber-industry jobs. And finally he enrolled at the Kootenay School of Art in Nelson, B.C., and graduated with an honours degree in fine arts.

Of course, artistic work is hard to come by, so he ended up back in construction and forestry. But finally he returned to Vancouver and, never having saved any money, took a room in the only place he could afford, the Downtown Eastside.

"That's where poor people end up," he says.

A bout of tuberculosis left him too weak to work. His only income is his old-age pension. And how does he like the neighbourhood? "I don't like the poverty. I don't like the despair," he says. "The drug dealers are the worst."

Here, however, is where he found his artistic opportunity. In 2003, the Carnegie Centre, a former library that now offers a wide range of services and calls itself "the Downtown Eastside's living room," celebrated its 100th anniversary. Mr. Cummings offered to do a painting depicting the past century. That's when his obsession began.

That painting evolved into 50 different panels, each one illustrating an event in the history of the community. Over the past six years, Mr. Cummings has lost track of the hours he has painted, but the work is nearly done. To save money for paints, he got free meals from the Sisters of Atonement. All put together, the painting is more than twice the size of his own 100-square-foot room.

The work is no Rembrandt, but in its own folksy way, it depicts a century of turmoil and struggle in the Downtown Eastside. Instead of Peter Denying Christ or Parable of the Rich Man, he has painted the anti-Asian riots of 1907 and an aboriginal man being hauled off to jail.

He intends to unveil the full work, called The Banner, in the foyer of the Vancouver Public Library this spring. And to make some of his money back, he hopes to sell prints of some of the individual panels.

"I'm looking forward to when the poverty is finished," he says. "I'd like to try to move up and get someplace."

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With the 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver, the eyes of the world will be on the city's Downtown Eastside. The millions poured into the neighbourhood seem to have had little impact on its squalor, its people or their problems with addiction. What should be done? Where would you start? How would you fix Canada's slum?

 
 

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