Sam Sullivan's city spreads from the windows of his 16th-floor Yaletown condominium, his life mapped behind, below, beyond. Born and raised on...
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Sam Sullivan’s city spreads from the windows of his 16th-floor Yaletown condominium, his life mapped behind, below, beyond.
Born and raised on the city’s Eastside. Paralyzed in the mountains. Depressed and suicidal in subsidized housing. Saved by a self-help book and an epiphany.
Emerged from the darkness, the old Sam gone. Invented ways for disabled people to hike and sail and even, yes, wave the Olympic flag. Became first a city councilor and now mayor of everything below his window.
Another day awaits. The drug addicts and prostitutes concentrated on the Downtown Eastside constitute what a U.N. official recently called one of the world’s worst slums in an affluent city. The civil workers’ strike continues in its 10th week, libraries closed, garbage uncollected and city facilities shut down.
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And preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics loom always. Facilities need building, roads need paving, time keeps passing, tick, tick, tick.
In less than three years, the world will descend on Sullivan’s city, thousands of journalists and billions of readers and watchers and listeners. And every day until then Sullivan must confront one question: What enduring image of Vancouver will emerge?
His 15-year-old husky barks in the living room. His girlfriend prepares scones and espresso in the kitchen. Sullivan readies himself for another day that will determine his legacy. But first, he must get from bed to wheelchair, sliding and wiggling between deep breaths.
“It’s all balance,” he says, smiling.
A life rebuilt
In January 1979, on the Cypress Mountain slopes that will host freestyle skiing and snowboarding at the Olympics, Sullivan, then a 19-year-old daredevil, attempted to ski full speed between a friend’s legs.
He didn’t make it, crashing to the ground.
Sullivan lay there, on his stomach, hands outstretched. He felt like his body was expanding rapidly, then contracting into the fetal position. But he hadn’t moved at all. That’s how he knew he had a broken neck.
At the hospital, doctors put Sullivan in traction, drilling still-visible holes into his head, holding his spine in place, reattaching the fourth and fifth vertebrae.
Four months in the hospital. Fourteen months in rehab. Plenty of time to stew over everything he lost. The week before his injury, Sullivan went skiing in the Rocky Mountains. The morning of it, he played Beethoven on the piano.
And now, a quadriplegic, his dreams of becoming a concert pianist dead. Surgery allowed him to lift his head. The recovery process started.
“I had to learn everything,” Sullivan says. “Again.”
Sullivan breathes on his own but is mostly paralyzed from the neck down. He has full use of his biceps and interior deltoids, but not his triceps, legs or feet. He uses a protruding bone on his wrist to operate his BlackBerry and can hold things, lightly, with his hands.
He lived for two years with his parents, then moved into low-income housing. Nine of his friends there committed suicide. Sullivan considered it himself.
Eventually, he decided that Sam Sullivan needed to die, and he killed him — the old Sam, at least in the symbolic sense. The new Sam started fresh, unburdened.
He bought a book, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life.” He did the exercises outlined, set small goals, solved little problems, made to-do lists. His first victory? Putting his socks and shoes on.
One day he woke up, showered, dressed, ate and wheeled himself down to the bank to cash his $392 welfare check. He arrived just as the bank manager locked the door. Never late again, he promised.
He replaced old practices with more efficient ones. In place of the old sequence, left sock — right sock — left shoe — right shoe, Sullivan found a way to put both on the same foot at the same time. This saved six minutes. Calculated over his expected life span, which Sullivan generously estimates at 92 years, that translated to a few months saved.
He stopped boiling tea and started drinking tap water. That saved another 30 minutes. These new efficiencies saved Sullivan enough time to build a life, to attend college at Simon Fraser University (favorite class: linguistics) and earn a degree in business administration.
“And then one day I woke up,” Sullivan says, “and I was mayor.”
A mix of a man
Sam Sullivan, 47, admits he confuses people. He believes in the ethics of bootstrap capitalism — individual initiative, free market, low barriers to trade and investment — yet he’s also the poster child for the social-welfare system and a supporter of a liberalized drug policy.
He doesn’t fit into the tidy boxes reserved for politicians — right, left, liberal, conservative — following instead policy grown out of life experience. He says, “People with money make things happen.” He also says, “Homeless people, the down outers, they identify with me.”
He studies Ancient Greece, astronomy and quantum theory. He learned Italian, Cantonese and Punjabi. He watches French cartoons. He loves chamber music and counts Zionist thinkers and Canadian philosophers and the Bible among his influences.
“I call him the man on the fire wheel,” says B.C. Lee, a City Council member. “I asked him where he gets all that energy. He told me, ‘I spend all my energy walking around.’ He doesn’t walk at all.”
At home, surrounded by friends and family, Sullivan is quiet and subdued. At dinners he hosts on weekends, surrounded by artists and writers and musicians, he comes alive. At work, surrounded by political advisers, Sullivan prefers a long-term approach, even with another election approaching next summer.
Says his girlfriend, Lynn Zanatta: “He’s got two personalities.”
Says his friend and mentor, Abraham Rogatnick: “He’s a curious paradox.”
Sailing, apparently, explains all this.
“In sailing,” Sullivan says, “the wind is going this way, you can actually go that way, using the wind. You can use the contrary forces to propel you ahead.”
Contrary forces, more than anything, explain Sam Sullivan.
A matter of control
Earlier this summer, on English Bay at the Jericho Sailing Center, a quadriplegic man sits in a Martin 16 sailboat Sullivan helped design. The man controls the direction of the boat and moves the sails by sucking and blowing on a straw. They call this the “sip and puff” technique.
“It gives them control,” says Daniel Maldoff, an employee of the local Disabled Sailing Association, which Sullivan helped found.
Control. That’s what Sullivan sought when, while living in subsidized housing, he wrote a pleading letter to an engineering society. One day soon after, an engineer showed up and took Sullivan to lunch. Over the next six months, they revolutionized his life.
Previously, Sullivan used body parts — elbows, head, whatever — in attempts to hold open his freezer. The engineer fashioned a clothes hanger Sullivan could hook on his refrigerator shelves. Previously, Sullivan spent weeks with curtains closed. The engineer cobbled together homemade curtain openers so he could reach them.
Suddenly, everything seemed possible — let there be light! — including TV dinners.
“I could solve problems,” Sullivan says. “When you’re an able-bodied person, you don’t really have a lot of focus. When you’re disabled, you have to plan everything.”
So Sullivan founded six nonprofit groups that allow disabled people to fly ultralight aircraft, make music, hike with assistance and sail. He won an Order of Canada honor for his work.
The mayor often resembles Inspector Gadget. At ceremonial groundbreakings, he digs with a shovel that’s attached to his wheelchair. He used a catapult-like contraption to throw out the first pitch at a local baseball game, shaking off the catcher, firing a strike.
Then there’s the chair itself. It weighs more than 300 pounds, tops out at about 7 miles an hour and is reinforced with steel and heavy-duty tires. His staff begs Sullivan to use a driver more, but he insists on rolling everywhere, including a mile across the Cambie Street Bridge to work, BlackBerry attached near his right arm, day planner on his lap.
Sullivan saved his most rousing invention for the grandest stage in sports. In Turin, Italy, at the closing ceremony for the 2006 Winter Olympics, he found himself weaving across the stage, a special device attached to his wheelchair allowing him to wave the Olympic flag. The image was beamed to an estimated billion people, and on later trips to Rome and Florence, the mayor was mobbed in the streets.
“So emotional,” says Rogatnick, a former professor at the University of British Columbia, who accompanied Sullivan to Italy. “There was something charming about the way he did that.”
Sullivan embraces disability with the same zealousness Franklin Roosevelt, the most famous disabled politician of the 20th century, tried to hide it.
But this presents another conflict, an internal tug of war where Sullivan must at once champion his disability and downplay it. He talks wistfully about making Vancouver the most accessible city in the world. He also wants disabled people to live full lives, to manage their disabilities.
The same idea, in this world of contrary forces, applies to drug addicts.
A new view of addiction
On the streets of the Downtown Eastside, back when Sam Sullivan was a city councilor, he met Michelle, a 20-year-old prostitute and heroin addict. In the interest of understanding addiction, he said he gave her money to buy drugs. He calls this a political statement. Critics call it something else entirely, painting a mad scientist using drug addicts as lab rats.
Sullivan eventually developed a theory about drug addiction that stems from the social history of physical disability. He says disability started as a moral issue, the disabled shamed for their sins or shortcomings. Next came the medical model, disability as sickness, and that meant medical professionals and bureaucrats controlled the lives of the disabled.
“And then,” Sullivan says, “maybe 50 years ago, somebody says, ‘Excuse me. I’m not sick. I’m disabled.’ Sickness is a short-term problem you can fix. Disability is a long-term problem you manage.”
The management model grew from there. Sullivan sees parallels in the way society views drug addiction. He says addicts can live full, productive, happy lives — same as cigarette addicts, food addicts and caffeine addicts.
He calls drug addiction as a moral issue “medieval,” “primitive” and “crude.” He says addiction as a medical model — just fix yourself, try harder — would be the same thing as society forcing him to walk. After his skiing accident, Sullivan felt that pressure from his family, and he used to sit for hours, trying to move his toes. Then he moved to the management model and it changed his life.
“I get a lot of leeway because it’s obvious,” Sullivan says. “But those people on the Downtown Eastside don’t.”
Vancouver has always taken a progressive approach to drug addiction. Sullivan inherited the Four Pillars model — prevention, treatment, harm reduction, enforcement — started by former Mayor Philip Owen. And he’s adding to it, in hopes of repairing the Downtown Eastside in time for the world’s arrival in 2010.
Vancouver already has the first safe-injection site in North America, needle exchanges, methadone programs and a trial that gives free heroin to 60 addicts. Next, a $10 million program that could treat 1,000 addicts in three years with substitution drugs — Sullivan’s idea, the same concept as the nicotine patch.
Between the substitution drugs and a plan for increased subsidized housing on the Downtown Eastside, Sullivan hopes the area looks different in 2010. Residents worry they will be forced out of the area because of the Olympics.
The question that needs to be answered before then is how these theories and programs will translate into practice. Will the substitution drugs work? How much housing? Can the Downtown Eastside really be cleaned up?
Patrick White dives in Dumpsters in the Downtown Eastside, living among an estimated 5,000 addicts packed into 16 blocks around East Hastings Street. He wants you to see another side of Sullivan’s city. He wants you to see the alleys where one could argue drug use is either concentrated or contained or both.
“These alleys, we’ll walk through, you’ll see,” he says. “That’s Calcutta back there.”
White moved here after he says SARS wrecked his event-marketing business in Toronto. He lost his business, home and wife. The story of Vancouver is in front of you, he says, in this alley, on these streets. He pauses. “You can smoke crack here,” he says. Another pause. “You can watch me fix later if you want.”
White moves toward the alley behind Hastings. It smells of feces, urine, rotting flesh. A man stands on a couch, drops his pants, screams. Dirty needles litter the ground. Garbage all around.
“How can you host the 2010 Olympics when the [Athletes’] Village is a five-minute walk away?” White asks. “And what if they close this place? Too many people are going to be dropping dead.”
A challenge looms
Every time Sam Sullivan steals a glance at Lynn Zanatta in their trendy Yaletown condominium, he smiles. They met in the old neighborhood when they were kids, after he learned to skip rope just so he could meet her. They held hands at a haunted house in fifth grade and hiked Seymour Mountain on one of their first dates.
Eventually, both married other people, but they always stayed in touch. Even when Zanatta spent 18 months in Southeast Asia, she wrote often. Sullivan kept every single letter. They got together after a chance meeting a few years back.
“All this,” he says, “my whole life, was to impress her.”
Another day awaits. Contrary forces once again. Lately, the mayor must monitor the city workers’ strike. A group dumped garbage last month outside his condominium in protest to the strike and the Olympics.
Sullivan is also taking a beating in the local and national press. A Globe and Mail column from October 2006 called the last Olympics Sullivan’s “shining moment,” adding “it’s been downhill since.”
And always, the Olympics loom, less than three years away, evidenced by the cranes and construction around the city.
More than anything — more than the EcoDensity initiative, where condo builders put up gardens and parks and cultural centers; more than Project Civil City, aimed at reducing homelessness by 50 percent by 2010; more than tax freezes for local business and ports — Sullivan’s legacy will be tied to the Winter Games.
Every day until then Sullivan must confront the question of how Vancouver will be remembered.
The most livable city in the world, as ranked by a recent poll? The most accessible city in the world? As a model for future Olympics, full of improvements and subsidized housing and a clean Downtown Eastside? Or for its seedy underbelly?
Sullivan doesn’t know the answer, only this: “The world,” he says, “will be watching.”