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Examining the delicate balance between revitalization and gentrification in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
My interview with Mark Brand is interrupted by yet another phone call, only this time the 35-year old Gastown entrepreneur doesn’t return with an apology, he tells me he has to leave – there’s an emergency at one of his stores.
As we pass the statue of Gassy Jack, he explains that someone is harassing his staff at Sharks and Hammers. We pass a cop parked on Water but Brand pays him no mind.
At the storefront the tension surrounds a tall, skinny young man wearing a torn shirt. He has no shoes on but introduces himself as Dimi, careful to point out that it’s not short for Dimitri. He’s fixated on the name of Brand’s clothing line: Welcome to East Van.
“Are you from East Van?” Dimi demands. Brand replies that he is.
“Is the designer from East Van?” he presses, “I want to meet the designer.”
“The designer’s an East Van artist, but he’s not here right now,” Brand says calmly. At about six feet and 200 pounds, he has little to fear. He’s confident and in control, but not at all hostile. Still, Dimi raises his chin:
“You want to hit me?”
“No, I don’t want to hit you,” Brand assures him. “I just want you to leave.”
“What’s that tattoo say?” Dimi asks, pointing to the ink on Brand’s neck.
“Boneta. It’s my mom’s name.”
Dimi steps forward and turns Brand’s collar down, exposing the entirety of his tattoo. That Brand doesn’t flinch seems to earn him some credit, and the situation cools. After a short conference with his staff, we’re on our way back to Boneta, Dimi left tossing a football with one of the locals Brand pays to do odd jobs.
“Do you deal with stuff like that often?” I ask.
“Almost every day,” he tells me.
Despite what the waves of waddling tourists, fawning restaurant reviewers, and hip young urbanites might suggest of Gastown, it’s still contested territory. The low-income community that’s long fought for a dignified home in the Downtown Eastside is suspicious of outsiders, new business, and development in the increasingly tony neighbourhood. Their fear: that all this revitalization will force them out.
Originally a tongue-in-cheek expression, gentrification describes the return of the gentry to the inner city. It has since become a pejorative, implying a capitalist selfishness and social ignorance. In the Downtown Eastside, home to the last stand of low-income housing in the city, its implications are particularly critical. Here, the impacts of rising land values, rents, and goods and services can have disastrous effects on those already living at the end of their means. Indeed, gentrification and homelessness are familiar bedfellows.
Here’s how it works: developers and property owners, seeking to convert land to its most profitable use, meet with a growing middle-class demand for gritty urban living. Exposed bricks and beams, access to waterfront or the downtown core, and the vibe real estate agents refer to as “edgy”, are all highly valued by the new urbanite. Aging properties previously considered unsuitable for upgrade, like those in areas of extreme poverty, grow dollar signs as cultural pathfinders begin to change the character of the neighbourhood, driving up land values and prices. Before long, the low-income residents are priced out. And, if you’re in the Downtown Eastside, the next stop is likely the streets.
Brand is a familiar figure on these sidewalks, but strictly speaking, he’s not from East Van. Born in Scotland, he worked as a bartender in Australia before moving to Vancouver, where he built a name for himself mixing cocktails in Crosstown’s legendary Chambar. Anointed Vancouver Magazine’s bartender of the year, Brand set out on his own about four years ago, Gastown his chosen venue.
Boneta, the name of his mother, is also the name of Brand’s first restaurant. Launched four years ago on the doubtful corner of Carrall and Cordova, it’s the first of six businesses he’s opened in the neighbourhood, with the rejuvenated Save-on-Meats the latest. Brand is part of a thriving independent business community that’s transforming Gastown from one of the most depressed areas in the city into its thriving cultural centre.
The line between revitalization and gentrification is blurry and awkward.
Although the influx of new business into the area is seen by many academics and activists as fueling the gentrification of the neighbourhood, Brand is adamant that he hasn’t displaced anyone. Gesturing to the expanse of the Boneta dining room behind us, he explains, “this space was empty and dormant and it was full of rats and pigeons. The Diamond had been dormant for years and there had been nothing but bad memories there for people. Gallery, which was Sharks, was completely dormant and empty and was a squatters’ heaven. The mini mart was dormant and also filled with rats and mice. These were not spaces that were vibrant, community spaces – I didn’t displace InSite – these were places that were empty.”
“I don’t think you can blame the independent businessman for trying to have a go at it and then affecting change. Did we push anybody out of this space? No. Did we take anything else out of here? No.”
Sean Heather, one of the first of the new wave of businessmen to enter the neighbourhood, shares a similar perspective. At the age of 27, the self-described workaholic, tired of toiling for someone else, decided to strike out on his own. Having worked the register at Benny’s Bagels during its heyday, Kits seemed the obvious place to start:
“It made sense for me to open something in Kitsilano because I could feed off of the energy and who I was,” Heather explains, his Irish accent fading. “I couldn’t afford it. For love nor money I couldn’t make it happen. So in desperation I said to the real estate agent, ‘show me anything,’ and he goes, ‘well anything? Would you go to Gastown?’”
“It was almost within a week of opening my doors I thought, ‘what have I done?’ This was probably the toughest neighbourhood in the country at that time. There were drug dealers outside the front door,” he recalls. “It was a real circle-the-wagons kind of a situation.”
Fifteen years later and the area’s heroin addiction has been replaced with crack, and Heather is now operating eight businesses in the area, including the groundbreaking Salt Tasting Room, with its lonely entrance in the reeking depths of Blood Alley. Guests wander in amongst the used rigs and human feces before sitting down for wine, cheese and charcuterie pairings offered up by young waiters in skinny ties and oxfords. The concept proved an enormous success, winning a $50-thousand first prize from Cadillac Fairview for achievement in a retail concept, third place in enRoute magazine’s top 10 best new restaurants in Canada, and numerous local accolades.
Heather, like Brand, says he’s aware of the issues surrounding business in the neighbourhood:
“I’ve been able to put my hand on my heart – it’s something that I think about before I go in there. This was a Hell’s Angels club that was mothballed,” he explains of the Irish Heather, “Salt was a burned out building. My actions haven’t physically displaced anybody. It’s not even like there was a small mom and pop there and I came in with a higher price. I’m pretty proud of the fact that nothing I’ve done has directly put people out into the street.”
“I feel like I took a chance at coming down here and I feel like a lot of what I’ve done has contributed to make this neighbourhood better,” he adds.
Forget for a moment the caricature of the heartless developer evicting hapless tenants to build luxury condos. Or the global chain that outbids the mom and pop for their cherished space in the community. There’s a more subtle change that a neighbourhood like the Downtown Eastside must undergo before developers or chain stores ever consider such actions. Million-dollar condos won’t appear at Main and Hastings overnight; the uncomfortable empirical truth is that the road to caramel machiatos is paved by artists and daring entrepreneurs.
Gastown and the surrounding area is currently home to around 10,000 units of low-income housing – 5,000 rooms in the form of social housing. Funded by the government, social housing is immune to rising land values and rent increases. The remaining units, however, are held in private hands in the area’s notorious single room occupancy hotels. In one of the hottest real estate markets on the planet, the changing character of the neighbourhood, quickly becoming more palatable to the middle class, has created enormous pressure to convert the neglected heritage buildings into lofts, storefronts and condominiums. To curb the relentless demolition while the units were waiting to be replaced by social housing, the City enacted a by-law in 2003 imposing hefty fines for upgrade or conversion of any building designated a critical SRO.
The number of low-income units in the area is now effectively secured; their affordability is not. Rents can increase by inflation plus two percent annually, as is the case with any other rental unit in the city. As the neighbourhood climbs out of poverty, so too do the rents. This is the soft gentrification and slow attrition of the low income residents of the Downtown Eastside.
“As a byproduct of me being down here, I guess there are people who have been displaced, and I guess, to a degree, I would feel bad about that, yeah. But am I driving around a Porsche, flying around in a helicopter? I have a lot of business down here – I employ 110 people – but I don’t think I’ve raped and pillaged and brought negative things in. Maybe because I was stupid enough, or had no options, to come down here 15 years ago, I’ve paved the way for people who have less scruples than I feel I have. I don’t know if I can be responsible for that. I think I’ve done the best I can in the best possible way for the neighbourhood, and if it wasn’t me, then it would have been somebody else, and I don’t know that they would have done it the way I’ve done it.”
It’s not all doom and gloom, however; the City’s policies, while imperfect, are at least progressive. In the official community plan for the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver has outlined a policy of revitalization without displacement. The aim is to encourage economic development, thereby reversing its decline, while maintaining it as the primary neighbourhood for low income people in the region.
So then, back to Mark Brand and his latest venture, the revitalized Save-on-Meats: After a million-dollar facelift the community institution re-opened Monday, serving up butcher’s cuts and sandwiches on the main floor alongside a classic diner. In the basement: the full distribution centre for SOLEfood, an enterprising non-profit engaged in urban agriculture, providing jobs and training for community residents. (Brand offered them a 24-month abatement period as they seek financial stability.) In the back corner: the East Van Laundry company, which will do linens, chef coats, and wine polishing cloths for local restaurants. Brand says that every aspect will employ a number of at-risk people from the neighbourhood and calls his guiding philosophy “social enterprise reversed”.
“It’s trying to setup businesses that can sustain local residents and people at risk,” he explains, “but they have to sustain first – they have to be businesses that make sense that can then help. If you just come in and constantly do social enterprises, well, funding runs out – and then you’re really crushing dreams. ‘We had 20 employees who thought they could affect change, now I don’t have grants and funding…’ Well if you had a business model that was already operating and making sense…” Brand suggests.
His vision of a vibrant and diverse community is a potent and seductive one, shared by the City. The empirical evidence, however, suggests that in a market-based system, the poor will eventually lose out. Still, Brand’s passion and sincerity offers hope. Beyond employing members of the low-income community, he’s seeking to provide goods and services for the entire neighbourhood, subsidizing a lower tier of meat and sandwiches with higher cost items in the butcher and sandwich shops.
“We’ll be providing a $1.50 breakfast sandwich, $2.00 lunch sandwiches, $2.00 chowders and soup by the cup. That is a break-even product. It’s a loss-leader. I’m not going to make any money on it, which is totally fine, because the people who are buying the other sandwiches that are in there, from corned beef to braised meet, et cetera, those will be on a higher tier.”
“So without saying it, what we’re looking at here is a dignified approach to just providing something. I don’t want to be like, ‘these are for poor people and these are for rich people’, it’s got nothing to do with that, you can come in and buy something that you can afford to buy and you can make that choice with your cash and I can make whatever choice I want with mine. It doesn’t have to be pointed out, it doesn’t have to be at a distribution non-profit centre, it can just be in a business, and you can mingle and hang out with whoever you want.”
Whether the bold plan will succeed remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the entire city is watching.