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June 21, 2011 | by  |  Features

Examining the delicate balance between revitalization and gentrification in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Mark Brand standing behind the renewed Save-on-Meats

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.

Photo Credit: Liam Hanham

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.

Poster in the Downtown Eastside

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 seated in his first Gastown enteprise, the Irish Heather

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.

A building being demolished along Pender, its facade preserved. (Photo Credit: Liam Hanham)

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.

Heather concedes:

“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.”

Photo Credit: Liam Hanham

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.

Photo Credit: Liam Hanham

Matt Chambers is the editor and publisher of The Dependent Magazine. He's in way over his head.



  1. I guess the big question on gentrification is this:

    Is the business or project targeting those who live in the area?

    Can those who live in the area and already use the services of the area / business afford to do so once the change is brought in?

    Take the Waldorf… It was a hub for locals to come to after a long days work, the working persons watering hole.

    Now, those same patrons cannot afford to use the services. For those who have known it throughout the years will notice a vastly different crowd and not that of the working class. This means the next closest place is a) The Astoria or b) The Princeton. This pushes the working class into a smaller area… think W2 and how many of the poor of the area have been pushed east…

    Ideally, if a new service or business or development moves into an area and wants to attract additional business or higher income business, they should attempt to not alienate those who currently call the area home. By doing so, avoiding pushing people out of the area and creating more of a mesh of the differing groups…

    That’s my take on it.

  2. I feel like renovation is the essence of gentrification. The only way to avoid the cycle of upper classes abandoning a neighborhood only to “revitalize” it decades later is, in my view, to never leave a neighborhood in the first place. Keep the area looking good in perhaps 5 or 10 year cycles instead of leaving it and letting it dip into slums for 30 or so years.

    In the 19th century and earlier (1800s) it was fashionable and typical for wealthy families to have large houses on street corners, with smaller houses for middle and lower classes towards the middle of a block. Thus the difference between the rich and poor was frequently a few hundred feet. The pauper passed by the tycoon every day, they likely knew each other’s names and perhaps spoke occasionally or at least saw each other’s living situation. But they weren’t nameless faceless Others to develop irrational prejudice against. Perhaps the rich saw the poor’s plight and certainly the poor could see how the rich went about their business. Maybe some harmony was achieved benefitting both.

    But the rise of the automobile let those who could afford a car and gas escape the city and build their dream home, a castle on the edge of town away from humanity but reaping all of the human benefits. The corner houses were no longer desirable because undesirables lived in the same neighborhood, nay even on the same block. So the formerly balanced neighborhoods fell into disrepair until the rich realized that they were living in a fake sheltered disconnected environment and thus began gentrification. Driven by the desire and ability to escape the reality of living in a city, and promising a fake consumerist existence for everyone who doesn’t set their roots deep into their surroundings, with all the tragedy and comedy that comes with it.

  3. I think this is the fairest most well balanced article I have read about the development of Gastown. I have lived here for 10 years and seen lots of change…most for the better and it was nice to see it reflected here.

  4. This is must-read for those who look at the picture of “gentrification”, or shall I say “progress”, in black and white terms.

    There is something I would like to point out: Chinatown is not a part of the DTES community, although activists in the DTES community would like to include them for reasons of political leverage. This old Chinese community is very distinct and has their own opinion that sometimes differ vastly from the DTES community’s.

    Lastly, I would like to bring up the topic of who the DTES really belongs to? Before, it was merely “downtown,” and it was once a gathering place for Vancouver’s elite, and for reasons that are too numerous to mention here, has become what we know it as today. It is now changing for the future…

  5. A balanced article, with smart comments from people actually on the ground being discussed. Gastown and the DTES will see an influx of ‘the new gentry’, whether that is done with respect and inclusion is what counts. And perhaps while we revitalize the poorest neighbourhoods, we can be more inclusive in some other parts of the city. Areas like Kitsilano, Kerrisdale and Dunbar accepting social housing and services is key to giving the neediest people someplace else to go and move themselves up.

  6. These new businesses are not designed for those who live in the neighborhood but for those who they want to see live in Gastown and the DTES.

    Affordable places are being replaced by high-end eateries and bars. High-end places move in and force up everyone else’s rent – driving them out of business Let’s not forget how many of these new businesses are fueling the new drug problem in Gastown … booze.

    Drunkenness has now become the dominant problem. The young and the beautiful puking late into the night is a common scene – along with the fights… and trendy wannabes passed out on the sidewalks. Folks, the money is in the booze. Everyone knows it and everyone plays the game. All that has now happened is that the drug (ie booze) issue has a nicer face.

    Ok, here is a challenge to a reporter. Look into how many buildings are owned, and have recently been bought, by organized crime or the criminal’s girlfriends. I think you will find the results of interest.

  7. I think tellit has a point about the alcohol. I’ve lived here for seven years, and the neighbourhood is now pretty much overrun by obnoxious drunks. That reek in Blood Alley the author references? That would be caused by the sons and daughters of our colleges and suburbs emptying their bladders there on any given night. I’ve never seen anyone turn a trick in Blood Alley, but I’ve seen the well-to-do customers of one of the local restaurants having a shag by a dumpster.

    Most times I can’t tell who infuriates me more: the dealers or the drunks. But I do know who’s responsible for the fact that I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in three days, and it’s not the dealers.

  8. Is Will suggesting that there was actually LESS social stratification during the Industrial Revolution or that cities at that time were not full of giant slums? Cities grew full of the poor and working classes because that’s where factories were. A stroll through one such slum in Manchester is what inspired Marx, for fuck’s sake!

    Don’t trust everything i say, though. My “fake consumerist” upbringing in the suburbs has no doubt blinded me to the more pure reality.

  9. Stephen Blumstein

    As someone who has drifted in and out of class stratification,mostly middle class during the first decade of the millenium and lower now, I respect the tone of this article from a small business owner perspective. Because of the recession,I am still struggling to run a business tutoring at $25 per hour for mostly E.S.L., but also for Canadian youth born here.I am one of the lucky ones, happening to live in social housing in Chinatown,which,if bought up by a developer, would certainly yield $2000-$2500/month apartments.
    I agree with the store owners here that the market, recognizing that revitalization is a death knell for low income residents, has everything to gain by pricing goods and services to meet all social class needs. I do. If I see a family which can’t afford my services, I will drop my price to $15/hour,and do extra on-line research for students, thereby not losing potential customers. It makes smart business sense, and also satisfies my desire to assist youth who are determined to succeed in the professions, services and techno-competitive market.In fact, my success rate for getting students into the universities of their dreams is about 80%.They then go on to become professionals in a very English language oriented business culture simply because they can now participate comfortably, though after a lot of hard work, since I am a strict grammar and socials teacher.
    Ironically, though, I would consider that my political perspective is quite left of centre, having studied at Dawson College, Montreal, where I earned a 2 year social sciences certificate, and at SFU Bby Mtn. (B.A.criminology/interdisciplinary studies) and being politically active with C.C.A.P. (Jean Swansen, Wendy Pedersen), the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (primary motivators Ivan Drury and Sid Tan, Tami Cosmic), or DNC (, and with http://www.defendgrandview. (anarchists) GrandviewPark lobbyists.
    The DNC and CCAP opposed the H.A.H.R. proposal at city hall, which, despite probably more than 130 speakers against the Historic Area Height Review for Chinatown, (condos)passed anyway. Though you’re probably right, that won’t happen overnight, and it would be political suicide for Vision’s upcoming November election. However, it’s the semantics I object to in this article. Gentrification and revitalization are 2 class-based, values biased definitions of vitally opposed socio-economic forces. Ruth Glass of England actually coined the term gentrification in the sixties in London, after observing land development there, and it is defined as class-based displacement of the poor by the rich basically. ie. a “transformation of working class” or lumpenproletariat “space”. It is mostly a slow and agonizing process that mirrors real estate development trends in a particular cachement area. On the DTES, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, many of the store owners come from the middle east, and are basically hard working family men or women who serve the low income community, but merchants in Chinatown have been there for decades.
    So while the stories here are from some enterprising new business owners, who are quite aware of the poor’s plight and are willing to accommodate them, there are also businesses that don’t, and they are known as “zones of exclusion” by my colleagues. If anyone knows the most about gentrification down here, it’s the 70′s members of D.E.R.A., who were Libby Davies, Bruce Erickson, Jenny Wai Ching Kwan and of course the inimitable author of the book “Poor-bashing”,brave demonstration orchestrator, and winner of local achievement awards, Jean Swansen.
    So while your article is quite biased, through misrepresenting the deeper issues based on known ripple effects of condo development, you make it seem as if social mixing will be easier because a few small business owners are more open minded than the rest. The fact is that most of these perks that they offer, what with the looming financial crisis ready to peak,won’t exist as global markets cave in yet again. Besides, our real enemies are outside land developers who are working closely with organized crime interests fixated on bringing in casinos. An influx of extensive immigration to the greater Vancouver area is looming: casino players and well off upper-class emigrants from China want downtown eastside real estate at the expense of the poor. So while you quite selectively present a few low income supportive small business owners to the public as proof that gentrification won’t occur, there is a lot of research out there, including American and Candian Housing surveys, and that done by Blomley and Eugene NcCann, or articles from Australia, which contradict your premise. You have not admitted that the ripple effect around Woodwards and Main Street Skytrain has resulted in displacement of the deprived class. In conclusion, your article flies in thew face of social and economic reality. Try interviewing some of us poor folks who have lived here for decades, and guess whether they’ll have anything nice to say about yuppies.

  10. Re: tellit.

    Last time I was in DTES and China Town I could still get a Vietnamese sub for the chunk of chance in my pocket. I could grab a plate of poorly-cooked westernized Cantonese food for not much more than that. There were several cheap eats alternatives beyond the obvious handouts, soup kitchens and chili wagon. I mean, sure, you can’t get the big ball of dog food on a tongue depressor covered in ketchup that Save-on-Meats used to serve up for fifty cents, but that’s probably a good thing.

    More importantly, the neighbourhood is not going to improve on it’s own without viable, socially-minded, private enterprise and perhaps PPPs. It’s all well and good for the emotional well-being of the area to get some ‘things’ out in a weekly creative writing gathering, but to many people such things are often a complement to an productive life, not an alternative to it.

    In order for any economic activity to succeed in DTES it has to be sustainable: a required and self-sustaining (i.e profitable) enterprise to provide necessary goods and/or services to the community. We should all be encouraged that at least some developers are trying to strike a balance between revitalization and socioeconomic inclusion. Sure, Prime Time Chicken’s a bit further from Pigeon Park, but at least the Park hasn’t become a Parisian open-air cafe… yet.

  11. 1 ambitious business man, in my eyes, is worth 1,000 drug-addicted hippies with no vision of their lives whatsoever.

    It’s environmentally friendly to have more people in the city; to reduce commute, to reduce gasoline dependency. People who are miserable and useless enough to fail in life in an easy place like Canada should not get in the way of development in the big picture sense. If a business wants to expand into Gastown, if a condo builder wants to build a high-rise on Main street, they should all be permitted. Whether they are affordable or not is up to the market to decide, not for the city. Why does this society let the lowest-end people get in the way of the highest end of humans (entrepreneurs)? This always baffled me since I moved to Canada; so much easier, so many more jobs, so much higher wage-to-cost ratio compared to the really poor countries, and people only complain more and more about rich people, government, banks etc.


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