The Downtown Eastside neighborhood had a rocky spring.
The premise of the reality TV show Gastown Gamble, which aired earlier this year on the Canadian version of the Oprah Winfrey Network, is that restaurateur Mark Brand is taking a chance by trying to save the iconic Save on Meats butcher shop in Vancouver’s historically troubled Downtown Eastside neighborhood. The show chronicles the failures and successes of renovating a commercial building on a tight budget in a struggling neighborhood.
Rather than simply turning a blighted piece of property into a profitable business, Brand's aim is for the restaurant to be a quasi-philanthropic venture, in part by actively employing workers from the immediate area and keeping prices on many of the menu items low. His recent TEDx Talk offers a decent summary of Brand’s stated intent for the project.
In the months since filming for the first season of Gastown Gamble wrapped, anti-gentrification activists and anarchists have targeted a number of buildings in the area with hunger strikes, smashing the windows of a local pizzeria and taunting upscale restaurant patrons, culminating in the theft of Save on Meats' sandwich board in March. A group calling itself the Anti-Gentrification Front has taken responsibility for a number of the actions, which has divided the community into those who see the protests as "misguided" and those who see the recent gentrification of the neighborhood as an attack on poorer residents. A protest on International Workers Day saw a phalanx of anarchists with torches and signs march through Downtown Eastside declaring a "war on the rich."
Downtown Eastside is sometimes referred to as "Canada's poorest postal code" (though strictly speaking that's not quite true). What is true is that the neighborhood has been ravaged by drug addiction and poverty for over a century, and as such it is also home to numerous humanitarian groups who have fought for food, clothing, and affordable housing for its impoverished residents. Those groups have successfully lobbied for subsidized housing throughout the city, and, at this point, Vancouver is well known for having a large number of subsidized housing units available, particularly the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) standard common to the Downtown Eastside area. Housing regulations also stipulate that 20 percent of all new condominium developments be set aside to below-market units.
But Vancouver is also known for being one of the most unaffordable cities in Canada. Housing prices have been steadily increasing, some of it spurred on by speculation from foreign investors. Almost concurrently, the homeless population in Vancouver has exploded.
These changes, combined with a spate of new development in the Downtown Eastside, have reinvigorated Vancouver's anti-gentrification movement. The protesters see the renovation of blighted buildings – even ones that provide affordable meals and crucial jobs – as a way to slowly push the poor population out. They fear that any improvements will eventually lead to increased rental prices and property taxes, turning the neighborhood into what they refer to as an "exclusion zone for the rich." Advocates are demanding that the city do more to offset these effects by constructing yet more social housing units, as well as setting aside a larger percentage of new private housing at affordable, lower than market rate, rents.
The city of Vancouver has a comprehensive local area plan that incorporates a lot of the activists' complaints. It plots out a vision for the Downtown Eastside that includes funding an increase in social housing alongside integrating market-rate housing. In the city's view, the SRO units – some of which don’t have private bathrooms or doors – would be refurbished and turned into more standard, low-income apartments. The plan also criticizes the provincial and federal government’s de-funding of social welfare programs such as homeless shelters, drug use prevention and harm reduction programs, and mental health initiatives. In particular, the plan singles out deinstitutionalization – the process of moving patients out of mental health facilities into community-based programs – as a leading cause of homelessness in the area.
As well-intentioned as the city's plan may be, it may never go far enough to satisfy some elements of the current Downtown Eastside community. Activist demands for increases to the percentage of below-market units slated for various new developments have proved fruitless. One hunger strike by a homeless man ended last month without moving the policy needle.
Brand insists his reality show had little to do with the upswing in protests since "it was on premium cable – almost nobody in the area would have ever heard about it." And for many of the at-risk locals whom Brand has hired, he's a legitimate hero. But there's also little doubt the show's subject — the renovation of a historic Downtown Eastside business to make it more appealing to upscale customers — is exactly the sort of effort that's caused much of the distrust among the protesters. Even in Vancouver, where the restaurant owners have the best of intentions and the city government's commitment to affordable housing is arguably stronger than anywhere else in North America, gentrification — and its familiar discontents — seem to be a foregone conclusion.