With its signature coffee blends and modern design, Acme Cafe looks like it could be in the heart of Yaletown, but outside, abandoned and gutted buildings fill the street. Less than ten feet from Acme’s door, a woman has passed out beneath an awning for shelter. This is not Yaletown. This is the Downtown Eastside, often called the poorest postal code in Canada, a neighbourhood infamous for its poverty, drug use, and crime.
Acme isn’t the only new restaurant in the DTES. Attracted by low real estate costs, eateries and restaurants have been setting up shop all over the neighbourhood. These aren’t your average dives. Many of them, such as fine-diners Wildebeest and Pidgin, offer luxurious items like quail eggs, elk tartare, and other gourmet fare. The restaurants are critically lauded, but not everyone is so pleased.
For months, residents picketed restaurant entrances, especially that of Pidgin. The “Pidgin Picket” saw months of staged demonstrations from dozens of protesters, heavy media coverage, and a constant police presence. Protesters believe that the restaurants are the beginning of gentrification – that the restaurants will attract another economic class to the neighbourhood who will push residents out of the only home they have.
Ivan Drury is the former event organizer for the Carnegie Centre Action Program, one of the area’s many anti-gentrification organizations. CCAP and other organizations have been protesting the expansion of condos in the neighbourhood, which they fear will take up space better used for social housing or raise real estate costs to the point where residents can’t afford to live in the neighbourhood. Contrary to popular belief, CCAP was not involved in the Pidgin Picket, but does believe the new restaurants are gentrifying the neighbourhood.
“The concern that protesters and low income residents have about the restaurants coming in is that they are excluded,” says Drury, “…Invisible borders are drawn around those restaurants, and they become no-go zones for the poor.”
It’s true, the restaurants are definitely not catering to the residents of the neighbourhood. The menu at Pidgin, the site of most of the protests, is reasonable to wealthy patrons, but exorbitant for the Downtown Eastside. Pidgin isn’t just targeted for its costly fare; the restaurant had the audacity to borrow its name from Pigeon Park, a gathering place for the community, despite it catering to everyone but the community. And with a safe injection site and methadone dispensary only two blocks away, it’s pretty bad taste to serve a cocktail called “The Opium Runner.”
Exclusion isn’t the only problem the restaurants bring. Many residents feel their customers bring hatred to the neighbourhood and its residents. “They’ve got nothing better to do but spread around unhappiness,” says one resident, who lives in an alcove of a building where Pidgin first opened (now home to the Rainier Cafe). She claims that restaurant customers have acted rudely to her, made demeaning comments, and awoken her while she was sleeping. “When they first came here, they started disturbing me, shaking me….the first thing I told them was to get the f— out!” she exclaims.
Walking through the neighbourhood, one notices visitors acting coldly towards residents, often avoiding eye contact with them. In return, residents shoot glares after them. The conflict between the two groups has resulted in violence in the past. A group of radicals, calling themselves the “Anti-Gentrification Front” have stolen signs from restaurants, smashed windows, and threatened to do much more.
But, as the resident (who declined to give her name) says, not all the locals hate the restaurants themselves. “The Rainer here,” the resident indicates, jabbing her thumb towards the café, “It hires girls from upstairs.” She is referring to the Rainer Treatment Centre for Women, which helps women cope with and recover from addictions to alcohol and other substances. They aren’t the only restaurant helping those in need. Save on Meats, a local butcher and diner owned by restaurateur and activist Mark Brand, has made helping the community part of its mission. Twenty percent of the businesses’ staff are residents, and the diner has started programs to distribute free sandwiches.
“We, and most of the other businesses here, know it’s a special community,” a Save on Meats employee explains, “It’s unlike any other. But some people see normal development and just start freaking out, saying its gentrification.”
Some residents think Pidgin is a positive force. “The guy [Pidgin’s owner] has drug users helping out in his kitchen,” another resident shares, “It’s costing him extra money to keep them clean and supervise them….I don’t understand how that harms the community.” Some activists, like Drury, point out that providing a few extra jobs doesn’t mean the restaurants are helping.
“We shouldn’t get carried away with the idea that he [Pidgin’s owner] is giving one or two people a job,” he says, “Union Gospel Missions and social services regularly hire people on a more consistent and broader sale, and provide services for these communities. Just because one resident is washing dishes at Pidgin does not mean the restaurant is special.”
Opinion on whether or not the restaurants provide any benefit is certainly mixed in the neighbourhood. However, most residents agree that the protests are finished and done with.
“I do not judge none [sic] of the protesters,” says Dino, a longtime resident, “But this man [Pidgin’s owner], he has just had a son! He is just trying to survive and pay bills. I do not think we should be so angry against him… I am anti-belligerent.” Dino also believes using police to monitor the protest was a waste of resources. “I came up to the cops, when they were always parked there,” he says, pointing across from Pidgin, “And I say to them ‘Officer, somewhere there is a crime being committed! Why are you here?’”
“I think its great if they [the eateries] want to make a living,” says Yvonne, a food vendor who has lived in the neighbourhood for over 40 years. “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to open up something down here. Encourage, don’t discourage.” Yvonne also points out that the neighbourhood has bigger, more immediate problems than high-end restaurants. “What about lower-tier places like the corner stores [names removed]?” she said, “with people dealing drugs right out of them? Isn’t that a bigger problem?”
Are the restaurants harbingers of gentrification, or just honest people trying to make a living? That depends on policies they take towards hiring residents, the clientele they are bringing in, and how they set themselves apart from your average business. The Downtown Eastside might embrace change, but not if it’s on a wine list.