By Ryan McCormick and Sean Antrim
Since the beginning of this year, Vancouver has seen a surge in the number of evictions and closures of cultural spaces.
Many of these were small community spaces created out of nothing by passionate, independent artists in the most expensive city in North America, and without any support or legal recognition from the City.
The latest loss appears to be the Zoo Zhop, a Downtown Eastside record store and music venue that has been holding live concerts since 2009. Located at 223 Main Street, the Zoo Zhop has been an open and affordable space for local bands, and has built a vibrant community, serving as a launch-pad for many young artists and musicians.
The current threat against the venue comes after an unannounced visit by Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services on May 30. The surprise inspection resulted in a list of 14 repairs that must be completed to comply with Vancouver's fire bylaws. While those repairs are reasonable requests that should enhance the safety of attendees, the list was preceded by a demand to cease holding concerts entirely, regardless of whether or not the repairs are completed.
The space has been inspected before, but it has never been ordered to stop holding concerts. There have been no recent amendments to fire bylaws that would make music in the space illegal.
In Vancouver, which has the most unaffordable real-estate market in Canada, arts spaces often close because, in the face of high rents and other costs, it is very difficult to break even. To make sure that artists and musicians are able to live and work here, the city should be taking action to address high rents being charged to retail, residential, and cultural spaces.
Vision Vancouver has so far been unwilling to act significantly on that issue. They argue that there isn’t anything they can do when spaces are evicted because of the financial relationship between tenants and landlords. The Zoo Zhop’s situation is different because the city clearly can act here. The venue is not threatened by financial or contractual issues; it is a regulatory matter suddenly being enforced by city staff.
The first time Vancouver was described as a "No Fun City" was back in 2002. Almost 10 years later, in an attempt to address what the city itself called “contradictory and outdated policies and regulations”, the Regulatory Review on Live Performance Venues began.
Earlier this year, staff finally made one small piece of progress, launching the Arts and Culture Indoor Event Pilot Program, which allows small events in spaces that would otherwise not be allowed to host them. Unfortunately, it does not help permanent venues like the Zoo Zhop, as spaces that hold more than two events per month are ineligible for the program.
The local arts community is still waiting for the rest of the understaffed regulatory review to be completed; in the meantime, venues like the Zoo Zhop continue to fall victim to inspectors given far too much leeway to decree an end to music with the stroke of a pen.
Instead of banning concerts, the city should take up a cooperative and collaborative approach to help facilities to make safety improvements while allowing them to continue holding events. The ability to keep this venue open and safe is well within the capacity of city hall.
Although action on the Zoo Zhop will not be enough to stop the systemic loss of art space due to high rents and gentrification, Vision Vancouver should certainly intervene here and show that their claims of support for the arts community are at least somewhat sincere.
A petition has been started by the operators of the Zoo Zhop and is available here.