The co-owner of a new upscale eatery in the Downtown Eastside has responded to critics picketing his restaurant, telling the Straight that he doesn’t have much of a response.
“I don’t really have anything to say about it,” said John Cooper, general manager of Cuchillo restaurant. “We’re just a couple of guys who put in every cent we had…and built a restaurant. And now we’re trying to focus on its operations.”
Cuchillo officially opened for businesses near the corner of Powell Street and Gore Avenue on June 30, 2013. Five days later, roughly 35 people were picketing outside its front door, decrying the Latin restaurant as a “knife in the heart of the community.”
At that July 5 demonstration, Richard Marquez, a housing activist and social worker in the area, told the Straight that the opening of upscale restaurants like Cuchillo begin a process of gentrification that pushes low-income earners out of the neighbourhoods they call home.
“It’s a transformation that happens step-by-step, culturally,” he said. “These restaurants are the beginning of a new narrative of displacement in the Downtown Eastside.”
Four blocks from Cuchillo, pickets outside PiDGin restaurant at 350 Carrall Street have occurred Tuesday through Saturday since February 5, 2013.
A July 8 media release emailed to the Straight from the same account that’s been used to organize the PiDGin protests promised that demonstrations outside Cuchillo will continue on a daily basis.
The anti-gentrification activists' demands include a reduction and freeze on rents in the social housing units that exist in the building above Cuchillo, and the construction of more housing for low-income earners in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Cooper, who owns Cuchillo together with Stuart Irving, said that he doesn’t have an opinion on gentrification.
“I don’t, really,” he said. “I certainly feel like someone who has a social context, but I don’t really know enough to have an opinion. That’s not where my area of expertise is. I’m not an activist, I’m a restaurateur.”
Pressed on why he and Irving selected the specific location of 261 Powell Street for Cuchillo, Cooper said they liked some of the existing interior features and, while they might have preferred to be in Gastown, found the Downtown Eastside location’s lower rent made more sense from a business standpoint.
“It was just one of the locations that we looked at and we thought we could do something nice with it,” he said. “It was priced—I can’t say reasonably, because there’s nothing priced reasonably in Vancouver. It just seemed like it was the right fit for what we could do something with.”
Cooper maintained that he and Irving have accepted there’s little they can do about the picketers, and simply intend on forging ahead, focusing on creating a “great experience” for customers.
“The only area where I would really feel that we would need to do something is if people were not being safe,” he said. “Other than that, it’s really not in my hands.”