Zoo Zhop is Vancouver's latest cultural casualty

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      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.

      The 2013 dead-venue list already includes the Waldorf, the Junction, Rhizome, John, the Mansion, the Nines, ROYGBIV, and Nowhere, and we’ve only just entered June.

      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.

      Ryan McCormick is one of the founding members of the Safe Amplification Site Society. Sean Antrim is the executive director of COPE Vancouver and a co-founder of The Mainlander.




      Jun 4, 2013 at 4:56pm

      Nice one - BC Liberals AND Vancouver City Council,
      VPD, VFD! You're 100 years behind!

      Rick in Richmond

      Jun 4, 2013 at 4:58pm

      Uhh, kids, they are ALL "surprise inspections". That's the whole point. The only time the Fire Marshal makes an appointment is after remedial work has been undertaken.

      If there are 14 shortcomings in fire safety at this place, they must be fixed. Now. Today. What is the point of fixing them AFTER the fire?

      You may be cavalier about fire safety today. Your attitude will be vastly different tomorrow if, God forbid, a fire should break out at the ZZ and people you love are hurt. Or worse.

      It's OK for COPE to attack VISION for not doing its job, which seems to be the real point of this article. It is NOT OK to attack the Fire Department for doing ITS job.

      Many spaces have made operating agreements with the VFD to have their staff in attendance, trained in the effective operation of fire extinguishers. When the regulatory concern is borderline, the VFD is frequently willing to accept those guarantees -- if wiring, emergency lighting, and exit requirements have all been met.

      When they do make such agreements, expect another "surprise inspection." That's just what the Fire Department does, and bless them for it.

      They save lives, every day. One day, maybe even yours.


      Jun 4, 2013 at 5:25pm

      @Rick in Richmond: Actually the shortcomings are fixed. Now. Yesterday. By Monday, just a few days after their inspection, Zoo Zhop had resolved all 14 violations. And yet they still have no assurances that shows will be allowed to continue.

      Josh Laird

      Jun 4, 2013 at 5:39pm



      Jun 4, 2013 at 5:44pm

      Rick, you've missed the point. No one is bothered by the fire department and the building safety code. The issue is about the limitation and prohibition of live music performances in a place that has no violations. (As they are now fully compliant with the fire department's warnings and notes.) I'd like to also mention that this space is valuable to a great many people, not just "kids" as you so condescendingly put it.

      Ryan McCormick

      Jun 4, 2013 at 5:48pm

      Rick in Richmond - I would totally agree if the fire department had said "fix these 14 things, and if you don't, you can't continue holding concerts." What they actually said was "fix these 14 things, and even when you do, you still can't have concerts." That's unreasonable. There's nothing in the fire bylaw that bans music. If inspectors have the authority to interpret it that way, the bylaw needs to be fixed.

      Caton not from Richmond

      Jun 4, 2013 at 6:10pm

      Thanks, Rick. This is why Richmond is Canada's holy bastion of arts and culture. Seen any good plays lately?

      Rick in Richmond

      Jun 4, 2013 at 6:20pm

      Robert at 5:44 makes my point.

      If there are now zero fire safety issues, that is a very good thing -- at ZZ and every other facility that serves the public.

      If thus resolved, the question now is one of use and occupancy. Those permits follow after fire safety is guaranteed. If ZZ feels that they are (effectively) denied permits, that matter goes to the Building Inspector and, if necessary, to Council. There are also (albeit expensive) legal options.

      My use of "kids" was inspired by 'Casablanca', as you likely recognize.

      McCormick and Antrim raised alarm about, as they wrote, "an unannounced" and "surprise inspection" as if it were a VISION plot against ZZ. Nonsense.

      ALL such inspections are unannounced. That's how they work. Did they not know this? Would they want DTES slumlords to be given advance notice of fire inspections? Of course not.

      "I'm shocked, shocked," claimed Captain Renault, in Casablanca, as he 'learned' that gambling was afoot in Rick's club.

      If McCormick and Antrim really are that unaware, they need to do better homework. It's OK for COPE to dump on VISION, as this article intends.

      It's not OK to purport "surprise" when the VFD is just doing its job to keep the public safe.

      Ken Wu

      Jun 4, 2013 at 6:55pm

      The Waldorf isn't closed.. Get your facts "Straight" (ha!)


      Jun 4, 2013 at 7:11pm

      "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"

      I really don't see what this has to do with shows being cancelled. It's not up to the city to pay rent for businesses who can't break even.