Anti-gentrification activists are calling it the “next PiDGin”, promising another long campaign against the newest upscale eatery in the Downtown Eastside.
Cuchillo opened at 261 Powell Street on June 30, according to the restaurant’s Twitter feed. Less than one week later, the Latin restaurant is about to become the subject of “daily” pickets, organizers vowed.
“We’re calling it a stabbing in the heart of the Downtown Eastside,” said Richard Marquez at a gathering outside Cuchillo held earlier this evening (July 5). “It’s in the bottom of a single-room occupancy hotel called the York Rooms....Up above, the conditions are putrid and deteriorating. Upstairs, people are struggling with food security issues, affordability, nutritional deficiencies, and health challenges. They have no kitchens, no bathrooms. But downstairs, they put in more than a million [dollars] in a brand new spanking kitchen to provide dining for the wealthy.”
The social worker and self-described antidisplacement activist said Downtown Eastside residents are worried that the introduction of establishments like Cuchillo are the beginning of a gentrification process that will eventually push low-income earners out of the area.
He explained it like this: Real-estate developers buy towers in low-income neighbourhoods for relatively low prices. They lease ground-level space to upscale bars and restaurants for cheap. Wealthier people perceive the neighbourhood as beginning to change for the better, and follow the nice restaurants into the lower-income areas. A growing demand for residential real estate then begins to increase property values, driving up rents and the rates those ground-level boutiques were paying. And slowly but surely, the low-income earners who were occupying those buildings before the real-estate developer came along find themselves squeezed out of the market, and forced out of the neighbourhood.
“We’re seeing this play out in Brooklyn, in Queens, in San Francisco in the Tenderloin district, and now we’re seeing it here,” Marquez said. “It’s a transformation that happens step-by-step, culturally. These restaurants are the beginning of a new narrative of displacement in the Downtown Eastside.”
Among 30 to 40 protestors standing alongside Marquez at the Cuchillo picket was Homeless Dave, who earlier this year staged a hunger strike to bring attention to calls for social housing; Herb Varley, who recently led an anti-gentrification protest attended by some 200 people; and Wendy Pedersen, a prominent housing activist and long-time resident of the DTES.
Pedersen told the Straight that the community is asking for assistance with housing in the form of two key demands.
The first, that the single-occupancy rooms in the York hotel above Cuchillo have their rent frozen at $375 a month, the amount allotted for housing to people on welfare. And two, for the government to put forward and act on a realistic plan to create 5,000 social housing units that would alleviate the Downtown Eastside’s homelessness problem.
“Residents living in the area where Cuchillo restaurant is and where this York Hotel is, the residents nearby, they have the lowest income in the region,” Pedersen noted. “Seventy-five percent of the residents here live on $7,000 a year. That’s not very much.”
She told the crowd that pickets would continue daily at 6:00 p.m., as they would some four blocks away outside PiDGin restaurant, where protesters have gathered Tuesday through Saturday for five months now, since February 5.
Cuchillo’s Facebook page describes the establishment as Latin American, serving “modern pan-Latin tapas with unique and classic cocktail creations in the sexiest room in town(s).” The dollar cost of single-portion items on the menu mostly ranged in the mid-to-high teens.
Inside the restaurant, about as many customers as there were protestors outside dined comfortably, with ambient music muting chanted calls for affordable housing.
The Straight was told Cuchillo’s general manager, John Cooper, was around but working, and not available for comment.
Staff chatted casually about the group outside. “I thought there would be more,” one hostess remarked.
July 8, 2013 update: Cuchillo restaurant management responds to Vancouver anti-gentrification picketers.