Sid Chow Tan: Where can you call the bullied the bullies? My thoughts on the restaurant pickets

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      In our beautiful and confused city, a community is divided over the picketing of two restaurants in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. While wars have been waged over food and territory since the dawn of flora and fauna, this flashpoint concerns the actions of a small merry band of picketers. The conflict nauseatingly underscores the forces of Vancouver’s economic entitlement and power politics—developers and city hall. Power, privilege, and elites have succeeded in pitting brother against brother and sister against sister in the Downtown Eastside.

      For some, we are in the yearned-for gilded age of a self-proclaimed "world class city", post Expo 86 and post the 2010 Winter Olympics. The mantra is green, livable, affordable, and sustainable. This constant repetition does not disguise the pecuniary and mercenary pursuit of the increasing value of Vancouver real estate. This everyone understands. For low-income renters, the poor, the sick, disabled and others not in social housing, it will be a struggle on the pittance or dole. For landowners, developers, and real-estate investors, there’s much money to be made in the DTES.     

      Gentrification, social mix, and revitalization are now the buzzwords for on-the-ground displacement of low-income residents and the reconstruction of a decades-old community. Since the founding of the city a century ago, the DTES has been a low-income neighbourhood. Within the past five decades, the once “skid row” has been transformed by resident activists and organizers into a vibrant but still troubled community. This grassroots best effort is in grave danger. With Vancouver becoming world class, local and global lucre-seeking “extremists” are cashing in on the increased real-estate values created by the investment of sweat equity and heavy lifting of current and former residents.    

      We all stand before history. Practitioners of the “comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable” belief may be chuckling these days. American writer Finley Peter Dunne’s words a century ago on the power of newspapers and institutions are famously used by social activist Mother (Mary) Jones to describe her work. Currently our world-class city has, in the DTES, a caring and sharing community divided. A community divided against itself cannot stand. Like the northern carpetbaggers of the American Civil War using families against families, the forces of greed, avarice, and financial self-interest are at work in the DTES.

      It’s not just developers’ fingerprints all over city hall. The ink-stained wretches of commercial media are showing their colours in their reports of the pickets and picketers. It manifests in biased coverage and editorials. More recently, the guttersnipes were positively attentive to an antipicketing media briefing. Not mentioning the picketing is a response to the “fix” in at city hall. It is as plain as the gentrification following the megatowers of Woodward’s.

      Commercial media do not report on the negative social impacts of gentrification. That's to be expected because city hall has no recent social-impact assessment or study. It is odd there would not be such a report prior to the current talk-renovict, talk-demolish, and talk-develop DTES local area planning process. Its greatest success to date has been the demobilizing of antigentrification forces. It should be clear that if the needs, assets, and tenure of low-income residents of the DTES cannot be tallied and recognized, they cannot be protected. Where is the long promised social-impact study and why is commercial media not clamouring for it?

      It’s unseemly and certainly dishonest to report on a conflict without mentioning the forces that precipitated it. There was no socia- impact study from city hall prior to the historic area heights review, which begat the Chinatown height relaxations. No report from commercial media on this gerrymandering in Chinatown. It was the one of eight DTES districts stripped from the DTES local area planning process, then was miraculously added after the deed. What would you expect from lapdogs deriving income from advertising the sale of real estate and often unnecessary consumer goods and services?

      We are a species of ideas, words, and action. While there is comforting simplicity in survival of the fittest (with the best killing machines), we humans purportedly aspire to more. As social beings, good people think and express, govern ourselves with conscience, and act accordingly. This is what the antigentrification picketers are doing. Of course this is also the right of their opponents. It is worth noting that many picketers and supporters have presented their ideas to be heard at city hall. They were arrogantly and dismissively ignored. You would expect more conflict when gentrification is ramrodded in this manner.   

      The picketing, entirely legal and a right of Canadians, has descended into name calling, accusations of bullying, and ill will. The situation is simply toxic now. Not because some low-income residents dare picket two neighbourhood restaurants unaffordable to them. Both sides declare they have the best interest of the homeless, marginalized, or financially vulnerable at their core. However, seemingly sinister forces fan the flames that set the low income against the poor, the poor against the sick and disabled, and divide the community over the crumbs offered. The lickspittle media love this. Possibly the developers and their friends at city hall love it even more. When a political party in Vancouver distinguishes itself not taking developers' money as two parties do that are now represented in city hall, it speaks volumes about our political landscape.

      We have learned that commercial media is not essential for our democracy anymore. An informed public is the cornerstone of our democracy and commercial media fails us. Our democracy fails when the citizens make decisions based on the messaging of commercial media. Our democracy fails when good people do not get involved beyond ideas, words, and voting every few years. To commercial media, social justice is a matter of the popularity of their advertising space, which they will sell to both rich and poor. In the final tally, they beguile the people as their owners’ interests are not congruent with public good and common wealth unless it is a public-relations exercise.

      In the desperate action of DTES restaurant picketing, there appears to be a complete communications breakdown, or rather stand down, at city hall. You have the picketers and their supporters clearly afflicting the comfortable and being quite successful. Opposing the picket are people who say they are trying to comfort the afflicted. On the surface, both have lots in common and should be working together as they sometimes once did.

      There are just a few picketers and many opposing them at every level of organization. They include business-improvement and residents’ associations with an eye to increased profits and property values, and other not-for-profit groups with another eye on community benefits agreements dangled by developers and city hall. Many are reliant on public funding and spend much efforts currying favour from and are compliant to various levels of government. As for the few legal picketers, what harm can they do (beyond narcissism) and what benefits (if any) will they receive that other residents will not?

      The recent so-called community pushback against the restaurant pickets cannot overcome persistence of tactics that have proven to be successful. The picketers have outed the developers and city-hall racket. They have persevered to out the “progressive green” veneer of governing Vision Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and councillors as the “status quo greenbacks” of developers and landowners. As for the so-called opposition Non-Partisan Association, they were in the pockets of developers when the pants were sewn.

      The ongoing pickets have also outed the social-justice façade of so-called DTES groups who dare call the picketers bullies. Ironic in the extreme as it is the picketers being bullied. The restaurant owners, with their obvious low rent and concessions from the landlords, are agents of bullies—developers, media, police, Uncle Toms and Tomahawks, et cetera— who refuse to acknowledge the picketers could be onto something. History has shown us that justice is never about popularity. That is politics. Justice is about doing what is right and fair, and that it is good to care and share. Again, where are the social-impact studies?

      So let the picketers stand around at their heart’s content as long as no laws are broken. This is a democracy. Dissent and picketing are rights that are protected. Developers, city hall, the media, and police have failed to dampen the small but enthusiastic restaurant pickets. It seems the cowards have found their community bully boys and girls to do the dirty work of keeping their shoes clean.

      “All politics is local,” wrote Dunne. After the next civic election, we will find out whether Vision Vancouver’s purpose has been served. In the past decade, its founders gutted the Coalition of Progressive Electors, which did and still does not take money from developers. They donned the COPE cloak of progressives, then formed a new party, which took loads of money from developers. At the time, Vision Vancouver was often called NPA-lite.

      It is possible developers may feel Vision Vancouver has outlived its usefulness. They always have the NPA to maintain a developers’ party in Vancouver for another 10 years. That is unless the good people of Vancouver wake up and feel that all politics is not only local, but should be personal.

      Sid Chow Tan is a media producer, community organizer, and an activist for social justice and human and environmental rights. He helped found the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council and served as director for its first two years. He also helped found Head Tax Families Society of Canada, where he has served as an office, and his goal is to retire in comfort to think, read, and write.    



      Michael Puttonen

      Jul 16, 2013 at 8:49am

      You nailed it this time, Sid Chow Tan.
      Nailed it.

      From BC Business magazine, Feb 4, 2013, an example of the "doing well by doing good" philosophy of gentrification.

      "The injection of cash into Brand’s new not-for-profit division is a boon for Mark Brand Inc. Profit and not-for-profit divisions are now optimized to play off each other. Foundation funding for the food procurement program takes the financial pressure off Save On, leaving more resources for new restaurants, breweries and whatever else Brand dreams up. And whether you buy the community message he’s selling or not, it won’t slow him down in the slightest. Brand continues to do well in business by doing good in his neighbourhood. “I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that we are working really hard to do better and I know that it’s inspired a lot of people to work hard and do better.”

      Page Turner

      Jul 16, 2013 at 8:56am

      Have I told you lately, that I LOVE you, Sid?! Yes, we are human, yes, many of us work and have lived in the DTES for decades and want nothing more than to stay and CONTRIBUTE to THE community like our proven records show.

      Bob Smith

      Jul 16, 2013 at 9:37am

      Well written article. I do not believe the premise that the protestors have "succeeded" in anything but it does a decent job of outing the Vision Vancouver party as the shame they are.

      That said, I live in the DTES and I would prefer that it was not a ghetto that is mocked by the entire country. I am extremely happy to see some decent businesses take a chance and open up shop in my neighborhood. I try to frequent the restaurants that are being picketed more than I otherwise would, just to show my support. The protestors dream is that the DTES remains a ghetto, my dream is that is does not. Time will tell which side our democratic society chooses to support.

      Peter Pants

      Jul 16, 2013 at 9:40am

      Mayor Farmville always uses a divide and conquer strategy. If the people who are being pushed out of the city, which is pretty much everyone who's not a millionaire, fight each other, they won't fight against the developers and fancy businesses that have turned Gastown into a new Granville Street.


      Jul 16, 2013 at 9:41am

      Damn, I tried to get through this article, but got bogged down in all the rhetoric. Sid, Why don't the people who own property in the DTES have the same rights to develop their property as anyone else in the city? Why do they have to bear the total burden? Why does anyone in Vancouver have to put up with a group like vandu that promotes hard core drug use? Especially when that hard core drug use is the major problem that creates the situation to begin with. You rant on about the commercial media - what do you think the straight is?????? I've never seen so many advertisements in any newspaper as I see in the straight every week. If the cause is so pure, why do even residents of the DTES dismiss the "pickets" as outsiders? No one who goes to eat at either of the two restaurants started this name
      calling. It's the "pickets" that yell abuse at the patrons of the restaurants. If you think the way to lift up a neighborhood is to stop economic growth and encouraging the status quo - which obviously isn't working, - then you need to rethink your position. As for the media making money off the situation, what you call "lapdogs deriving income from the advertising of real estate and often unnecessary consumer goods and services", well, just look at where this article is printed. Smells of hypocrisy.


      Jul 16, 2013 at 9:43am

      "With Vancouver becoming world class, local and global lucre-seeking “extremists” are cashing in on the increased real-estate values created by the investment of sweat equity and heavy lifting of current and former residents"... can the writing get any more florid? Look... it is not just the people on the DTES who are suffering from the high real-estate prices, the middle class are also hit - and are being forced further and further east. It is not complicated... the population is growing, unlike Calgary and Toronto, there is limited land here, supply and demand pushes up prices, all neighbourhoods in the city are re-defined. In turn, social housing is built (never enough) and spread throughout the city - Dunbar for example. This mixes neighbourhoods and deghettoises that horrible slum that is the DTES. Why do people like Mr. Tan insist on perpetuating the misery that exists at Hastings and Main? Why support picketers of restaurants and not picket dealers, slumlords and other purveyors of misery?

      Northern Dene

      Jul 16, 2013 at 9:44am

      Well said, Syd. Elegantly written, poignantly described.


      Jul 16, 2013 at 9:48am

      The politics of money and development clashing with what is just and right for so many marginalized people and a community, this is what the picketing is about.

      It would be very interesting to know of the ".... community benefits agreements dangled by developers and city hall" mentioned by Tan that some of the DTES groups seem to be offered or will be offered for supporting gentrification and displacement?

      Calling it a "community benefit" is just another word for a money grab for those gentrification supporting organizations and an insult to all those who have been working hard to transform the DTES into a community that can deal with its problems.

      Only in the DTES are displacement and gentrification disguised in such terms that even restaurants for the rich are now a "benefit" to the community.
      A sick deadly joke.

      Lenore Clemens

      Jul 16, 2013 at 10:11am

      Great article, truthful, factual. Thank you.

      Done with the class war

      Jul 16, 2013 at 10:18am

      Bang on Sid.

      Yes, look at all these a-typical comments already! Same ol dogma of class war.

      Time to get peoples lazy outdated politics in shape. Class wars in a classist racist oppressive society. It is not really what important enlightened political philosophy one believes in, but who one knows and how one can heap their privilege and power in a negative way on those with less. What a sham!

      Vancouver is not unlike many major cities around the world and I am not being nice about it.

      The downtown eastside is in the rough shape it is in because of policy - period! Drug war mentality is the same as the class war mentality. The most over policed and abused community (by the police, city hall & people with money/privilege) in western Canada.

      Gladly people are catching onto this dog and pony show. In history(herstory?)it will be said that "the low income people who fight for social justice against all odds (the rigged ridiculous societal system) were right all along".