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.