Save-On-Meats sign theft latest attack on gentrification in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

If you read the rant posted by the people who stole the Save-on-Meats sandwich-board sign from outside the landmark butcher shop-cum-restaurant in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, you know there's no common ground between them and the businesses they're targeting.

The thieves, purporting to be anarchists, put up a photo of said sign displayed in front of a masked guy on Anarchist News, along with a statement decrying gentrification of the impoverished neighbourhood.

Save-On-Meats on Hastings Street, which was transformed by entrepreneur Mark Brand, is apparently seen as another symbol of the encroachment of upscale businesses in a neighbourhood still badly troubled poverty, drug addiction and crime.

"The act was meant to let the gentrifiers know that they have entered an area with a long history of class warfare," the anonymous poster says. "We will not stop. We will take their property apart bit by bit if we have to, and we’ll have fun doing it."

The sign theft last week was the latest in a series of attacks and protests aimed at businesses deemed intruders in areas some see as reserved for low-income residents.

Pidgin Restaurant, about a block east of Save-On-Meats, has been the scene of several demonstrations by anti-poverty protesters in part because it overlooks Pigeon Park, a notorious Downtown Eastside hangout.

[ Related: Despite protests, owner of new Vancouver restaurant refuses to leave Downtown Eastside ]

And someone's been targeting a Famoso Pizza outlet on Commercial Drive, which has been transitioning from eastside bohemian enclave to trendy middle-class neighbourhood because of it's relative affordability.

The franchise restaurant's plate-glass windows have been broken three times in the last year, most recently last week, according to the Vancouver Province.

“For all too long now yuppies have been peacefully going about their gourmet dinners, buying up their lucky condos and flaunting their wealth by driving in expensive cars,” says post on Anarchist News, who claim to have been inspired by the Pidgin protests. “This is f---ing class war and we will not stop until we are free from class.”

Owner Ryan Chilibeck doesn't understand it because nothing on the menu of the family restaurant costs more than 15 dollars.

The attacks triggered a backlash on the site condemning the vandals as "bullies, poseurs, cowards and hypocrites."

Save-On-Meats, located where Vancouver's touristy Gastown district borders the Downtown Eastside, first opened in 1957 as a butcher shop. It closed in 2009 until Brand reopened it in 2011 and included a restaurant, the Globe and Mail noted.

Both Pidgin and Save-On-Meats added social components to their operation. Pidgin touts its hiring of local residents and Save-On-Meats supports local social agencies and offers a unique program where customers can purchase tokens redeemable for a hot sandwich. The customers can give the tokens away themselves or have the restaurant turn them over to its community partners.

None of that cuts much ice with the "anarchists," who see the programs as nothing more than paternalistic window dressing as gentrification drives up property values.

"Even if the gentrifiers think they are doing right by the present residents of the [Downtown Eastside], their very presence is a key ingredient in an ongoing movement to displace the existing residents and create a newly fashioned enclave for outsiders," the anti-gentrification group says in its statement.

The view is echoed by Ivan Drury of the Carnegie Community Action Project, who supported the Pidgin protests.

[ Related: Pizzeria allegedly vandalized by Vancouver anti-gentrification group ]

“Cultural gentrification is an absolutely necessary corollary to economic gentrification because it makes the neighbourhood more comfortable to consumers and higher-income people,” Drury, whose group advocates for the Downtown Eastside's low-income residents, told the Globe.

“The best thing about the Downtown Eastside is that it’s a place of belonging and care, for people who don’t fit in anywhere else … Their sense of community is now being smashed.”

Brand concedes the pace of gentrification is increasing but believes vandalism and threats send the wrong message.

“We want to engage, we want to employ, we want to train,” he told the Globe. “What kind of message [does theft and vandalism] say to people who want to come down and work?”