Vancouver Downtown Eastside groups band together against anti-gentrification protests

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Protesters say they are fighting the gentrification of the neighbourhood, but the restaurant says it is working with the community to improve life for those on the Downtown Eastside.

The regular protests outside swanky new businesses on Vancouver's troubled Downtown Eastside have finally sparked a backlash.

For months, pickets have been turning up at upscale restaurants and other new enterprises opening in the neighbourhood, which is plagued by crime, drugs and poverty. Activists say the new businesses, along with new condo projects, are helping gentrify the neighbourhood, which will raise rents and make it unaffordable for poorer residents to live there.

But this week a group of Downtown Eastside residents, business owners and community groups banded together to say the protesters don't speak for them.

They held a news conference Thursday saying the anti-gentrification protests hurt the neighbourhood.

“We are here today to say unequivocally that using personal intimidation and bullying tactics to raise issues and promote positions is unacceptable and has gained public attention for far too long,” Fern Jeffries, co-chair of the Crosstown Residents Association, said in a statement, according to Postmedia News.

Pidgin restaurant, across from tiny Pigeon Park, has been targeted for months by pickets who sometimes harass the eatery's patrons. Save-On-Meats, a longtime neighbourhood butcher shop reincarnated as a hip restaurant, lost its sidewalk sign to self-styled anarchists. And protesters last week went after yet another new restaurant, Cuchillo.

[ Related: Sign theft latest attack on gentrification in Vancouver ]

"It's a form of exclusion," protester Tami Starlight told CBC News. "People can't afford to eat here. Everything around it gets over-priced. Same with the land, the rents go up. There's this ripple effect, that everything goes up."

The owners of the newcomers have argued their presence creates employment opportunities and that they also have done social outreach to local groups. It hasn't stopped the pickets.

Now opponents of the protesters seem to be banding together. The Hastings Crossing organization issued a statement on behalf of a 15-member coalition of groups condemning "vandalism, intimidation, harassment and targeted pickets."

The Downtown Eastside is growing and changing, the group said, and that has created both pressures and opportunities. Local entrepreneurs are opening businesses in what's seen as the last piece of affordable real estate in Vancouver, while new residents are adding to the neighbhourhood's "already vibrant, eclectic mix."

"These new developments have often brought conflict and misunderstanding in their wake, particularly as pressures around affordability have increased," the statement says.

"Some residents and businesses have been ridiculed or have had their property vandalized and stolen. Some have been threatened or their patrons intimidated and harassed. A number have been portrayed by protesters as heartless villains. Increasingly, protests, personal attacks and bullying have replaced respectful, inclusive discussions.

"Protesters raise important issues, saying they speak for this community. While we respect their right to protest and agree with many concerns that are being raised, we cannot support the strategy they have chosen."

Association executive director Wes Regan told Postmedia News the protesters have misrepresented the neighbourhood as divided and hostile to newcomers.

The neighbourhood needs dialogue and "place-based" grassroots planning to ensure growth accommodates current residents along with opportunities created by new businesses, Regan said.

[ Related: Pidgin protesters target new Vancouver restaurant ]

"The new businesses have hired people in the community and provided food to residents working at the Sunday market in Pigeon Park," local resident Rob Morgan said.

Morgan told the anti-protest news conference he was a squatter in the old Woodward's department store building before it was redeveloped. He now lives in the complex built on the site, which includes a mix of high-end and social housing, the National Post reported.

“The reality is ... I don’t see the point of protesting every day, twice a day," he said.

Critics of the protests suggest many of the demonstrators are tourists from more affluent neighbourhoods. Whoever they are, Regan says they've created a false image of the Downtown Eastside.

“I’ve never heard one aboriginal parent say, ‘When my kids grow up I want them to live in the Downtown Eastside,’ yet that’s what these demonstrators are saying … they want to keep the people down here,” Scott Clark, executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, said, according to the National Post.

“We’ve got NIMBYism of another stripe here — we’ve got a small group of vocal, well-organized ‘activists’ with their own NIMBYism where they don’t want to see businesses or condos.”