Heckling demonstrators armed with signs and flashing lights have been picketing Pidgin, a new Downtown Eastside restaurant for the past two weeks to draw attention to what they say is gentrification and encroachment on community space.
The protests are the latest – and most strident – in a series of demonstrations that participants and targets both say is reaching a boiling point, as chic establishments butt up against area residents and community groups concerned about affordable housing and neighbourhood character.
Demonstrators also recently picketed the nearby Rainier Provisions, a coffee shop and delicatessen that opened one week ago.
Brandon Grossutti, co-owner of Pidgin, which opened its doors Feb. 1, said he sympathizes with some of the protesters’ goals, like drawing attention to housing and poverty issues. But he said their twice-daily demonstrations – during the lunch and dinner rush – almost every day in the past two weeks are misdirected.
“They’ve started to attack guests verbally, with camera phones and flash lights in my guests’ eyes….They’ve been heckling guests as they come in and leave, just very aggressive language, and intimidating as well,” Grossutti said. “It hasn’t been a mature conversation.”
In an effort to block out demonstrators’ flashlights, the restaurant put sheets of black paper over the windows. Protesters have resorted to attaching lights to short poles to reach above the makeshift screen.
“They’ve said that their mandate is to close me down,” Grossutti said. “That’s not going to happen.”
He said he never intended to become a lightning rod, “a wedge” or a voice for gentrification. The spirit of community integration he planned to bring factored into the restaurant name: “It’s about bringing together two cultures and two perspectives and merging them….But it seems like sometimes people down here just want to fight. They don’t want to work toward solutions.”
Grossutti said Pidgin tried to integrate into the community from the outset, hiring local residents, using local laundry services and buying local art.
Ivan Drury, an organizer with the Carnegie Action Project who supports the protesters, sees the arrival of trendy new restaurants and the wealthier crowds they attract as a threat to space for affordable housing and to people needing low rents.
“It’s the cultural gentrification of restaurants like Pidgin….The neighbourhood … is becoming a space that low-income people can’t afford to live in, shop in, eat in, but also one that they feel that they don’t belong in.”
Meanwhile, he fears public spaces like Pigeon Park, across the street from Pidgin, are becoming oriented toward higher-end shoppers, diners and residents.
Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang sees the emergence of trendy retail outlets mixed with the single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs) that characterize much of the Downtown Eastside as a positive development.
“I think that if there was true gentrification with displacement, if poorer people were actually leaving their homes for rich people, I’d be in agreement with (the protesters). But that’s not the case.”
He pointed to efforts by the city and the province to develop empty lots and convert buildings like the Pantages Theatre into affordable housing and buy up private SROs to ensure low rents are available in the area.
“For me, it’s not so much a case of gentrification but ensuring that our policies don’t ghettoize,” Jang said, noting that the city is expanding shelters, interim housing, subsidized housing and affordable rental housing across Vancouver, not only downtown.
Sean Heather, owner of Rainier Provisions, less than a block from Pidgin on Carrall St., has twice faced protesters since he opened shop one week ago.
“Everyone down here gets tarred with the same brush,” he said. “I’m Irish, so I love an argument, but it’s how they argue back rather than just protesting for the sake of protesting that determines whether we can come to a good understanding.”
Heather, who has been in the Downtown Eastside for 18 years and owns the Irish Heather gastropub, Judas Goat tapas bar and the Bitter Tasting Room, among other establishments, said respectful dialogue is the solution to local grievances, not confrontation, but that hasn’t been the trend.
“Probably every restaurant I have has drawn the occasional protest over the last couple years. More so now. But you go out and talk to them, and there are those that want to listen and those that don’t,” he said.
Heather said he’s built a positive relationship with the community and offers free communal meals weekly to volunteers at the Portland Hotel Society, a non-profit organization, and to occupants of the Rainier Hotel, an SRO for vulnerable women located above Rainier Provisions.
“It’s just the way you do things to survive down here, you have to do things differently,” Heather said. “A little humanity.”
Jordan Cash, owner of Cartems Donuterie, a gourmet shop where a typical doughnut costs around $3, said he faced resistance from locals on opening up in February 2012.
“We’ve had our fair share of trouble, though never anything like this,” he said.
Wes Regan, executive director of the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association, said he and Grossutti are planning to meet to discuss ways to reach out to the community to resolve the restaurant’s problems with protesters.
“Some residents, especially of the SROs, don’t have a lot of community space, so the urban environment itself becomes an important space to have socially. Pigeon Park is a great example….So that needs to be respected in my opinion,” Regan said.
“Now, right across the street from that they have Cartems doughnuts, and now Pidgin. And both of these restaurants are out of the price range and really out of the social experience of these low-income residents….For me, the next step is exploring how to ensure their community remains a space they feel welcome in, and I don’t think protesting is the best way to achieve that.
“If they’re looking to draw attention to an important issue – housing and gentrification and community space – great. If they’re looking to demonize a small-business owner, I don’t think they’re being very productive at all.”