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‘We’ve really reached a tipping point’: Scarred by COVID, Chinatown leaders want city to remember its commitment

Click to play video: 'Chinatown Unmasked: historic neighbourhood often feels ignored by government' Chinatown Unmasked: historic neighbourhood often feels ignored by government
As tourists and shoppers disappeared from Vancouver's Chinatown during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a proliferation of graffiti, vandalism and garbage. In part 2 of 'Chinatown Unmasked', Kristen Robinson looks at what the city is doing to address the mayhem, and why the historic neighbourhood often feels forgotten by government. – Jul 27, 2021

Crippled by crime and street disorder, the current “For Lease” landscape in Vancouver’s Chinatown is littered with the scars of its COVID-19 battle.

“It’s saddening to see that people treat it with such disrespect,” said Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association president Jordan Eng.

Click to play video: 'Chinatown Unmasked: COVID-19 exacerbates crisis on the ground' Chinatown Unmasked: COVID-19 exacerbates crisis on the ground
Chinatown Unmasked: COVID-19 exacerbates crisis on the ground – Jul 26, 2021

As a Realtor, Eng’s name is on many of the signs that started appearing on empty storefronts, as tourists and shoppers disappeared from Pender and Keefer streets during the pandemic.

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Commercial break-and-enters rose by more than 60 per cent in 2020, according to crime statistics from Vancouver police.

Mischief, including vandalism and graffiti, also increased by 20 per cent, year over year.

Read more: Lion statues in Vancouver’s Chinatown hit with racist graffiti again

All of the mayhem is costing the surviving businesses.

“It’s scaring people away from Chinatown,” City Coun. Pete Fry told Global News.

Fry and his colleague, Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, recently worked to gain a temporary reprieve on graffiti fines.

“We’ve actually asked the city to work with the BIAs where there’s businesses that are really being prolifically targeted for nuisance tagging,” said Fry.

“That we find a better solution than fining them or threatening them because obviously it’s no fault of their own.”

The city confirmed that fines pertaining to the removal of graffiti in all downtown areas, including Chinatown, have been “relaxed” to help support economic recovery.

Still, Chinatown business leaders have said they often feel forgotten by all three levels of government.

Click to play video: 'Chinatown business owner hurt during random attack' Chinatown business owner hurt during random attack
Chinatown business owner hurt during random attack – Apr 29, 2020

Chinese Cultural Centre chair and Chinese Benevolent Association president Fred Kwok said he wonders where the area’s tax dollars are going.

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“The cultural centre pays close to $100,000 a year for the property tax in lieu of rent, and all this to (the) city, and we actually got pretty much no service in return,” Kwok told Global News.

Said Eng: “It’s easy to ignore us. We’ve really reached a tipping point where it’s not acceptable.”

When asked if he thinks the city has ignored Chinatown, Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he’s “really sympathetic for the merchants there.”

The BIA, which met with Stewart over safety and cleanliness concerns in 2019, wants a consistent response in terms of city services.

Eng’s message for the mayor: “Remember Chinatown and remember your commitment.”

Read more: ‘It’s like a war zone’: Chinatown businesses say crisis on the ground needs urgent fix

Stewart said council has committed $1 million for general graffiti and garbage removal across the city, with $50,000 specifically for Chinatown.

The city has also expanded its services to help address the pandemic’s impact on public-realm cleanliness and graffiti in the neighbourhood.

New higher-capacity litter cans have been installed, five micro-cleaning or garbage-and-needle collection shifts have been added per week, and a new feces collection pilot is in place under a grant program.

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Sanitation staff have been added to boost core cleaning in Chinatown, including more frequent flushing and sweeping of sidewalks and alleys, and the collection of abandoned trash.

Read more: New community policing centre opens in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown

Police have also stepped up patrols in the area since a community policing centre opened next to the cultural centre in May.

“We’re throwing lots at Chinatown,” Stewart told Global News while acknowledging more could be done.

“We know it’s not enough at this point, so we will be increasing our efforts as we move along.”

Asked whether Chinatown would see a consistent city response going forward on safety and cleanliness, the mayor said staff look at the hardest hit areas when preparing budgets each year and make recommendations as to where council may want to put extra resources.

Said Vancouver East MP Jenny Kwan: “Chinatown as we know will disappear if we do not get the support from all levels of government.”

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Kwan wrote Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in July 2020, calling for a lifeline for the National Historic Site in the form of federal emergency funding.

In comparison, federally-owned Granville Island received $17 million in emergency relief in 2020, with another $22 million earmarked in the 2021 budget.

Read more: Vancouver’s struggling Granville Island gets $22M federal cash injection

She told Global News she received no response.

“I’d like to ask the government what is the difference between Granville Island and Chinatown. Are we less important?”

Global News put the question to Freeland, but she did not offer a clear answer, and instead used the opportunity to praise the federal wage and rent subsidies.

“I’ve had personal testimonials about the extent to which our business support programs have been helpful, including very much for Vancouver’s Chinatown,” said Freeland from Longueuil, Que.

Overall, the Chinese community is encouraged by municipal efforts to clean up Chinatown, and hopes the work will continue.

While the heritage neighbourhood may be battered and bruised, advocates say it won’t be crushed.

“We mustn’t give up, because Chinatown is worth the fight,” said Kwan.

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