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Blind Man with a Pistol

Michael Stewart's picture
Michael Stewart is the blogs coordinator for rabble.ca and a doctoral candidate in English at the University of British Columbia. BMWAP is a blog about culture and capitalism. Damn right, it's confusing; it's a gas, baby, you dig. Follow him on twitter: @blindmanspistol

A token solution for the Downtown Eastside

| November 23, 2012
Phot credit: Vancouver Sun

Save-On-Meats owner Mark Brand cares about Vancouver's homeless. We know this because he has a reality television show on the Oprah network -- Gastown Gamble -- which follows the stories of "young entrepreneurial hipsters" as they "struggle" to open an upscale deli in the Downtown Eastside. While Brand's show, which also features his wife Nico, documents the anguish the restauranteurs suffer as they agonize over how best to save the troubled residents of the neighbourhood, it doesn't represent so well the owners' complicity in displacing, alienating and disempowering the residents who have lived there for years.

Never mind, though. Mark Brand has a new plan. As reported by the Province, Save-On-Meats has produced 10,000 "tokens" which patrons can purchase to distribute to "homeless" people (who obviously can't be trusted with money). These tokens, which bear the restaurant's logo ("They will never be traded for cash," Brand assures us), can be exchanged for a Save-On-Meats breakfast sandwich, worth $2.25.

Aside from free advertisement and a warm, fuzzy feeling, Brand won't profit from the project. Neither, of course, will the residents of the Downtown Eastside whose access to healthy food is virtually prohibited through the Lower Mainland's addiction to development and the province's negligence of low-income people. Now, anyone on social assistance (which allows $26 a week for food) will find themselves coerced into eating at a high-end restaurant and agent of gentrification which excludes local residents. (Aside: Does Brand know that the LOVE/HATE knuckle tattoo is the legacy of Night of the Hunter serial-killer minister, Harry Powell? He should learn.)

Mark Brand's "compassionate" approach to gentrification -- he employs a few residents from the DTES whose "colour" make for great viewing on the Oprah network -- is nothing new to the neighbourhood. In fact, it's become the de rigueur strategy for calming a citizenry starting to notice the city's abominable record in protecting low-income residents. Bob Rennie's infamous refrain, "Do you have what it takes to live in the Downtown Eastside?", which enticed the upper-middle classes to buy units in the Woodwards Building while caricaturing and degrading the real lived conditions of the low-income residents they displaced, remains the battlecry for developers and entrpreneurs -- even hipster ones.

Here's a project I'd like to pitch to Mark Brand and the Oprah network: build safe, affordable housing with access to nutritious food and the means to prepare it. Call a moratorium on predatory condo development. Listen to the real, viable solutions that have been promoted ceaselessly by local residents, activists and allies over the past 30 years. Give decision-making power to the people who live there so that they can plan, build and grow their neighbourhood as they wish.

Oh, and don't film it. We need another restaurant docu-drama like Gastown needs another high-end latte bar. Just leave them alone.

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