Moving on up: Gentrification in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

| February 24, 2012
Bitter Tasting Room, Sean Heather's upscale pub on Hastings St., exemplifies the bitter taste of gentrification and exclusion for Downtown Eastside low-income residents. Photo: Dave Diewert

In the poorest urban neighbourhood in Canada, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES), gentrification has been on the move for decades. Plotting these new developments on a map of the DTES and walking along the now unfamiliar streets reveals gentrification for what it is: a form of structural violence.

Gentrification is the social, economic, and cultural transformation of a predominantly low-income neighbourhood through the deliberate influx of upscale residential and commercial development. Encouraged by municipal development policies, economic incentives for investors, and the mythical pull of the creative city, urban land is purchased and developed at low cost for middle-class buyers. As urban theorist Neil Smith writes, "As a generalized urban strategy, gentrification weaves together the interests of city managers, developers and landlords, corporate employers and cultural and educational institutions."

Despite pockets of low-income housing, the transformation of Gastown and Victory Square into a tourist destination with trendy restaurants and boutique shops is almost complete. On the western edge of the DTES is the massive mixed development at the old Woodward's site/squat with over 500 condos, SFU art school funded by notorious mining giant Goldcorp, and retail stores. This has set off a tidal wave of gentrification within a few blocks, with four new condo developments (Paris Annex, Paris Block, 60 W. Cordova, 21 Doors) and countless restaurants and bars, including those owned by barons Sean Heather (Irish Heather, Salty Tongue, Shebeen, Penn Bakeshop, Everything Café, Fetch Kiosk, Bitter Tasting Room, Judas Goat) and Marc Brand (Diamond, Sharks and Hammers, Boneta, Sea Monstr Sushi, Save on Meats), overpriced coffee shops, and designer stores. In symbiotic fashion, retail stores and cultural sites proliferate alongside new housing, rendering the area more welcoming and familiar for wealthier consumers.

In the southern sub-area of Chinatown, recent condo projects have been established (V6A, Ginger, Strathcona East, Keefer Suites), and the city-approved Historic Area Heights Review allows for increased building heights, green-lighting a 17-storey condo and retail project. On the eastern front of the DTES, a massive 352-unit housing, commercial, and light industrial project is in the pre-development phase. And at the former Pantages Theatre site, right in the heart of the low-income community at Main and Hastings, is the proposed Sequel 138 project, with 79 condos. As on the western edge of the DTES, accompanying all these condo projects are a plethora of restaurants, coffee shops, hair salons, fitness centres, furniture stores, art galleries, organic food stores, banks, and specialty clothing outlets that have opened atop already inadequate low-income services and stores.

The processes of neo-liberal urbanism that fuel this kind of gentrification are rooted in the colonial doctrines of discovery and terra nullius, as well as more modernized forms of transnational globalization. As Smith further articulates, "Gentrification has become a strategy within globalization itself; the effort to create a global city is the effort to attract capital and tourists, and gentrification is a central means for doing so."

In the Downtown Eastside, Salient Group condo developments on Hastings and restaurants along Carrall Street are falsely advertised as existing in neighbouring Gastown. This simultaneously erases the very existence of the vibrant Downtown Eastside community (indeed, the immediate defence of many developers is, "I am not displacing anyone. There was nothing here before"), and imposes the invading impulses of capitalist production and the dominant classes. Marketers deliberately align new gentrifying sites with the architecture of upscale neighbourhoods, producing an image that effaces the social and cultural reality of the existing community. The logic of middle-class entitlement to settlement and its attendant low-income displacement is particularly insidious given that the disproportionate number of Indigenous people in the Downtown Eastside is itself a legacy of colonial dispossession and attempted assimilation of Indigenous communities.

The rabid nature of gentrification is cyclical -- both a result and a cause of the extreme housing crisis in urban centres like Vancouver. With Vancouver consistently named one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, powerful developers are on the prowl for the last urban frontier in which to build high-density housing. This trend towards condo-ization, pitched as "affordable" for young professionals, increases real estate speculative values and drives up rents, which in turn displaces long-term residents. Areas such as Mount Pleasant, Kensington/Cedar Cottage, and Grandview Woodlands are experiencing rent increases as high as 45 per cent, forcing out working-class families and seniors. And so we have one of the inherent paradoxes of capitalist globalization in the urban context: the trajectory of infinite development within a finite city.

This capitalist accumulation (which Andrew Witt and Sean Antrim refer to as "rent extraction") is incentivized by the policies of the municipal government. First, public funds and public services are divested from low-income neighbourhoods. Then, private capital is allowed to develop these neighbourhoods with a high return of profit. The global accounting firm KPMG named Vancouver as the world's most business-friendly tax climate. For example, two of B.C.'s richest billionaires, Brandt Louie and Jim Pattison, received tax exemptions ranging from 3-10 years for their investment in Woodwards. In the past two elections, funds for Mayor Gregor Robertson's Vision Vancouver party came primarily from real estate developers. Studying the tedious bureaucratic processes of zoning, tax policies, and development permits all illuminate how the government functions as the political pillar for the expansion of real estate's capitalist interests.

Many Downtown Eastside residents describe the impacts of gentrification as deeply traumatic. According to a recent Carnegie Community Action Project report, "Upscale: the Downside of Gentrification," affordable single-room occupancies (SRO) are increasingly scarce. More than half of SROs now rent higher than a person on welfare, disability or pension can afford. New retail shops and restaurants are zones of exclusion, offering goods and services beyond the means of the predominantly low-income residents. Public space has become more uncomfortable and hostile with increasing policing and private security surveillance, as well as constant reports by low-income residents of feeling judged by many of the new owners and consumers in the neighbourhood. As one DTES resident told Save-On-Meats owner Marc Brand in a meeting, "I was treated like a piece of meat in your restaurant."

In cities like Vancouver that purport to be progressive, the violence of gentrification is masked behind a three-fold ideological discourse aimed at giving it an air of reasonableness. First is "urban renewal." This presumes that the downtrodden ghetto will be uplifted and revitalized through social entrepreneurship and trickle-down investment, a now widely discredited theory at the global level. Second is the language of "affordability." When peddled by developers such as Marc Williams, Jon Stovell, Robert Fung, and Westbank, it does not mean affordable for current residents. Rather, the affordability is pitched to higher-income buyers and customers such as young artists, students, and professionals, the canaries for whether a neighbourhood will successfully be gentrified.

The third is "social mix." While it sounds inclusive, in reality it means that people with higher-incomes are at liberty to utilize their social capital to alter the demographics of a low-income community. On the one hand, low-income services such as shelters and food banks are systematically expunged from higher income neighbourhoods (why not enforce social mix in rich areas like Shaughnessy?). On the other hand, space in low-income neighbourhoods that could be used for community-based actualization is appropriated by those with greater power and wealth. As geographer Loretta Lees writes, "The rhetoric of 'social mix' hides a gentrification strategy and in that a hidden social cleansing agenda... Over the longer term poor people suffer more from the loss of benefits of living in a poor neighbourhood, than they gain from living in a more affluent one."

Above all, what these "community-friendly" justifications obscure are hierarchical structures and the asymmetry of political and economic power -- decisions are made in private boardrooms, privately funded organizations promoting urban development, and the offices of city hall. Gentrification ultimately normalizes power: the power to mobilize financial and cultural capital; the power to purchase land and market goods and services; the power to occupy space and determine its accessibility; the power to shape and control the social and cultural landscape. This power is operative regardless of the personable façade, co-opted language, and token gestures of alliance promoted by some of the newly arrived gentry.

Like many other forms of power, gentrification's most potent hold on us is the idea of its inevitability. Even some in the Left are either complicit or apathetic in the face of it. In spite of this, we believe we have the power to transform the pre-packaged profiteering of gentrification through genuine low-income and working-class solidarity that opposes the trend towards normalization. We can boycott condos in the Downtown Eastside, refuse to frequent stores and cultural sites that are inaccessible to the low-income community, and demand rent control and real affordable housing for all tenants in the Lower Mainland. Though the tentacles of gentrification are most impacting poor and homeless people in the Downtown Eastside, the rental rat-race is rapidly destroying and displacing neighbourhoods across our city. It is our collective responsibility to urgently articulate and fight for a vision for community autonomy and self-governance that rejects the commodification of our basic survival.

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer who works in the Downtown Eastside and facilitates the DTES Power of Women Group, who have called for a boycott of market housing and unaffordable restaurants in the Downtown Eastside. Dave Diewert is a founder of the anti-poverty faith-based organization Streams of Justice and is a member of the DTES Neighbourhood Council. Dave and Harsha were both organizers of the (Anti) Olympic Tent Village in 2010 and are both currently involved in the DTES is not for Developers Campaign.

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