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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Great stuff, bang-on! Cool

Incredible piece. Thank you so much for this.

"n a map of the DTES and walking along the now unfamiliar streets reveals gentrification for what it is: a form of structural violence."

So rebuilidng a neighbourhood is "structural" violence? So in the authors' Orwellian vocabulary, what would squatting in a decaying neighbourhood, where the residents decend into poverty, substance abuse and it's buidlings fall apart be considered? Communitiy rejuvination?

Come on, poverty exists because of poor planning in the first place. The authors should know that -- this is supposed to be their topic. The DTES has historically been a very wealthy neighbourhood; in the early 20th century it housed city hall and the courthouse, and the fact that it has been allowed to fall into it's present state is the result of civic disengagement by both governments and citizens.

If concern for the neighbourhood is principal, they we should encourage wealth creating initiatives. Claiming that "affordability" is paramount, ignores the idea that subsized poverty might not actually help anyone; whether it's the receipients of "affordability" policies, or the tax-payers that ultimately pay for them. Call it gentrification, call it whatever you want, but it's ultimately better for the neighbourhood and the society as a whole. But hey, don't take my word for it. Go to China and ask the citizens there if they prefer their gentrified life, or their parent's life of poverty.

I'll save you the plane trip and tell you that there's no way they'd go back.

Though I agree with much of the theoretical content of this article, I take issue with the unquestioned demonization of small business owners in the area. The Heather/Brand duo aside, many of the cafes, restaurants and stores are run by young, extremely hard working individuals doing their best to make a living in this city.

These businesses may be considered “inaccessible” to members of the community, financially or otherwise, but it is not clear what an “accessible” business would look like or how it could possibly operate to make a profit without some outside form of financial intervention. A state-subsidized food bank or shelter is not a business. Is the alternative a run-down convenience store? A fast food chain that panders cheap, fatty foods to the poor?  Or merely empty store fronts and vacant lots? If DTES members and activists are uniformly anti-business, then is some kind of imaginary socially subsidized utopia to take its place? Or is the area to remain structurally unchanged, a museum of poverty and despair for the tourists of Gastown?

Boycotting the businesses named and unnamed by the author of this article at best does absolutely nothing, and at worst, subjects owners and employees to undue scorn and apparent responsibility for a social issue far beyond their immediate control.

"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"

What? Social entrepreneurship and trickle down investment are two completely different concepts.

If even social enterprise is cast as a component of the 'imperialist agenda', that reflects more on the economic ignorance of the left, than it does on the supposed illegitimacy of the social entrepreneuship model.

The middle class DTES activisists on a mission to keep the neighbourhood poor are doing a disservice to the wide variety of perspectives present in the neighbourhood. I happen to know of a number of residents in the Regent Hotel, two doors up from the proposed sequel 138 project, that are very hopeful the new building will be constructed. Generalizations that the 'community' doesn't want new building projects are just that - generalizations that serve the interests of a very radical activist community. There are many poor individuals in the DTES that see a 'social mix' as beneficial.

The antibusiness sentiment in this article as well as in the wider "anti-gentri-fuck-ation" movement serves to further dehumanize DTES residents by assuming that these people are incapable of working in, running, or maybe even owning social businesses that are sensitive to their social context. Advocating the creation of a 'subsidy economy' destroys the agency of residents, contributes to price inflation in the neighbourhood, and promotes the growth of businesses run and owned by 'outsiders'. Sound like unintended consequences? Absolutely. The left would do well to apply some very basic economic theory to their purely sociological tirades against the status quo, and integrate some proven methods for sustainable community development and local control into their activism.

While gentification does not always equate to positive change, it shouldn't be demonized like this. As someone in my late twenties who has lived in East Vancouver for about a decade, I have seen a lot of changes. While there should doubtlessly be social structures in place to support those unable to economically support themselves, a lot of the change that has occurred over the past ten years has been positive. 

The Downtown Eastside needs to be transformed. I don't see why the culture there is being idealized. The influx of new and interesting restaurants and stores in the area is a positive development. The city is growing, and it is ridiculous to only consider the needs of those who live below the poverty line. The city is expanding and, yes, growing more expensive, but there is a surplus of nice surburban neighbourhoods out there. Why should people on social assistance be assured the right to live blocks away from the downtown core when most working families move out to Surrey, Abbotsford, etc. in order to carve out a life for themselves? 

Most of the local business in the Strathcona/DTES are run by interesting young entrepreneurs who are eager to add value to the culture of this city. I do live in a loft apartment at Main and 2nd, but my boyfriend and I are by no means wealthy. Between us, we probably make well under 70,000 a year. We both volunteer, work incredibly hard, are active in the local arts community, and both fiercely love our neighbourhood. What about the importance of having culturally rich and interesting neighbourhoods that add value to the city. Should the needs of musicians, artists, students, and young people trying to work their way up be dismissed? How can you demonize the influx of lofts, nice restaurants, interesting clothing shops, etc? All of this business is revitalizing the local economy and much of it supports local farmers, local designers, etc. Why idealize business like Prime Time Chicken? What is wrong with an organic market that sells food sourced from local hard-working farmers, for example? Why should the needs of traditional DTES residents be considered above and beyond the needs of every other demographic?

I spent years working in the DTES, and why I do place great value in the non-profit organizations and social services that support that population, the traditional culture there shouldn't be idealized. I've stepped on needles, seen prostitutes and their clients in doorways, seen many people smoking crack and bleeding profusely from injections, not to mention the many crappy and sketchy business that have proliferated there for years. Should I support unhealthy, dirty diners over restaurants that serve healthy, environmentally friendly organic food sourced from local farmers? No, of course not. 

Gentification can be negative, but something has to change. Of course the needs of property developers shouldn't only be considered, but a lot of the lofts and apartments built have made home ownership in Vancouver a reality for people who couldn't afford it otherwise. Everyone should be supported better by the social system, but don't dismiss the rights and needs of hardworking middle class people and local business owners.

"Above all, these "community-friendly" justifications obscure hierarchical structures, the asymmetry of political and economic power -- decisions made in private boardrooms […] promoting urban development, and city hall."
"Gentrification ultimately normalizes power: the power to mobilize financial and cultural capital, […] the power to shape and control the social and cultural landscape."

Perhaps what's attempted to be presented here is not ultimately the idealization of the "community", the DTES itself, or the yuppies running their posh cafes, but rather that there seems to be a lack of direct consultation with those members of said "community" by those who have the power to introduce gentrification policies. The author however doesn't really spend time delving into how much consultation between the 'community' and the developers has been taken.
As such, their issue lies more with the "normalization of power" SPECIFICALLY one where anybody with the right kind can sweep in and change the social fabric rapidly. The issue is more that these people in power, and their policies are another reflection of the lack of accountability they enjoy and that the DTES 'community' (that is presented here as a homogenous one) are an example of those who suffer as a result.

So the issue is maybe not so directly the yuppies who work hard to run the cafes, etc or even the 'helpless poor in that area, because both sides are not homogenous either. But unfortunately, power is in many ways so normalized. I think an interesting follow-up to this article would be for the author to discuss what 'abnormalizing' power would look like.   

Good. The DTES is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Building a nice neighborhood out of it is the best thing they can do. Look at how great the rest of the East side is becoming, Main street, Gas Town, etc.

Are they eradicating the community or improving it? Getting rid of slums and drug dens is a GOOD thing. If they tear down cimmunity centers, community gardens, and the cool little mom and pop stores, then it becomes and issue. pave over the needles, junkies, and scum and make something nice but don't kill the good aspects along with the scum.

There need to be sane policies to help though, not just development. Changing the laws on prostitution to allow it in safe places, off the street, require taxation and drug/sti testing, and I bet things start to clean up a little. Better drug treatment would help too. Mind you a lot of people out there being scum want to be there too, so it wouldn't be a miracle cure.

This from Harsha who draws $65,000 a year in salary and goes home to her posh gilded condo.  The real problem is runaway activists who advance their own interests.  The underlying issue is if it's broke don't fix it.  I for one am tired of the spew a select few 'activists' - the Mona's, the Marlene's the Harsha's and the Dave's all extoll.   There's a real problem in the DTES, gentrification is not the real evil it's the people that are codependant on these old ideas.  Time to kick out the social workers and activists and start with fresh ideas!

People who romanticize the DTES of the nineties and early 2000s need to get a grip. Having lived here my whole life and gone to Woodwards and Gastown as a child in the 80s, what happened there after Woodwards closed is a disgrace. Open drug use, homelessness and mentally ill people walking around lost without support is not something we need to hold on to. Just because legitimate businesses and middle class people move in, it does not equate to gentrification. As long as balance of support for low-income and middle/high income are in place, you have a thriving community. I see this in my neighbourhood Commercial Drive (whether or not people agree with me). Nobody benefits when an neighbourhood is not mixed income. Rich only exposed to rich, or poor only exposed to poor. Having a creative neighbourhood involves a mixture of incomes.

a slightly different and equally-detailed examination of the subject:

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