In a 2002 collection of essays published on the occasion of Vancouver artist Stan Douglas’ Every Building on 100 West Hastings, two well-known urban scholars wrote on the questions of gentrification and urban “regeneration.” The authors surveyed global trends before guessing for Vancouver itself, with the following prediction: “given… the emerging recession, gentrification will likely intensify across Vancouver and radically transform the Downtown Eastside.”
Having first forecasted the recession, the authors’ predictions of an intensification of gentrification are now becoming a reality. With a recent package of new laws and policies (a mix of provincial and municipal), the entire east half of downtown Vancouver is being thrown into a new phase of planning and policing.
Changes in Vancouver have to first be grasped by citing what is typical at a global level. In particular, the mechanisms of gentrification are shifting as state and city planners increasingly emerge as key organizers in local processes of gentrification. Whereas older gentrification processes had emerged haphazardly, conforming to the natural workings of real estate markets themselves (“Automatic” gentrification), new processes increasingly depend on a planned logic of development. In brief, from London to São Paulo, gentrification is no longer simply about rent and price, but a hard fact of police and state. New forms nonetheless originate from and remain within the logic of real estate markets.
For a period, it has been above all the classic aspects of gentrification that have shaped the Downtown Eastside. Just as one could have searched and not found any semblance of a plan for affordable housing (no national housing strategy over the past decade and only a scattering of municipal and provincial “initiatives”), one could equally have observed the lack of a coherent plan for the implementation of gentrification itself. For this reason, the recent years of systematic displacement, marked by an overwhelming threefold surge in homelessness, have occurred as a passive reality of class politics.
In recent months, however, all subtleties of day-to-day evictions and rent increases have passed; and along with them, community acquiescence to the silent urban powers that would cut out our futures before us. The event-less logics of price have given way to the brazen interventions of state and police institutions. If one can for a moment pretend to separate these two forces of intervention — policy, on the one hand, and police, on the other — each corresponds to recent concrete aspects of the new “package.” The Height Review at Vancouver City Council and the provincial Assistance to Shelter Act, along with a number of supporting changes, mark the transition to active forms of displacement in the Downtown Eastside.
The next Downtown Eastside
There is now a gentrification plan for Downtown Eastside, including Chinatown. The plan, to be approved in principle by city councillors on either Jan. 21 or 22, is to rezone the entire neighborhood so that existing lots, including those with existing buildings, can be torn down and replaced by profitable condo towers. The plan proposes that almost all height zoning restrictions in the Downtown Eastside be raised (with exceptions for Gastown and Victory Square), while proposing three further high-rise exemptions for three Downtown Eastside sites: one in Chinatown and two within a direct block radius of Woodward’s (one at Hastings and Abbott and one at Hastings and Cambie).
While this Height Review is framed strictly in terms of non-human factors — floor space ratios, light angles, air flow, etc. — its consequences will be giant. To be certain, residents do not need to guess at what the effects will be, since a gentrification prototype already exists in the form of Woodward’s. A recent year-end study by the Carnegie Community Action Project has shown that rents have spiked in the low-end hotels surrounding Woodward’s, in addition to increases in double-bunking and homelessness. Once Woodward’s opens, the neighbourhood will experience all of the customary facts of condo presence: widespread NIMBYist opposition to new social housing projects, increased property values and rents, increased non-rent costs of living (upscale chain stores and bankrupt local businesses), poor-bashing, and self-segregated gentrifier areas that add heightened police presence and increased private security and surveillance in the community.
For some, these negative aspects can be cancelled by other aspects of Woodward’s, since Woodward’s is also a new site for the arts and culture community. But it is crucial for this type of pro- and con- analysis to stay grounded within the realities for gentrification itself, not as a question of progressive cultures and opinions, but as a concrete question of real estate markets and class inequality. “If they wanted to contain the negative effects of Woodward’s,” stressed Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project at a Jan. 19 press conference, “they could do so by holding back on height increases in other parts of the neighbourhood and by getting a housing program in place.”
What is significant is that city planners have already fatally wrecked their chance at clearing the way for further condos like Woodward’s. In anticipating a large community resistance to the Height Review — and indeed a coalition of 10 community groups has already planned to send delegations of “hundreds” to city council on Jan. 21 and 22 — the city has made the crucial strategic mistake of announcing a compromise. The city has promised that once the Height Review passes, the community will begin to be taken into account, since (according to the city) there is a “need to review the Downtown Eastside  in a broader context of a community plan.” Simply put: by admitting to the need for a community plan, the city has blatantly admitted to the illegitimacy of its current unilateral plans.
For these reasons, including unprecedented high levels of cooperation and collective militancy among community groups, there is no doubt that the community will soon defeat the Height Review proposals. However, there is a second structural aspect of the current experience of gentrification in the DTES.
Both rents and policies, like the Height Review, are not enough. What is truly required for the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside is this: armed force. The police have therefore drastically increased their campaign against the poor, including the ticketing quotas the VPD had promised and then failed to abolish — this month we see petty ticketing and imprisonment for those who cannot pay accumulated jaywalking tickets, for instance.
Provincially, armed force has now been codified into law with the Assistance to Shelter Act. The Act, passed just in time for the Olympics, gives police the right clean the streets by using force against the will of anyone perceived to be homeless during a weather emergency. What qualifies as “extreme weather conditions”? “Temperatures near zero with rainfall that makes it difficult to remain dry, and/or sleet, freezing rain; and/or snow accumulation; and/or sustained high winds.”
In summary, Vancouver is entering a new period of exclusion and urban power, marked by a new phase of policing and planning coinciding with the arrival of the Olympic Games. In particular, city councillors hope to move gentrification forward by approving the Height Review this week. To participate in a delegation to speak at City Council on Jan. 21 and 22, or to participate in the movement for housing and justice, visit the Downtown Eastside Justice for All Network.
Nathan Crompton is a Vancouver-based writer and activist.