Yesterday evening I participated in the anti-Gentrification pickets in front of Pidgin restaurant at Hastings and Carrall, and Cuchillo restaurant at 261 Powell street. Due to conversations with friends, I’ve become increasingly interested in the issue of Gentrification in Vancouver, and I thought that participating would be the best way to get a sense of what the pickets are about, who are leading it, and how effective and sustainable this form of resistance can be.
At 6pm the picketers met in front of Pidgin restaurant, which is directly across from Pigeon Park. It’s an odd location for an upscale restaurant. The patrons arrive, usually in taxis, wearing fancy clothes and jewellery – while across the street the locals drink, cuss and play soccer in the street. Just across Hastings there is a man laid out on the sidewalk in an awkward position while police stand around an an ambulance arrives. Two men walk by, loudly calling us “a bunch of losers”, my friend tells me they are drug dealers and dislike our presence because the pickets draw the police.
The picket is a lively place, not like a union picket – because it only meets for an hour or two a day it also serves as a meeting time for the people involved. Stories are shared, analysis is given if asked for. I’m told that the picket has been staffed by as many as 60 people, but what impresses me is that they come every day – every single day, even if there are only two or three. And it really bothers people. Just to have a few people standing outside a restaurant, explaining the connection between the upscale restaurant in a lower class neighbourhood at street level to the evictions that are taking place upstairs. And the evictions are taking place – above both Pidgin and Cuchillo, and the connection between the upscale resto downstairs and the evictions of low income residents upstairs is undeniable. Still, apparently quite a few diners patronizing Pidgin actually do engage in dialogue with the picketers. I’m told they tend to have lived in Vancouver a long time (in upper class neighbourhoods) and have somewhat thought-out opinions on things. I didn’t experience this myself because I didn’t notice any diners going in at all. Mostly we got yelled at by people who weren’t eating there, quite possibly by people who couldn’t afford to eat there. I suppose this illustrates the extent to which people have bought into the trickle-down, neo-liberal view that richer people are better people, and that if the rich are coming into this area of town, this must be a good thing. It feels strange to be yelled at, called names. I suppose it’s a kind of emotional warfare – are we suppose to feel bad at being called “losers”, or “get a job” (ironically the 6pm pickets make it easy for people with 9-5 jobs to participate)? Is this high school? Why are they so angry that someone opposes evictions of precarious, low-income residents, and draws attention to the connection between that and fancy restaurants?
And then I found out that the resistance against the picketing can go beyond name-calling. At an information meeting, right there on the sidewalk, I learned that the day previous several organizers had been assaulted by the building manager from one of the buildings that is picketed. Four women organizers were eating lunch in a cafe when the assailant stormed in, shoved one of them out of the way, grabbed their picketing sign and ripped it to pieces. The police were called, but were dismissive of the organizers desire for justice and refused to press charges. This is clearly political, because in a previous incident where a picketer was alleged to have shoved someone, the police were more than happy to move forward with charges, with no more evidence than statements by the parties involved.
Because of the alleged assault, the picketers decided to move to the Cuchillo site, as this is the building where the building manager who intimidated organizers is employed. The picketers have for the most part stopped picketing at Cuchillo because, for a variety of reasons, the picket is more effective at Pidgin. Whereas Pidgin restaurant is located in an area with a lot of foot traffic, and Pigeon park across the street being community gathering space, Cuchillo is on a stretch of Powell which is quite desolate (perhaps in part due to the eviction of all the tenants in the building). Also whereas Pidgin is not a very busy or successful restaurant, Cuchillo was started by restauranteurs who already have a loyal following in Vancouver.
The management at Cuchillo seem a lot more antagonistic than at Pidgin. For one theres the assault, although that involves the building owners not the restauranteurs, who are renting the space from them. We did get a message from the restaurant, however, a few minutes after arriving:
Apparently if you know “shit about living here”, you know that evicting the entire building and keeping it vacant is good for business and good for the neighbourhood. Again this “get a real job” rhetoric – especially ironic because Nick (pictured here) does have a real job, he works in a kitchen. At least, I think working in a kitchen is a real job. Maybe we should ask their kitchen staff?
The diners are Cuchillo are also quite different form those at Pidgin. The prices are affordable, at least middle-class affordable (from 8$ for a pulled-duck taqaria to 24 for diver-caught scallops). The crowd was neither urban hipster nor working class nor upper class chic, in fact the only word I can use to describe the crowd is…suburban. I don’t like to yell much at protests, but when people yelled out “get a job”, I felt like answering “tuck in your shirt” or “get some decent shoes!”. There are few positive interactions with diners, some feigned concern, but mostly bro-ish antagonism. Every fifteen minutes or so a car drives by honking its horn, the driver holding out a middle finger at us. I can see why the picketers have mostly stopped demonstrating here.
But they will persevere at Pidgin. There is for the most part support of the pickets by the area’s not-yet-evicted residents. I’m told that many have said they would participate in the pickets, and they support them fully, but they are afraid of being targeted by police. They live down there, and because basically everyone is involved in illegal activity from jaywalking to public drinking to drugs, the police can quickly make life difficult for any singled out individual. There is also a sense they are winning – at least Pidgin restaurant is not doing well, and the police are no longer religiously observing the protests. Mostly I’m just impressed at how a relatively small group of people have kept a daily protest going for many months, and had a real impact on the political discourse in the city.
Over an 8$ pint at a restaurant two subway stops away from the picketing, I asked my friend if he felt like there was any contradiction between going down to the DTES and speaking against gentrification and then whizzing over to commercial to enjoy a meal in the absolute same class-bracket as those diners crossing the picket line. He responded: sure, but this is the way it has to be. It isn’t going to happen any other way. And he’s right – the pickets aren’t against people eating at bougie restaurants, they are against the opening of bougie restaurants in locations which displace people. Displacement is wrong because it isn’t a solution – it looks at the problems in the DTES and then prescribes moving them over a few blocks in this or that direction. And while it’s unfortunate that the very people being evicted can’t always stand on the front line of their own resistance, this is just a paradox that we have to live with if we want to stand against dishonest social policy, and struggle against the exclusion of the most oppressed from any benefits of living in one of the richest cities in the world.