Food fight in Vancouver

Tony Wilson
Boughton Law
The poorest postal code in Canada doesn’t want a trendy restaurant.

A client of mine was recently outraged that protesters, who were demonstrating against shark fin soup being served in the restaurant next door some months ago, spilled over to the entrance of his restaurant, alienating his own customers. Although we spoke about possible legal actions (particularly injunctions), he couldn’t identify any of the protesters because they all wore hoodies and balaclavas. When the protesters got angry with him for complaining, they threatened to picket his restaurant because of the way cows and pigs were raised in Canada.

As none of the demonstrators seemed to have jobs or assets, we decided putting political pressure on City Hall to enforce existing bylaws against the protesters was a better use of his money than getting an injunction against people who couldn’t care less what a court ordered.

Vancouver is a strange place when it comes to people exercising their right of assembly and free speech, especially if it involves a restaurant or coffee shop. When Starbucks opened its first location in the Italian coffee bastion of Commercial Drive, someone scrawled on the side of Starbucks’ building: “Die Yuppie Scum.”

The Downtown Eastside of this city is world renowned for having the poorest postal code in Canada. Poverty, intravenous drug users, sex trade workers, crackheads, meth addicts, and homelessness abound (to say nothing about crime). It’s where the Insite needle exchange service was opened, and remained opened due to the ruling in the Supreme Court of Canada decision Canada (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services Society. The Conservatives wanted to close the centre even though study after study showed it was better for the addicts to have clean needles than to use dirty ones that spread HIV and Hep C.

If you drive through the Downtown Eastside, it looks like a dystopian war zone filled with persons rolling shopping carts filled with bottles to exchange for money. Some buildings are left abandoned and boarded over with plywood. Many businesses, which otherwise might have hired residents in the neighbourhood (and in the process, given them a better life) have left.

There is a “neighbourhood” here, but arguably it’s comprised of men and women on social assistance who are all too often addicts, sex trade workers, and persons with mental disabilities. I suppose if you’re unemployed and unemployable for whatever reason, there is nowhere else to go. Converted hotel rooms are available (called SROs — an acronym that stands for single room occupancy), but the neighbourhood, such that it is, is in many ways an urban slum.

Enter Pidgen, a new restaurant located in the heart of the Downtown Eastside in 300-block of Carrall Street; described by the Vancouver Province as a “trendy new eatery” and by the Vancouver Sun as a “chic establishment.” But since Pidgen opened on Feb. 1, it has been plagued every day and night by demonstrators objecting to the location of a “trendy new eatery” in the Downtown Eastside.

Where some might think the establishment of a business like a chic restaurant would be a good thing, possibly employing those who live nearby and sprucing up the neighbourhood, there are some here who don’t like to see anyone succeed in this fashion. They fear gentrification of the neighbourhood, and the loss of (. . . dare I say?) their neighbourhood to people with jobs and incomes — even though the number of social and supportive housing complexes and  SROs has increased in the past number of years and the city and province are requiring private developers to provide a percentage of low rent housing as part of new developments.

Locating a restaurant in the Downtown East Side is either a profoundly disastrous move, or brilliant, and only time will tell. Commercial rent in the area could easily be the lowest in Metro Vancouver. Perhaps with low rent, a restaurant business might well succeed.

So the protesters demonstrate each day and night by shining lights in patron’s eyes and heckling them. They wave signs that say: “Feed the hungry — eat the rich.” Pete McMartin of the Sun says they’re no different than other NIMBYists, just poorer.  

What the demonstrators don’t seem to realize is the protests are bringing intense media attention to the restaurant — publicity the owners of Pidgen would have to pay a king’s ransom to otherwise get. There are columns in all the local papers about the restaurant. The owners, as well as representatives of the city, are interviewed on TV and radio. A group of us from the office are planning to check it out in the next few weeks, appreciating that if it hadn’t been for all the media attention, no one would have heard of the place.

The food fight over Pidgen is an excellent example of using life’s lemons to make lemonade, and turning what others might think of as a disaster into a public relations coup. As for gentrification, it may happen anyway as it has in other parts of Vancouver like Gastown and Yaletown. In one of the most expensive cities in the world for housing, it may be unavoidable — and residents of the Downtown Eastside may someday have to come to terms with that.

Only in Vancouver would protesting the establishment of a trendy restaurant help the business to succeed.

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