The regeneration of old or impoverished neighbourhoods is in general a good thing. In the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, which has long been the scene of great suffering, the appearance of economic green shoots should be welcome, but it has drawn protests, with some deplorable instances of vandalism and harassment of the customers of new businesses.
“Gentrification” is almost always used pejoratively. The phenomenon does not, however, have anything to do with a social class that could be called a gentry, or with particularly genteel manners. The humdrum causality at work is rather the natural attraction of low rents.
A new restaurant called PiDGiN is one of the targets. Because of protesters, some of whom have been shining lights into its windows and taking pictures of customers, PiDGiN has resorted to frosting its windows, losing a view of an adjacent park.
Worse, the windows of another new enterprise, the Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria, has had its windows smashed three times. A security camera showed people who had covered their faces wielding a hammer. A post on a website called Anarchist News says this is the work of something called the Anti-Gentrification Front, and praises the anti-PiDGIN group for “giving yuppies a taste of the class war.” To their credit, the PiDGIN protesters say they are not allied with the masked anarchists.
Even a long-established butcher shop called Save-On-Meats, which offers some nourishing and economic meals, has had its sign stolen by a masked figure.
Food services are not the only subject of contention. A proposed technology incubation centre (in an old police station), to encourage start-ups, is also controversial, though the local city councillor, Raymond Louie, points out that the building will also be used for social enterprises, in which people can be trained and mentored.
To be sure, there are reasonable questions about the future of those who live now in the Downtown Eastside. Michael Harcourt, a former NDP premier, worries that the district will become a “Yaletown East,” referring to a once-down-at-the-heels neighbourhood that has already been transformed. It is true that rents are likely to rise in the Downtown Eastside, and the city government may well need to provide some more social housing. But economic growth generates the tax revenues that enable social spending.
Shifting patterns of supply and demand are bound to change the character of neighbourhoods over time. For decades, Canadians have lamented the poverty and misery in the Downtown Eastside. It would foolish now to condone the crimes of anarchists. The recovery of a long-wretched neighbourhood should be welcomed and celebrated – not obstructed.