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Urban shift

Hip spots and doughnuts spring up in the Downtown Eastside Add to ...

To Jordan Cash, it isn’t crazy to sell $3 doughnuts in the Downtown Eastside, one of Canada’s poorest, most chaotic neighbourhoods.

They’re cheaper by the dozen – $27 – and inspired by the cutting-edge products of such U.S. innovators as Top Pot Doughnuts in Seattle and Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland. The concept of Mr. Cash’s Cartems Donuterie, which opened this week at Hastings and Carrall, came in a dream, but there has been nothing dreamy about his Downtown Eastside commitment.

“I like the location. There’s a lot of visibility here,” said the 33-year-old University of British Columbia MBA grad, who has developed a doughnut line that includes products topped with white chocolate glaze, organic coconut shavings, shaved parmesan and fresh pepper. “We think you can do pulled pork on a doughnut if you want,” said Mr. Cash, who did his product development in his Mount Pleasant kitchen.

By about 2:30 p.m. on Day 2 of business this week, he was sold out of doughnuts snatched up by a tide of customers, many of whom did not appear to be Eastside residents. “The changes in this neighbourhood – stunning,” said one.

Cartems is the latest example of an improbable evolution in Eastside history that’s seen low rents in historic buildings draw cutting-edge eateries into the troubled neighbourhood, home to thousands of intravenous drug users.

One of Mr. Cash’s customers put the point succinctly. “Hipsters don’t have the money to move into those really nice areas,” said Frank Halpern, a 28-year-old from Miami, visiting Vancouver for the fourth time.

Mr. Halpern, who works in real estate, fixing and flipping distressed assets, found the Eastside mild compared with the blighted U.S neighbourhoods he is used to, but said there is a cross-border dynamic at play.

“Down where I am from in the areas that would be considered shady, there are new eateries, kind of organic places. Younger people are moving in there because they are the only places they will have the opportunity to even start a business,” he said.

In Vancouver, around the corner from Cartems, there’s Sean Heather’s slick new pub, Bitter, which pays tribute to the city’s beer culture. Mr. Cash’s neighbour is Calabash Bistro, serving Caribbean cuisine. Nearby, there’s the rejuvenated Save-On Meats diner and Acme Cafe. In all, there are at least half a dozen such spots in the new community of cool.

While work continues on dealing with its social challenges, the Downtown Eastside is facing the prospect of a kind of creeping gentrification on the food front. It has been fuelled by forces that include new residents of the Woodward’s development, and the growing sense that the area is freshly appealing to some in the Lower Mainland who might previously have avoided it.

“I don’t think it’s scary like it was,” said Ian Tostenson, president of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association. “If you go there, you will find it’s charming. It really is – good food. And it’s safe. I mean, I’m not saying you go down the back alleys, but I wouldn’t go down the back alleys of Granville Street for God’s sake.”

One of the owners of Calabash, which opened in 2010, says some “definitely scared” customers come in and leave by cab to avoid too much Eastside exposure, but they do make the effort.

“I think everyone is quite nicely surprised once they start coming here more often,” said Sam Willocks. He opened Calabash in the area with his partners, partly because the PHS Community Service Society – which runs the neighbourhood’s safe-injection site, among other social programs – was offering a good deal on a main floor and basement in a 1904-era building, enough room for a 70-seat restaurant.

“The local neighbourhood and area is inviting,” he said. “Maybe at first glance it’s not, but people are nice.”

Mr. Cash seemed taken aback by a question about whether customers from outside the area might be averse to checking his place out. “I’ve never felt really afraid in this area. Anybody I have talked to has said it’s just a matter of everybody co-existing,” he said.

Asked about trouble in the neighbourhood, he said he hasn’t yet had any problems aside from some customers, smelling of alcohol, who came in for doughnuts, but paid and left.

His peers in the area are largely giving back to the community in some way. Options for Mr. Cash include handing out free doughnuts at the end of the day.

Tsur Somerville, director of the UBC Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, is surprised the shift has taken so long because the Downtown Eastside has access to downtown Vancouver and historic buildings that are appealing for redevelopment. He said it’s part of a developing “true urban culture – the willingness to rub shoulders with grittiness. Cities change without policy releases from the director of planning.”

Yet cities have to manage that change. Vision Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer, who has lived and worked in the area, said the renewed vibrancy is consistent with her memories of a more varied mix of businesses there. The city, she notes, is early on in a Downtown Eastside planning process to deal with the issues arising from change.

Balance is important, she says. “Economic activity is good for jobs. It’s good for keeping streetscapes alive and allows more low-margin businesses like the lower-end eateries the opportunity to survive because it’s drawing enough people in that they can do the volume they need to survive. It is about finding that balance in the economy that works for the area.”

Mr. Cash has big plans. He eventually hopes to deliver his doughnuts by bike – an option that will be the bulk of the operation. “I want to be on the bike every day,” he said.

Whether or not his company survives, he expects the dynamic that accommodated Cartem will stick. “You’re always going to see, in this area, hip sorts of restaurants and things of that nature popping up.”

Follow on Twitter: @ianabailey


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