A butcher’s sign has become the latest symbol in the rallying cry against gentrification in Vancouver.
An anarchist group has claimed responsibility for stealing a sign belonging to Save-On-Meats, a popular Gastown eatery and butcher shop on Hastings Street. The website anarchistnews.org posted a picture last week, which came to the attention of the store’s owner on Wednesday, of a black-clad individual with a bandanna around his face standing behind the sign.
It’s the latest in a string of protests and attacks against businesses in the Downtown Eastside and on Commercial Drive, with activists saying that rapid gentrification will take housing and space away from low-income residents, and anarchists calling for an end to capitalism.
A post on the website said that “the act was meant to let the gentrifiers know that they have entered an area with a long history of class warfare.”
Save-On-Meats has a storied history in Vancouver. Opened in 1957, the butcher shop was known for more than five decades as a place to buy affordable meats, and also became known for its diner. It closed in 2009 and remained vacant until entrepreneur Mark Brand reopened it in 2011.
It has become a hot spot, and now, like some other businesses, it has become a target too.
Last week, several windows were smashed at Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria on Commercial Drive. A group called the Anti Gentrification Front took responsibility for the attack on the same website where the Save-On-Meat sign appeared. This was the third time the pizzeria had been vandalized in less than a year.
“For all too long now, yuppies have been peacefully going about their gourmet dinners, buying up their lucky condos and flaunting their wealth. … So last night, for the third time, Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria was attacked,” read a Web post.
Perhaps the most prominent example of the recent push back against gentrification has been the frequent dinner-hour protests in front of Pidgin, a trendy restaurant on Carrall Street that opened across from Pigeon Park earlier this year.
Activists’ concern is that the arrival of even a few businesses will begin to change the face of the neighbourhood, which will in turn drive residents away.
“Cultural gentrification is an absolutely necessary corollary to economic gentrification because it makes the neighbourhood more comfortable to consumers and higher-income people,” said Ivan Drury, who works with the Carnegie Community Action Project, an organization that tries to keep the Downtown Eastside friendly to low-income people. “The best thing about the Downtown Eastside is that it’s a place of belonging and care, for people who don’t fit in anywhere else … Their sense of community is now being smashed.”
Mr. Drury questioned why the media latch onto thefts and vandalism and not issues such as businesses willing to pay double what low-income people have traditionally paid for real estate, resulting in what he says is the loss of privately owned housing for the poor.
The group that claimed responsibly for stealing the Save-On-Meat sign also criticized the “paternalistic” programs the business has for lower-income people, specifically allowing customers to buy a meal token for those in need that can be redeemed for a breakfast sandwich.
Mr. Brand doesn’t see it that way, but says he understands the issues at play.
“There are critiques around [what we do] and I think they’re important. I think the conversation is super important. But for every critique we get, we feed 120 people a day [through the token program].”
Mr. Brand admits gentrification is becoming rapid, but says businesses that open in the area want to integrate.
“We want to engage, we want to employ, we want to train,” he said. “What kind of message [does theft and vandalism] say to people who want to come down and work?”
Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs said that while the potential of businesses driving residents away is a real concern, encouraging them to stay away is no solution.
He said the real issues are low housing allowances under the current welfare scheme that don’t match up with what landlords are charging, as well as other levels of government vacating their responsibility for social housing.
“There have always been businesses in the area, and when I worked in the area in the 1980s, there were many more businesses than today,” he said. “There’s room for a lot more business development.”
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