Anti-gentrification protests in the Downtown Eastside have had a far bigger impact than any of the organizers could have imagined – not all of it what they were aiming for.
The nightly protests at one of the poor area’s many new high-end restaurants, Pidgin, have gained more media and public attention than anything else the group has tried in the past decade.
“This is more direct. It’s like we’ve hit the nerve,” says Wendy Pedersen, an activist in the area for years.
But the protests have also resulted in a wasp’s nest of other consequences.
The neighbourhood’s community centre association has come under scrutiny by two major funders, the Vancity credit union and the Vancouver Foundation, because of concerns over the perception that its social-action arm – the Carnegie Community Action Project – has been too focused on protests.
Both funders issued statements recently spelling out that they have confirmed that their money is not being used to pay for people to organize demonstrations, but to do research and provide training to empower local residents to take part in city planning.
As a result, prominent activist Ivan Drury has quit the CCAP, saying that he wanted to be free to take direct action, not just write up studies.
A Carnegie Community Centre Association board member has also started to complain publicly that the rest of the board seemed to be willing to condone project staff spending their time organizing rallies.
Ludvik Skalicky also says he had heard people associated with Carnegie talk about deliberate plans to go after the smaller, new businesses rather than the developers.
“There was a strategy for these protests and rallies to go after those business owners because they’re new, nobody knows them, they don’t have a network.”
Mr. Skalicky originally went public with his criticisms on a local blog, the Gastown Gazette, which has also published anonymous claims that CCAP targeted restaurants because they are economically vulnerable and the most likely to fail under the pressure of protests.
(Mr. Skalicky has since said these conversations didn’t take place at the actual board meeting, but in informal conversations afterward.)
All of that has been a setback for people who are genuinely worried about the tremendous pace of gentrification in the Downtown Eastside and who are concerned the current backlash will undermine their efforts.
Ms. Pedersen said it was her idea to start the protest against Pidgin, which she came up with long after she quit her job last August at the Carnegie project.
“I’m the one who targeted the restaurants,” Ms. Pedersen said. “Those high-end restaurants send a strong signal that the Downtown Eastside is up for sale.”
At the same time, she’s dubious about why there’s so much backlash against the Carnegie Centre over these protests.
“I organized hundreds of protests,” she said of her time at the Carnegie project. “We occupied the Paris Block condos. So what’s changed?”
She believes that this time, there’s a lot of money at stake because the area’s appeal and prices are rising so rapidly that developers are determined not to let protests scare anyone away.
She even wonders if Vancity hasn’t been swayed by that kind of pressure.
“Absolutely not,” says Catherine Ludgate, the manager of community investment at Vancity.
Ms. Ludgate, this week, said that Vancity doesn’t have a problem with protests and supports free speech. But in a statement issued earlier, the credit union specified it had met with the Carnegie board to spell out that its grant was meant to fund planning processes and research on housing.
The statement added: “We have advised the leadership that, in consideration of project renewal later this year, we need to ensure that the overall work of CCAP is in line with our vision of building strong and healthy communities in a spirit of positive and solutions-focused discussion and debate.”
Ms. Ludgate insists the credit union still supports CCAP and its work, in spite of a few queries from members about what’s going on there.
But the chair of Carnegie’s board, Gena Thompson, is not so sure things will work out for another grant when this one runs out at the end of the year.
“Because they’ve been getting attention from their own members, we might not get it again.”