As tempting as it is to make fun of the $5 pickle, I'm going to play this one straight. The pickle, by the way, or more precisely "daily pickles" (who in their right mind would pay $5 for a single pickle?) is the first menu item at PiDGiN, the new Downtown Eastside restaurant that protesters have targeted as symbolic of the gentrification they say is forcing them out of their neighbourhood.
The pickle debate, such as it was, arose from a thread on Twitter about why protesters would choose this particular restaurant to make their point. Why not Bitter, the newly opened Sean Heather establishment nearby, or some other place?
The consensus seems to be that it comes down to two things: the name PiDGiN, and the location, directly across from Pigeon Park.
"These guys in particular are a good target for the anti-gentrification movement in the Downtown Eastside because they kind of make things clear," Ivan Drury of the Carnegie Community Action Project told me earlier this week. "It's opened directly across the street from Pigeon Park – which is kind of a cultural centre for indigenous Downtown Eastside low-income residents. We feel that they're thumbing their nose at people," he said. By "they're," he means the restaurant.
"Centre for indigenous culture" would not be my first description of Pigeon Park, but then, I don't live in the neighbourhood. It is true that until the restaurant frosted over its windows late this week (protesters were shining flashlights in and taking photos of patrons, according to restaurant staff), the place offered a clear view of the park. Perfect for "poverty tourists," as one person put it.
Beyond the name and the location, the second theory is that the restaurant, which is just the latest addition to a growing list of higher-end establishments brave enough to step foot in the neighbourhood, has crossed a line physically, psychologically or both.
"This is gentrification moving east, moving further and further into the heart of the Downtown Eastside and encroaching on the few spaces that low-income people have left to them," Mr. Drury said.
This isn't just about overpriced pickles. The PiDGiN protest, which some are dismissing as frivolous, helps shine a light – if you will – on a serious issue.
The Carnegie Community Action Project released a report this week detailing what it says is the increasingly unaffordable cost of housing in the neighbourhood. The group says 426 single-occupancy hotel rooms that rented for $375 a month in 2011 cost more than $425 in 2012; $375 is the basic social assistance shelter rate for a single person.
"It's a bigger issue for us than any single restaurant – this is a systemic problem. Gentrification is a force both cultural and economic that is taking over the Downtown Eastside and displacing the lower-income community," Mr. Drury said.
All of that may be true, insofar as any one socio-economic group can lay claim to a particular neighbourhood. Yes, rich people do it all the time, but we expect poor people to be more welcoming, don't we? After all, we're just trying to spruce the place up.
But here's where Mr. Drury loses me:
"This place is like in the civil rights movement in the Southern States. People would take on businesses that profited from segregation in order to give a message to the higher levels of government and ask for legal changes. In a way that's what's happening here with this PiDGiN protest," he said.
The irony in this, of course, is that Mr. Drury and his group appear to be in favour of segregation – bent on keeping anyone who isn't low-income out of the neighbourhood.
In their long list of impossible demands, they want the Hastings and Oppenheimer corridors recognized as a special "social justice zone" where hundreds of new social housing units would be built with public money and rent controls would be imposed on private landlords.
"This is the last place in the city where low-income people can afford to live and where they can feel comfortable. Residents say what's important to them is that they feel a sense of belonging here, where they feel scorn and judgment from other parts of the city," he says.
As it stands, there is no reason the Downtown Eastside should be immune to the development pressure being felt everywhere else in the city.
Business will go where the rent is cheap, even if it means asking their customers to venture into unfamiliar territory, or wade through protesters who cast their own brand of scorn and judgment.