Why Picket the Pidgin Restaurant?

Herb Varley speaking at Pidgin Picket, March 2013 (pic. Sharon Kravitz)
Herb Varley speaking at Pidgin Picket, March 2013 (pic. Sharon Kravitz)

Determined picketers have been opposing the very pricey gentrifying Pidgin Restaurant since it opened in early February. Pidgin is located on Carrall Street right across from Pigeon Park which for many years has been an important public space for DTES residents. We have been on the picket line every day, so we know both the restaurant and the picket against it are controversial and sometimes misunderstood. Our issue with Pidgin is bigger than Pidgin itself; we are picketing to stop gentrification altogether.

“I hope you shut down that restaurant!” a man shouted this to Wendy as she walked up Jackson Street.  “We need to bring our tents here,” said someone else after talking with Homeless Dave at the picket.  A woman living across the street said: “Give me your invitations [to the Town Hall meeting] and I’ll put them under the doors in my building.” About 80% of the comments from the community are in support of the picket. 

But doing what’s right is not always totally popular. We’ve heard things like: the owner gives free soup to the street market; he has a right to run a business; and, we’re driving away pity and sympathy.  Regardless, we’re determined, with this action, to send a strong message that this hood is not for sale. Why?

Three years ago, people were evicted from low cost rentals above Pidgin.  Now converted to condos, the units sold for up to $380,000 each.  Across the street, a massive 15-20 storey condo tower is proposed above the now closed Centre A gallery.  Next door, the owner of the Burns Block Hotel evicted vulnerable residents and the new owner converted the rooms to “micro-lofts” that rent for $975 a month.  The Bottle Depot is slated to move so that the 100 block E Hastings can be cleared.  On Carrall, the only women’s treatment centre just lost its funding. Is the pattern not obvious?  The days are numbered for people who depend on such services, low-income housing at welfare rates and an interconnected community.

So when the Pidgin restaurant opened with bright and confident windows, crystal glasses and seating that encourages customers to gawk at the residential school survivors and others in the park outside while they eat $26 dollar entrées with appetizers like “tongue and cheek,” we just couldn’t let it go by.

City Hall is currently encouraging the development of high-end stores and condo developments (with a few tiny crumbs of social housing mixed in) from Carrall Street, through Oppenheimer, all the way to Clark Drive. We are concerned that the city’s DTES Local Area Plan, which is supposed to finish in November, may make major changes to land-laws (zoning) and encourage even more high-end stores and homes, doing very little to stop rapid gentrification.

Vision Vancouver is misleading people into believing the housing situation is under control, that thousands of new housing units are secured for the poor. In fact there are 850 homeless people in the DTES (this is up from 750 last year) and 5,000 SRO rooms need to be replaced with resident-controlled social housing apartments that seniors and people on welfare can afford.  We’re losing low-income housing faster than we can replace it.  For example, last year, 24 new social housing units opened up, 170 condo units were built, and we lost 425 low-income housing units to rent increases.

In the middle of this extreme housing crisis, high-end restaurants and homes are flooding into the neighbourhood, pushing up land values, pushing up rents in hotels and for businesses, so that the low-income people cannot afford to live and shop here anymore.  In places where you used to get $8 haircuts, they now charge $50.  Some people call this much needed “diversity.”  This is not diversity, this is injustice. As Bob Rennie’s sign on Pender Street (the condo king who sold the Woodward’s condos in a day) tells us with stupefying confidence:  “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT.” Well, it doesn’t look that way to us. This is grounds for outrage and stronger action.

It might be a bit of a stretch to say we can actually stop the forces that push people out of every inner city (or First Nations territory) that suddenly becomes “viable” and “valuable.” But, turning away customers at Pidgin and other places could shift the power.

Last week at City Hall, Homeless Dave spoke to Mayor Robertson and Council and said: “There’s a storm coming Mr. Mayor, in the Downtown Eastside.  In the form of a little bird- a Pidgin that’s gonna flap its wings and create the perfect storm over gentrification and displacement…”  This storm will grow.  Please stand with us in the coming months.  NO HOMES, NO PEACE.

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