Under pressure of gentrification: By the Editors

Demonstration against the BC Housing bailout of condos at the Pantages site in the heart of the DTES
Demonstration against the BC Housing bailout of condos at the Pantages site in the heart of the DTES

Throughout the history of the DTES, resident-based groups have arisen to build and strengthen the community through the struggle for social justice. Today, determined work continues to defend our community against spreading homelessness and inequality, rapid gentrification and forced displacement.

However, some people and groups in the DTES are responding to the pressures of gentrification in a very different way. Rather than resist, they adapt to the massive changes in the neighbourhood. Why is this happening? What can be done to defend and improve the DTES as a place where low-income people feel at home, have homes, and continue to struggle for social justice?

Gentrificationis when the upscale development of an area results in the displacement of its low-income residents. Condos are built and sold. Woodwards was the game changer when it brought over 500 condo units into the area in 2009. Since then, hundreds of housing units once available to low-income residents have been lost to rent increases. New retail businesses too have moved in, offering fine dining experiences, pricey beer, expensive furniture, fake suntans, new fashion clothing, and $3donuts. Low-income serving shops can no longer afford store front rents.

As the street culture of the neighbourhood changes, wealthier people feel more comfortable and are even excited by the “edginess” of the DTES. They are changing what was known as “Skid Row” into the “new community of cool.” Mainstream media and Vision Vancouver politicians support this change. They make poor-bashing views of the neighbourhood more popular and applaud the efforts of “socially conscious” entrepreneurs and consumers for their “courage” in bringing positive change to the DTES.

Police dump out a low-income residents belongings in a wet alley during a late-night search
Police dump out a low-income residents belongings in a wet alley during a late-night search

Developing the DTES for the profit of a few corporations, instead of developing the housing and services people need, brings increasing rents, renovictions, and ultimately displacement of the majority of the DTES low-income community. Upscale businesses create zones of exclusion where we are uncomfortable, ridiculed or asked to leave. Our networks of care and support are threatened or disrupted. Gentrification is changing a community where low-income people feel at home and accepted amongst people in the same boat into a space where low-income people are managed through institutional control and policing, or pushed out.

The government and corporate media try to divide the low-income community into “good and bad,” or “deserving and undeserving” to serve their own interests. These manipulations and pressures produce divisions and have increased conflict at many levels in the community.

Resist! or adapt?

Under such immense pressures of exclusion, social control and displacement, can low-income residents and organizations stand together?

A powerful Big Money Gang has formed to push low-income people out of the way and redevelop the DTES for profit. For them the low-income community is a problem to manage. This gang is made up of real estate and condo development corporations, independent restaurant and boutique owners and their Business Improvement Associations, social enterprise and entrepreneurs, the corporate media, Vision Vancouver’s City Hall and even progressive-type foundations like VanCity Credit Union. While the arms of this gang plans and carries out the economic and social gentrification of the DTES, their spokespeople are trying to persuade people that resistance is futile because gentrification is natural and inevitable.

Some try to adapt. They think the only real option is to go along with gentrification to get a piece of the pie. Organizations that try to broker low-barrier jobs for low-income people and the service providers hit by government funding cutbacks say they have no choice but to go for funding where they can find it. Within the rapidly emerging “social mix,” where developers and entrepreneurs mix in some token low-income people to advertise their good will, some neighbourhood people and groups are cooperating with the Big Money Gang to assure their place within the new neighbourhood. In the name of individual survival they compromise and collaborate with the powerful forces that are occupying the land and managing the lives of the DTES and its low-income residents.

Others resist. They think that to adapt is to aid the destruction of the community for a few small benefits for individuals who are able to work with new businesses while abandoning the majority of the community who cannot. Giving in to gentrification will only result in more humiliating charity, more bureaucratic regulations, more social control, more displacement and more homelessness. “Social mix,” they argue, is just the most recent public relations cover-up for displacing low-income and racialized communities, like the “slum clearance” in the 1970s and “revitalization” in the 1990s.

Gentrification-resisters think the low-income community ought to determine the vision for the neighborhood based on their need to end the poverty and homelessness they face. In the past when letters, petitions, consultation meetings, demonstrations, and trips to City Hall have failed, we have used civil disobedience to defend our community.

Adapt or resist – these are the two pole positions adopted by individuals and groups in the DTES under the pressure of City Hall’s social mix and ongoing displacement. Many people straddle these two strategies, working with a social enterprise one day and attending a demonstration the next. But as the pressures of gentrification increase some community organizations are pressured to choose one camp or the other, and fractures within the community are becoming more intense, divisions more hostile.

Build a Social Justice Zone as sanctuary from gentrification

With such powerful forces driving forward the gentrification of the area, and local organizations fragmenting under this immense pressure, is there hope for a collective, united stance in defense of the low-income DTES community? Perhaps.

The low-income caucus of the Local Area Planning Process has proposed that the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District (DEOD), the area stretching from Pigeon Park to Oppenheimer Park, be officially designated a “Social Justice Zone” and kept exclusively for the needs of low-income residents. The DEOD could be a site of firm resistance to the forces of gentrification in the DTES, a place where the residents implement a vision of the community that includes adequate and secure social housing, affordable shops, locations for much-needed amenities, spaces for low-income resident-based organizations, and healing and wellness facilities. The DEOD could be a sanctuary from the storm of gentrification, a place of protection from the greed of the market, a place where the lives of low-income people matter.

The community came together in the past to fight for the Carnegie Centre, CRAB Park and Insite. Let us stand in solidarity once again in the fight for a Social Justice Zone in the heart of the DTES.


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