Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Let Them Eat Pigeon*

Or perhaps they would rather “Eat The Rich,” as a protest sign said.

My friend Terry** and I had made plans to have dinner one night a couple weeks ago.  A much anticipated email arrived that afternoon – Terry made a reservation at PiDGiN.  The name perked my interest.  I recently started using the open source system, Ubuntu, and Pidgin is its nifty default instant messaging (IM) program that allows people to connect to multiple chat networks simultaneously.  Ubuntu is not just software – it’s also about the community, which is what attracted me to it.  Would there be any connection between Pidgin the IM program and PiDGiN the restaurant?  

I didn’t have time to find out much about the restaurant.  I only knew it is in the Downtown East Side (DTES) and which bus to take by glancing at the address.  This infamous and highly stigmatized neighbourhood is home to many low-income residents, especially those plagued with mental health and addiction issues.  These problems are particularly acute among Aboriginal people, who are disproportionately represented in the area and continue to face discrimination, cycles of difficult circumstances, and barriers to care.  

Terry and I have explored eateries in this and other areas – we both believe in supporting local establishments.  However, as I approached the restaurant, unexpected protestors and picket signs awaited.  A woman explained that this new eatery across the Pigeon Park -- a hangout place and makeshift home for many without sustainable shelter -- is pushing people out of their homes.  (The building had sat empty for decades.) One picket sign said, “Do the right thing – don’t go in.” Seeing through the glass door that Terry was already at the bar, I explained that I had to meet my friend.  I asked the protester if she had flyers with information about their concerns.  She didn’t, but recommended that we dine elsewhere.  She probably meant in a different neighbourhood.  The protesters believe the area should not be open for business until everyone has affordable housing. 

In my clinical ethics work, I am regularly confronted with how to ethically and safely discharge patients who have longstanding mental health and addiction issues back to a neighbourhood frequented by drug dealers and drug users, which can reinforce people’s cycle of problems.  Safeguarding cheap housing in an enclave when the real estate in the rest of the city has become a speculative commodity may keep the residents there, but without some form of revitalization or upgrade, preserving a squalor would unlikely evoke hope or promote health and wellbeing.    

The closure of Woodward’s department store and other businesses during the early 1990s contributed to the downward spiral of the neighbourhood, challenging the over-simplistic assumption that shutting down businesses would promote better housing options.  Ironically, such closure may exacerbate the problem by preserving the “ghetto” character of the gritty enclave.  Protesters argue that the residents want to stay in DTES because they feel accepted there.  I’m not recommending forcing people to move, especially in the absence of affordable options elsewhere.  But confining impoverished people to and resisting refurbishment of a squalid area is an antithesis to equality and acceptance.  Such strategy also easily allows those living in other neighbourhoods to turn a blind eye.  People should feel accepted anywhere.

Terry and I decided to stay, recognizing that we could be branded with other diners and the restaurant owners as villains.  Paper was taped to the lower parts of the windows, but the protesters tied flashlights to poles to shine inside.  (The windows have since been frosted.)  

So in a few short minutes, I went from looking forward to catching up with a friend after a tough week to being shamed for allegedly contributing to gentrification.   Based solely on our location choice for one meal, we were pigeonholed as part of the presumably one-dimensional, selfish, and uncaring conglomerate called “the rich.”  Certainly, any impact on the shamed diners, albeit unfair, is likely minimal compared to the damage that many residents in DTES face because of systemic marginalization and discrimination.  But would the harassment actually help to bring people together to collaborate on sustainable solutions? 

After the meal, Terry and I chatted with some protesters to learn more about their perspectives.  Occasional comments of “shame on you” by some picketers to patrons entering or exiting the restaurant aside, our discussion was cordial and somewhat informative.  But instead of pestering diners, some of whom may want to be part of the solution in various ways, I wonder if the protesters could instead pass out flyers that can give patrons and passersby information.   Yelling at people would likely provoke defensive, dismissive, and divisive reactions rather than encourage collaborative responses.  But well-rounded information can help people be responsible consumers and engaged citizens.  And rather than harassing business owners, protesters and activists can perhaps partner with them to help train and hire area residents or to coordinate opportunities to support the community.  After all, a healthy neighbourhood is good business.

Certainly, the protesters may balk at the suggestion of niceties when moral outrage for persistent problems in the DTES is required.  Nonetheless, their tactics sidestep larger system problems that cannot easily be put on PiDGiN or its customers.  The problem isn’t that an upscale restaurant opened in the DTES.  High-end stores have been in the neighbourhood for decades, and mixed neighbourhoods can help promote vitality that is often necessary to promote healthier lives for all.  Much of the problem lies with the inability of the municipal and provincial governments in effectively managing multi-faceted issues in integrated manners. 

When I first heard of the restaurant’s name, I thought of the IM program on Ubuntu, which promotes community and tries to minimize elitism or the “us versus them” mentality.  New restaurants often have difficulty surviving even without protesters, and whatever PiDGiN’s fate, I only hope that Vancouverites, rich or poor, could unite as part of the same community in petitioning policy makers and service providers in finding sustainable solutions.  Protesting in front of the restaurant, while provocative, would likely further marginalize people who can benefit more from integration rather than segregation. 

Image Sources: PiDGiN protest (day), PiDGiN protest (night), See the Rich, Ubuntu

*Young pigeon, or squab, is often considered a culinary delicacy.
**Terry is a pseudonym for my fellow dining villain :)
Acknowledgement: A special thank you to a co-conspirator, who encouraged me to write about local issues and shared ideas with me on this topic.  

Monday, 11 February 2013

(Normal?) Family Day

Salute to British Columbia, which celebrates its first Family Day today!  That is just the day after the Lunar New Year, which is another big family-oriented holiday in many countries, and a few days before Valentine’s Day.

They say money can’t buy love.  Well, tell that to the American men and women who will be set back for about $175 and $89 respectively.  That’s when the average credit card debt already stands at $7,194.  But if you feel bad for people who have to buy for a lover, just think about those single women in China who have to rent one.  Apparently they feel the need to hire “boyfriends” to take home for new-year gatherings to combat family pressure.  My own moral judgments of this enterprise and the families’ expectations aside, the ploy is obviously non-sustainable.  I wonder what these women would rent if their families expect them to get married and have kids.

Those who live outside of China aren’t immune to the pressure of being in a traditional relationship and having a family either.  The world is filled with the message that one better has a very good justification to be single.  And even though the nuclear family is no longer the norm in Canada or the United States, people in heterosexual relationships are expected to have children.  I know of a woman whose (then) husband told her that there was perhaps something pathological about her resistance to bear children, since he thought a desire to procreate was simply “natural.”  People (particularly women) who don’t want to procreate are often accused of being “just plain selfish,” as if all children are born as a result of reflective decisions or unwavering commitment of lifelong selflessness and altruism.

It would take a whole other blog entry to get into all the reasons why people may (not) want to procreate.  Suffice to say though, whatever one’s procreative decision might be, some reasons are carefully deliberated while others are not.  But I have the most admiration for many, biological parents or not, who love and care by adopting, fostering, nurturing, and educating children in whatever ways they can.  On a social level, any pro-family or pro-children stance can’t simply be about procreation.  It has to be also about advocating for access to affordable childcare, quality education, paid parental leave, and support and recognition for hired and familial carers.  It also has to be about allowing everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, to experience the same joy and misery (!) that marriage and family life bring forth.  It is troubling that in 2013, many people in various parts of the world cannot even reveal their sexual orientation to others without being prosecuted or persecuted, let alone marry or have children. 

As a philosopher, I’m often concerned about definitions, particularly those that can affect people’s identity, political rights, and access to services.  But when it comes to love and family, I would rather let people define that for themselves.  Love and family ties can be manifested in many different ways, but they generally require long-term reciprocal investment that will make the $175-gift seem cheap.  People ought to have the freedom to negotiate with each other what arrangements work best for them given their contexts.  This requires not simply freedom from government sanctions.  It also demands freedom from social pressure.

May your February be filled with love, however defined.

Image Sources: Normal family, I love you