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.  

21 comments:

  1. The building hadn't been empty for decades. It was low income housing until a couple years ago until the city rezoned it for business like this.

    Knowing that, I believe the protesters have a point.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Knowing that, the protesters have a beef with the city, not with a law-abiding business.

      Delete
    2. It was market housing that was rented to low income people until 2007. Renovations happened in 2011. This building was not protected with the city of Vancouver thus the owner could have the building refurbished. Don't be mad at a business owner, be mad at the city!

      Delete
    3. Thanks -- I can't tell if you are two or three different anonymous people :)

      I do think the protesters have a point, if their point is that many people who are already impoverished may have to pay more money if the place gets nicer. My concerns are mostly about their tactics and the target (the city, the government, versus the restaurant).

      Delete
    4. (Different Anonymous Account)

      I must say I disagree with protesters "have a point" since it use to be low income housing, I think of it more of an explanation to why they choose to target this location. Many articles on this matter seem to leave this out, though it is key to understanding why this location has been targeted.

      Delete
  2. The owners of pidgin don't own the building, that point is moot

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My guess is that the protesters think that PiDGiN's owners, the condo owners, and other business owners in the area have all contributed to gentrification.

      Delete
  3. Well done. Very enjoyable read.

    The DTES is complicated and needs more of these well written, informed and researched posts. A lot of what is out there is a reactionary opinion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your kind words, Josh. Much appreciated. At least the reactionary opinion is getting many people to think more about the complexities involved.

      Delete
  4. I think you need to be careful about setting up business as the cause of, and solution to, the DTES' problems. Even the Strathcona BIA report you link to identifies cuts to social services beginning in 1983 as a major cause of the "downward spiral" of the neighbourhood.

    The current housing crisis is due in part to our overreliance on private business to supply a service - social housing - which provincial and municipal governments refuse to do. The upzoning policy of Vision Vancouver for the Chinatown area has caused property prices to skyrocket, motivating SRO operators to raise rents or shut down altogether.

    I doubt anyone honestly thinks that businesses can innovate our way out of the problem of trying to live on $610/mo (current OAS payment) in Vancouver, unless you consider that Cube Living proposal as serious. Policy makers and service providers already know what the solutions are, and they knew back in the 1980s where cutbacks would lead us. Now we simply lack the political will to admit our mistakes, raise taxes and spend more on social assistance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Nicholas. I certainly wasn't saying that the closing of Woodward's etc. was the SOLE cause of the downward spiral of the area. It's one of the contributing factors. But no neighbourhood can be vibrant without any businesses. I agree with you that we need more political will and a more effective government to tackle these issues. I don't think we can (or should) leave things to private businesses. Our current housing crisis is partly a result of speculative commodity that is going out of control, and it has ripple effect in many ways. But that's why the situation isn't just a simple one. The report you mentioned, which has its subtitle "A Community in Need of Balance," points out how we need a more integrated approach. I'm not against raising taxes. I can also see some saying that, when more businesses thrive in a particular area, that can help to generate more taxes to fund programs and services for the area. (Think about how schools are financed partly by property taxes.)

      Delete
  5. GREAT article!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Addiction not affordable housing is the DTES crux. Ask yourself this, if every low income resident in the DTES was given a home, would there still be a housing problem? or would the donated home be sold for drugs?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Stable housing is often an important element for mental health and addiction treatment adherence. It's easier for service providers to track down their clients to get them the much needed support as well. So if people don't have stable housing, and that they are living in a slum that is filled with many other troubled souls, it's just so much harder to get out of that cycle.

      Delete
  7. Good article. It's time to start holding people who are accountable, accountable.

    Mayor Gregor would be a good start. Picket him. Tell him to fix it.

    Harassing patrons of Pidgin and the owners of Pidgin is effort grossly misplaced.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. I think you points here get to my concerns of the protesters' tactics and targets. Restaurant owners locate at certain places for business reasons (e.g., cheaper rent in this case, most likely). We can ask them to be good corporate citizens. But at the end, the government needs to live up to its Olympic promises and its role.

      Delete
  8. @Anonymous 28 February 2013 18:36:

    "Given a home" does not mean "Given title to a home that can be transferred." Perhaps, they would be rented a home at a nominal (less than 1/3 of social assistance income rent.) Occupancy non-transferable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Currently, the welfare rate for a single person is $610/month, whereas average rent for a single-room occupancy unit in the DTES is $416. And of course, the condition of these units are generally quite poor.

      http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/profile-dtes-local-area-2012.pdf

      Delete
  9. Sandra Collisson2 March 2013 09:19

    If what one of the "anonymous's" said is true, the restaurant is in place of what was a low-income housing, I can definitely see why the protesters are there. Little late, though... What is the point of protesting after the fact? I'd have to know what the process was before the restaurant opened.

    The trouble with most comfortable or wealthy people is, they have no empathy for the impoverished. They don't understand and they don't want to, the impoverished are no more than ants to them, the places the live together in, are anthills.

    The trouble with the impoverished, is they lack the means to protest productively.
    And the cycle spins on...

    I do very much like the idea of the community following Ubuntu's lead. Well said.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting points, Sandra. I guess that's part of the thing about being in a privileged position. People who are privileged don't need to be concerned about what's going on for survival. They may care (and many do), but they don't have to. Whereas for those who are impoverished, their survival depends on it. And you are right -- most people who are in these situations don't have the means, energy, or health to protest productively. But that's why there needs to be allies from all fronts :)

      Indeed, we need the Ubuntu spirit, which is by definition about all humanity or humanness.

      Delete