A small media storm emerged last week after a profile of ‘Socially Responsible Vancouver tours‘ appeared in Travel section of the Toronto Star. Since 2014 the tours have charged tourists $185 per person ($195 for two people) to view the Downtown Eastside.
Today we took to the streets and reversed the narrative by leading a “yuppie gazing tour.” Our message was that we’re not okay with poverty tourism. We flipped the script and made rich people into the subjects of our gaze, marching through Chinatown while chanting, “Downtown Eastside is not a safari, drive away in your Ferrari” (as the event drew to a close, an actual Lamborghini appeared at Main and Hastings).
Our tour visited a number of the new gentrifying businesses increasingly strewn across our neighbourhood. We passed the new ice cream parlour on Gore Street that sells cones for $4.75, then stopped outside Matchstick Coffee which sells coffee for $3.25. After that we visited a new restaurant at Keefer and Gore where prices for a meal start at $15.
These retail spaces are zones of exclusion for low-income people. They are spaces where poor people are judged and watched suspiciously, spaces where low-income people can’t even afford the cheapest item on the menu. On most days — except for today — they are places where people with money can sit in comfort and gawk at poor and homeless people on the street and sidewalks outside.
These are also spaces that don’t cater to the low-income Chinese seniors who live in the Downtown Eastside. The new businesses push rents up, forcing establishments that have served Chinatown residents for generations to close and displacing low-income Chinese residents.
As we marched through Chinatown, a handful of yuppies didn’t like it when we turned our gaze on them. One man gave us the finger and told us to “fuck off” from his balcony in the new condo development at Keefer and Main. As a group of Downtown Eastside residents giving a tour in our neighbourhood we were told we are not welcome in our own streets. In the end it’s not surprising because this is how we are treated every day by the gentrifiers (and now “poverty tourists”) invading our neighbourhood.
Gentrification has intensified the commodification of our housing, our land, and our streets. Now gentrifiers are finding a way to commodify our very existence as low-income people, capitalizing on the “spectacle” of our poverty.
It’s not right to treat poor people like animals in a zoo, and it’s not right to treat our community as some sort of curiosity that you can tour and understand in twenty minutes. Walking these streets for a few minutes will not help anyone understand the realities of structural poverty, the legacies of colonialism, or the reasons for the ongoing crisis of homelessness. Our message is that if you want to open a dialogue come talk to the community and support the ongoing struggles of resistance, don’t gawk at the community.
Not only is the recent poverty tour incredibly exploitative, but it also erases the strength and power of our community. It erases the grassroots institutions that we ourselves have created over the years. It erases the incredibly rich history of resistance in the Downtown Eastside. It also erases the ongoing resistance and struggle against gentrification and displacement.
Over 800 people sleep on the street or in shelters on any given night in the Downtown Eastside. Gentrification is pushing up the rents in the little housing we have left. Welfare rates are $610 a month, and the shelter rate is $375.
We demand a raise to welfare, and we demand dignity and justice for all low-income people. We demand change in our neighbourhood, but we want change that we create ourselves. Change that we want, and a community with a future that includes all of us.
Thanks to Maria & Nate for contributing to this article.