Gentrification as Symbolic Cannibalism: From “Fraserhood” to Chinatown

Fox Cabaret at Main and 7th
Fox Cabaret at Main and 7th

On a cold Saturday night in January a haphazard line-up has formed outside the Fox Cabaret.  Everyone is underdressed – young women with leather jackets draped over tank-tops and men with tight black jeans, thin t-shirts, and undersized polo hats. Above, the refurbished façade glows red, hinting at the building’s previous incarnation as a worn-down porn theater. However, the crowds outside are not here to enjoy “adult entertainment,” they have come to dance at one of Vancouver’s up-and-coming nightclubs.

Over the past 10 years a series of adjacent neighbourhoods in Central Vancouver – Mount Pleasant, Cedar Cottage, False Creek, and Chinatown  – have undergone extensive commercial gentrification. Much of this up-scaling puts itself in conscious dialogue with the historically working-class character of the area through a process I term “symbolic cannibalism.” Symbolic cannibalism refers to attempts to preserve and partake in the symbols and outward manifestations of working-class or low-brow “authenticity,” while at the same time displacing lower-income people from affordable amenities and public life. In doing so symbolic cannibalism destroys that which it ostensibly celebrates.

Urban Authenticity and Imperialist Nostalgia

The search for “urban authenticity” has become a key component in the transformation of low-income, working-class, and ethnic neighbourhoods in cities throughout North America. In a recent book titled Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, sociologist Sharon Zukin uses the concept of “authenticity” to unpack gentrification in her hometown of New York City.[1] For Zukin, the term authenticity does not refer to the actually existing “essence” of a place, but rather a perception and associated set of activities, often applied by outsiders, to confer symbolic value on a neighbourhood. Neighbourhoods that are labelled or seen as authentic tend to be those that have long standing working-class communities, are “gritty” or “rough,” and also happen to offer lower rents than other parts of the city. Zukin, however, notes that appreciation of authenticity on the part of urban elites has an unintended ironic consequence: as young, hip city dwellers move in, their tastes tend to have a homogenizing effect on a neighbourhood (white tiles and potted plants, anyone?).

The quest for authenticity also often involves what cultural theorist Renato Resaldo refers to as “imperialist nostalgia.”[2] This is the tendency on the part of colonizers, in different settings historically and globally, to romanticize the culture that they are effectively destroying. Applied to gentrification, it involves the selective preservation and satirical reincorporation of working-class culture and iconography in the context of up-scaling and class displacement.

Using these concepts, we can think about commercial gentrification as a process of symbolic cannibalism. Much like the idea of cultural appropriation, this involves the use of cultural symbols of a particular class, racial, or ethnic group for status-seeking purposes. However, symbolic cannibalism is a spacialized phenomenon, as commercial upscaling often results in the physical and economic exclusion of those who created the symbols and meanings that are perceived to be authentic by newcomers. In Mount Pleasant, Cedar Cottage, False Creek, and Chinatown we can find evidence of this in the revitalization of diners, coffee shops, dive bars, breweries, and even porn theaters. The search for authenticity is often the first step in a larger process that produces space for increasingly affluent users (formerly industrial areas in particular are prime targets for condo redevelopment). Therefore, the initial valuation of difference, diversity, and authenticity is part and parcel of larger economic forces facing cities, the outcome of which is often standardization, corporatization, and class homogeneity.

“Renos’s was a Shithole:” The Celebration/Stigmatization Paradox

Let’s take the revitalization of a longstanding diner at Main and Broadway as a jumping off point. The new Fable Diner replaced Reno’s Restaurant, which had catered to a diverse array of people including Mount Pleasant’s low-income community. Reno’s served barebones cafeteria-style fare in an unassuming atmosphere. You would order at the front counter from a plainly-worded chalkboard before taking your seat in a vinyl-covered booth. The new Fable Diner riffs off of this format, however, in a highly aestheticized and somewhat affluent manner. The booths are now made of light teak wood, while fluorescent lights dangling on long ropes from the ceiling illuminate planter boxes swelling with tropical ferns. One can also get a glimpse of an open kitchen where cooks in pressed whites manoeuvre between spotless steel convection ovens and salamander grills.

The revitalized Fable Diner (Photo by author)
The revitalized Fable Diner (Photo by author)

In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, the owner of Fable Diner articulates his decision to reopen Reno’s as an up-scaled “farm to table” diner, defensively stating, “A lot of people wish it didn’t change and think it was iconic, but it was a sh — hole . . . The women’s washroom didn’t even have a door on it.”[3] In the same article, the reviewer describes dining on a hamburger titled “The Reno,” a nod to a staple of the former restaurant. This illustrates the underlying dilemma or paradox of imperialist nostalgia. The destruction of a longstanding amenity that served the low-income community is justified through stigmatization (that place was a shit hole), while elements of the very same culture (“The Reno” burger) are simultaneously taken up in the marketing of the revitalized incarnation.

Signs of Change: The Outward Expression of Gentrification

When sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification” in 1964, she was referring to a relatively circumscribed phenomenon – the purchase and upgrade of Victorian era rooming homes in the East End of London.[4] Glass was particularly fascinated by the manner in which the newcoming “gentry” sought to preserve certain design elements of the old buildings, while also conducting renovations to the interiors (what was at the time called white painting). As gentrification has grown into a more general process in cities across North America and Europe, a similar tendency can be witnessed in the orientation towards the exteriors of working-class and lower-brow commercial establishments.

While there are numerous examples of this approach in central Vancouver, one that stands out is the transformation of The Cobalt. The Cobalt, a historic dive bar that supported a thriving punk scene in the 1990s and 2000s, was purchased and extensively renovated before being re-opened in 2010. While the façade of the bar remains unaltered, the existing population of users have been displaced from The Cobalt in favour of a new crowd. (Curiously, The Cobalt’s updated website also states that the bar is located in the more middle class Mount Pleasant, despite the fact that it is situated within the Downtown Eastside, over a kilometer from the boundary of Mount Pleasant). Symbolic cannibalism thus provides the illusion of continuity with the past through the preservation of material culture, much like the refurbished Victorian homes that initially drew Glass’s attention.

The Cobalt “Est. 1911” (Photo by author)
The Cobalt “Est. 1911” (Photo by author)

Another example of the appropriation of working-class historicity has been the extensive marketing of False Creek and Mount Pleasant through brewpub culture. While Brewery Creek was the informal name given to False Creek’s brewing industry in the early part of the 20th century, the new craft beer movement is linked more closely to the neighbourhood’s condo redevelopment projects. The synergy of craft breweries, distilleries, and condos is not unique to Vancouver. In a recent study, geographers Vanessa Matthews and Roger Picton found that the reinvention of brew culture is used in the marketing of brownfield condo sites in the Distillery District in Toronto and LeBreton Flats in Ottawa.[5] This goes back to Sharon Zukin’s point about authenticity: what seems like a unique continuation of local history is in fact something that can be found in numerous gentrifying neighbourhoods across North America.

Authentic New York Style Pizza at Fraser and Kingsway (Photo by author)
Authentic New York Style Pizza at Fraser and Kingsway (Photo by author)

In some cases, businesses might even attempt to create authenticity out of thin air. Straight Outta Brooklyn Pizzeria at Fraser and Kingsway replaced the inauspicious Pizza Factory in the neighbourhood now being termed “Fraserhood.” While the slices at Pizza Factory were “just ok,” picking one up was a non-event. The new up-scaled pizza comes with faux brick walls and a cultural reference to the New York borough on the other side of the continent.

Our Town in Transition (Photo by author)
Our Town in Transition (Photo by author)

At other times the up-scaling of an area is so rapid that if you blink you might miss it. Our Town Café Two opened at the corner of Kingsway and Knight in 2013, however by 2016 has already been superseded by Pallet Coffee. While Our Town’s interior might be described as “anti-aesthetic,” with laminate floor tiles and non-descript cafeteria-style tables and chairs, it was innocuous enough to attract a widely diverse crowd. On any given Sunday afternoon, Vietnamese-Canadian grandmothers ate muffins next to construction workers and students on laptops. The new Pallet Coffee, with a makeover that uses wooden warehouse pallets as wall décor (another nod to working-class authenticity?), is more of a statement, but seems to target a middle to upper class demographic. For example, Our Town’s $3 breakfast sandwich has been replaced with $10 avocado bruschetta as a morning option.  While some might see Pallet as a hip improvement over Our Town, it is likely to be more economically and culturally exclusive to those with lower incomes.

The concept of symbolic cannibalism is also applicable to the gentrification of Chinatown. In a recent story that went viral online, the owners of the revitalized Sai Woo restaurant initiated a hunt for a lost neon rooster sign that decorated the exterior of the building in the 1920s. This attracted the attention of BC Liberal candidate Kim Chan Logan, who has integrated the search into her reelection campaign.[6] However, as was rightly pointed out by The Chinatown Concern Group in a social media post, it seems as if local politicians are more concerned about vague notions of “heritage,” compared with the displacement of Chinese Canadian seniors from Chinatown.[7] In this case, “preservation” seems to apply more strongly to the celebration of material signs and symbols, as opposed to the people who feel they are being either culturally excluded or priced out of their communities.

The Invention of “Fraserhood” and “The False Creek Flats”

The discovery of authenticity in the East Van portion of Central Vancouver has been followed by explicit attempts at place branding. A notable example of this is the invention of “Fraserhood.” Fraserhood is a term now used to denote the rapidly gentrifying subsection of the Kensington-Cedar Cottage neighbourhood from Fraser and Kingsway to Fraser and 33rd. The first usage of the shorthand can be traced to Scout Magazine, a local tastemaker that reports on Vancouver’s culinary scene.[8]  Since then Fraserhood has become a popular hashtag and marketing tool for new businesses in the area. A parallel can be drawn here between the invention of Fraserhood and the controversial renaming of Hastings-Sunrise as “The East Village”. In the case of Fraserhood, the term seems to have a more grassroots origin; however, serves a similar function by trying to create a newly “branded” image of longstanding community to appeal middle and upper class foodies. 

Crowbar in “Fraserhood” (Photo by author)
Crowbar in “Fraserhood” (Photo by author)

The trouble with this re-branding has been the distinction it creates between the newcoming business owners and the existing businesses, mainly Filipino and Vietnamese restaurants and small-scale retailers. Entering a neighbourhood and attempting to “rename” it can be seen as a fundamentally anti-social action. In addition, what appears to be a spontaneous tactic to draw attention to a “hot” section of the city has been quickly co-opted by condo developers. Bob “Condo King” Rennie, owner of Rennie Marketing Systems, Vancouver’s largest real estate marketer, heralds Vancouver’s “newest” hood:

Fraser and Kingsway is the core of Vancouver’s trendiest neighbourhood, appropriately named Fraserhood. While this area has historically been home to a working-class community, today, you’ll find a host of new restaurants, cafés and even ice cream spots, each more unique than the last.[9]

Finally, several weeks ago the City of Vancouver announced its plans for the False Creek Flats, an industrial area bounded by Great Northern Way, Terminal Avenue, Main Street and Knight Street.[10] In this case it seems like the city is itself becoming a practitioner of symbolic cannibalism, pushing through a large-scale tear down of the area’s factories and warehouses to be replaced with 4,000 loft style condos, intermingled with small craft shops and breweries. But who will be consuming this newly constructed authenticity of the False Creek Flats, and who will benefit from these changes?

The idea of symbolic cannibalism can help us to understand some of the vexing transformations of urban space underway in Vancouver. As we have seen, the desire to engage with authenticity often produces a counter-intuitive effect: the displacement or economic exclusion of the original occupants of a community and the eventual standardization and homogenization of neighborhoods. I would argue that, in order to counter the negative effects of gentrification in Vancouver, we as consumers need to prioritize people over the preservation of material traces of culture. Until this happens the problems of exclusion are likely to grow.

[1] Sharon Zukin, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (Oxford Press, 2013)

[2] Renata Renaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations 26: 107-122 (1989)

[3] Mia Stainsby, “Fable Diner has Some Hits and Some Misses,” The Vancouver Sun (Sept 15, 2016)

[4] Ruth Glass, London: Aspects of Change (MacKibbon & Gee, 1964)

[5] Vanessa Matthews and Roger M. Picton, “Intoxifiying Gentrification: Brew Pubs and the Geography of Post-Industrial Heritage,” Urban Geography 35: 337-356 (2014)

[6] David P. Ball, “Chinatown Neon Rooster Sign … a B.C. Election Issue?,” Metronews (Feb 8, 2017)

[7] Chinatown Concern Group 唐人街關注組

[8] Scout Magazine, “Guide to Vancouver Neighborhoods: Fraserhood Entry”

[9] Rennie Marketing Systems, “Why Fraserhood is the Best Place in Vancouver to Eat and Drink”

[10] CBC News, “Vancouver Residents get First Glimpse at the Future of False Creek Flats,” CBC (Jan 27, 2017)