Ending the False Debate about Save-On-Meats

Dec 11 - BCHousing_Sequel protest - photo 1

Currently there is a debate raging about the pros and cons of Save-on-Meats in the Downtown Eastside. The latest is a polarizing sandwich token program to help feed the poor. According to the plan, restaurant customers can purchase tokens from Save-on-Meats and donate them to people in the neighborhood. Critiques have been made here, here, and here, as well as at The Mainlander, with Peter Driftmier’s “Beggars Can’t be Choosers” (Peter used to be a sandwich maker at Save-on-Meats).

The reception of these debates runs a winding path but gravitates to the falsely-posed question of whether people “like” or identify with the entrepreneurial genius behind Save-on-Meats: Mark Brand. “The frontier,” Neil Smith wrote in his New Urban Frontier, “represents an evocative combination of economic, geographical and historical advances, and yet the social individualism pinned to this destiny is in one very important respect a myth.” Mark Brand, treated as either a hero or villain of the urban frontier, enters the field of mythology and becomes a new Jim Green figure for our time, garnering a similar respect for balancing “social” and business concerns (if Green started in politics and moved into business, Brand seems to finish where Green left off and moves back into “politics”).

As with so many other gentrification projects, Mark Brand’s numerous upscale Gastown enterprises have come under attack from the neighborhood. Outside the neighborhood the conflict is read differently. Anyone scanning The Province or listening to the radio debates would be surprised to know that Brand owns multiple upscale businesses in the DTES — six to be precise. In light of a larger shift, the underlying conflict about Save-on-Meats is clearly not about the intentions of Mark Brand, the nutritional value of his food, or the latest Oprah appearance. The conflict is about gentrification.

Today the Downtown Eastside is a community whose affordable food options are disappearing rapidly, whether it is the conversion and gentrification of working class diners, the closure of low-income stores, or the eviction of community gardens. The replacement of affordable options with upscale restaurants casts a retroactive truth onto the common refrain that, in the face of gentrification, there is no alternative. When new business owners and service providers say that “crumbs are better than nothing” (as PHS director Liz Evans once said), they would be more accurate to say that “crumbs are better than the Flower Cafe.”

In response to the resistance against gentrification, Brand has been forced to make token concessions, marketing Save-on-Meats as a community oriented “social enterprise” with affordable prices on certain items. This pressure has been re-cast as a drama within the mind of one man, but to the people who become reno-victed and displaced from their community it is all too clear that blaming an individual business owner or a handful of consumers for gentrifying their block is not sufficient to explain the force of displacement. When a community is displaced it is not an isolated misfortune, it is systematic. Gentrification is always a class effort.

Nobody describes the class effort more frankly than Scout Magazine’s Andrew Morrison:

A year or two ago I posited in a magazine article that new restaurant development in these parts was on its way. I likened the advance to that of an invading force employing a pincer movement around the most seemingly prohibitive blocks of the DTES…effectively enveloping the whole of the DTES with a ring of new eateries (for the military historians out there, remember the Battles of Marathon, Cannae, and The Falaise Gap).

Thus surrounded, the main concentration, what the eminent strategist Von Clauswitz would call the “schwerpunkt”, has been getting ready to burst eastward on Hastings proper for the past year (witness the comings of Wildebeest, Save On Meats, Bitter, Acme Cafe, etc). All that remains to be conquered – to put it indelicately – are the blocks within the ring, at the center of which lies Fat Dragon, with its 12 SROs above.

Despite these frank depictions of naked displacement, defenders of gentrification continue to be surprised and scandalized by the ongoing political resistance of the poor against displacement and poor-bashing. The poor step out of their image as passive recipients of charity at precisely those moments when their docile portrayal is most crucial for the success of the win-win ideology of gentrification.

As Frances Fox Piven wrote in her famous Poor People’s Movements (1977), the political organizing of poor people brings the poor onto the historical stage of politics. “Not simply as victims but as actors,” she writes. In contrast to ongoing popular mobilization, charity obscures the lives of poor people and erases the causes of poverty, allowing politicians, developers or business owners to shrewdly invoke the “voicelessness” and “marginalization” of low-income people.

Rather than being “without a voice,” the fightback against condos in the DTES has been relentless. It would take a person hundreds of hours to watch poor people’s speeches to city council alone this past year, not to mention protests, meetings and endless hours of organizing. In response to the opposition, the corporate media and their Vision supporters criminalize and vilify the poor. When possible, they ignore the struggles of the poor, and this is especially true in the wake of punctuated political events, protests and interventions, like the eviction of Mark Brand from a DTES Town Hall earlier this year. Alain Badiou rightly argues that the first reactionary stance towards a political event is to deny its existence. The denier of popular politics is the “obscure subject,” who, in the wake of an event, attempts to erase any trace of its traces.[1]

A perfect expression of this “obscure subject” can be found on the pages of one of Vancouver’s yuppie magazines, Scout Magazine. In response to Peter Driftmier’s Mainlander argument against Mark Brand, Sean Orr questions Driftmier by suggesting that, in reality, nobody really knows what DTES residents want. “Has anyone asked the locals what they think?” Orr asks, adding: “I’d be glad to eat any sandwich given to me.” For one, it is obvious that poor people should use Save-on-Meats’ food vouchers — that is not the debate and we don’t add anything to Richard Cobb’s statement in his The Police and the People (1970): “Analysts, few of whom have ever experienced hunger, have no business blaming poor people for accepting, even gratefully, the products of bourgeois charity.” To ignore their resistance, as Orr does, is worse.

In her book Poor-Bashing (2001), Jean Swanson defines poor-bashing precisely as the refusal to recognize the active demands of the poor: “Poor-bashing means ignoring people who are poor when they propose what they need.” This refusal is especially sharp in Vancouver, where Vision and their creative-class following wish away the problem of gentrification and eviction while portraying the poor as undeserving (except in the case of charity). We might quote Zizek’s popular critique of charity, but it would be more valuable to look at the actual movements of poor people. Last week dozens marched to the CBC during their annual Food Bank Day to demand “Justice not Charity,” just as they did last year.

Brand’s food token program is a coup of ideology because it responds to the active demands of the poor precisely by recasting those same actors as passive recipients of his charity! In this way, Brand’s token scheme is a metaphorical box that contains hidden secrets of our city. Poor people’s struggles drive the politics of class-divided Vancouver, yet the rich legitimize their power in the diversions of charity, token inclusivity and the vain play of high-profile personalities. This is why the debate is not about Mark Brand, or even the efficacy of his tokens. Everyone knows it is about something far greater.


[1] See Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II, transl. Alberto Toscano (London/New York: Continuum, 2009)

[2] For a history of the distinction between “deserving” and “underserving” poor in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, see Jesse Proudfoot’s critical essay, “The Derelict, The Deserving Poor, and The Lumpen: A History of the Politics of Representation in the Downtown Eastside” in Stan Douglas: Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011) pp. 88 – 104