Eat the rich: picketers promise to shut down Pidgin

article photo, credit Tami Starlight

Photo credit: Tami Starlight

DTES residents and allies from across the city vow to continue picketing Pidgin restaurant at Carrall and Hastings until it packs up and leaves. They aren’t asking for jobs, sympathy or token charitable gestures. Picketers are saying “no” to the incursion of business interests upon low-income homes and livelihoods.

According to DTES resident and picketer Fraser Stuart, “shutting down Pidgin sends a message to all gentrifiers: the DTES is not open for business until our housing needs are met. We need 5,000 new welfare-rate units to meet the need, and they have to go in before any more condos go in.”

Pidgin is part of a gentrification project that began in 2008 when real estate speculator Robert Wilson bought the building at 334 Carrall and evicted the 30 low-income families and singles living there. The building was then “flipped” to new owners, who hired developer Salient Group to upscale the building into a condo complex called “21 Doors.” Over the past year, Salient has marketed the condos to aspiring gentrifiers. The high-end Pidgin restaurant, partly owned by Salient’s Robert Fung, is part of a deliberate strategy to increase property values and marketability by removing poor people.

The first week of business saw ten separate pickets dissuade many would-be patrons from entering. As the third week of protests drew to a close, over 50 picketers had spent a total of 40 hours holding placards and conversations on the sidewalk across from Pigeon Park. The artist formerly known as Homeless Dave explains, “Retail gentrification is part of class cleansing and segregation. We can’t keep doing hit-and-run protests. To stop displacement, we have to draw a line in the sand. This is the genesis of the last stand for the DTES. ”

Real dialogue makes for bad publicity

The Pidgin picket has made headlines across the country and around the world. The “President” of Pidgin, Brandon Grossutti, admits that the stark contrast between wealthy patrons and those who frequent Pigeon Park across the street was bound to cause a stir. Pidgin’s marketing strategy is to position itself on the edgy frontier of Vancouver’s world-class inequality. Grossutti even claims to have chosen Pidgin’s location to start a “conversation.” According to DTES worker Paulo Ribeiro, “it seems like he’s saying: ‘I’ve decided to open a fine dining restaurant in an incredibly impoverished neighborhood so rich people can come here to have a conversation about it.’ That is what they call a one-sided conversation.”

Pidgin repeats Judas Goat’s and the Salt Tasting Room’s tacky shtick of inviting diners to observe the desperately poor from the comfort of a high-end restaurant. The Pidgin Pickets turn the voyeuristic, poverty-tourism design in on itself. Picketers stare inside. A viewing booth, “See the rich! 5¢,” was added to the sidewalk. The discomfort of those patrons who chose to cross the picket was clearly visible through the storefront-wide windows. Grossutti signaled the first stage of defeat by papering-over and then frosting Pidgin’s windows.

Contrary to Grossutti’s positive spin, news of angry protesters intimidating diners has kept foodies away, as an observable decline in business attests. People are already placing bets on how long Pidgin can hold out. Meanwhile, pedestrians who could never afford to dine there anyway stop to talk with picketers about the personal impacts of all the high-end businesses transforming their neighborhood.

Ironically, Pidgin has been defended as an example of social mix. Social mix is the apologists’ euphemism for gentrification, and Pidgin sure is a good example. The aesthetics of each renovated storefront clearly signal which income bracket is welcome inside. Gentrification is what it looks like: cleaner, whiter, richer. Aesthetics are the grease on the wheels of gentrification. Entrepreneurs, artists and developers are transforming the streetscape so quickly that residents are experiencing culture shock. Trickle-down benefits aside, Pidgin is a zone of exclusion in an inclusive, diverse neighbourhood.

Defensive patrons, politicians and mainstream media have defended Pidgin’s affordability by pointing out that the menu starts at $5 (for pickles). Welfare recipients have only $26/week for food. Others echo Grossuti’s dubious claim that he will lose everything if his “dream” fails. If the people who drink and sleep in Pigeon Park or deal and trade on the corner were actually given the choice between their own removal and one man’s bankruptcy, I would not begrudge them either way. Most disturbing is the new wave of condo-dwellers who insist that this is now their neighbourhood. DTES senior Timothy tried to tell one such angry patron that communication is necessary to community, but was shouted down.

Gentrifiers assert the necessity of striking a balance between social justice and business interests, but only on their terms. Without veto power the low-income community has little leverage with which to negotiate. The only bargaining chip poor people have is the ability to refuse raw deals through community organizing and direct action.

The disheartening prediction that “gentrification is inevitable” is continuously validated by the displacement of lower-income people by business interests, here and in every other post-industrial city. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy promoted by gentrifiers, capitalist sympathizers and their most confused victims. Developers, businesspeople and the entire ruling class have a vested interest in framing the discourse in terms of pragmatism and apolitical technicality. As Thatcher often repeated, “there is no alternative” (TINA). It is no surprise that the wealthy have a hard time imagining the alternative to injustice.

But why should renters in Vancouver passively accept their role in this system, wherein each income bracket displaces the one below? Renters are being priced out of the city – we literally can’t afford not to fight our landlords. The Pidgin Picket is one front of resistance, a focal point for a broader refusal. Allies from across the city are finding common cause with DTES residents’ struggle and heeding their call for solidarity. As the picket grows, more people are realizing that “gentrification is inevitable… unless we organize and fight!”