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Part One of this article profiled landowner Steven Lippman and his history of gentrification and displacement in the DTES. We now present Part Two, a look at the cultural and racial appropriation at work in Cuchillo’s marketing strategy. Together the two-part series reveals that restaurants like Cuchillo are up against a community of resistance, defined by its long history of political struggles against racism, colonialism and urban displacement.

Food without soul

“Chili con carne, now plain ol’ chili, was a harbinger of things to come for Mexican food. It was a Mexican dish, made by Mexicans for Mexicans, but it was whites who made the dish a national sensation, who pushed it far beyond its ancestral lands, who adapted it to their tastes, who created companies for large-scale production, and who ultimately became its largest consumer to the point that the only thing Mexican about it was the mongrelized Spanish in its name.”

–Gustavo Arellano, Taco, USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America

Cuchillo hawks a modernized “Anglophone” amalgamation of assimilated “pan-Latin” cuisine, cocktails, art and architecture, created for the palates of Vancouver’s most privileged. Those who can afford it are invited to experience an exoticized dining experience, and to revel in a gentrifying lifestyle in the “dangerous” underbelly of the Downtown Eastside. It’s a tiki bar for the 21st century.

But Cuchillo is much more than just another edgy dining spot: it marks a new bourgeois cultural and socio-spatial shift in the Oppenheimer district. “We’re here and we’re taking over,” is the entitled refrain from the new colonizers, like Big Lou’s butcher shop next door. Vigorously denying their complicity in displacement, these wealthy new arrivals instead proclaim themselves saviours, parroting claims by the likes of Lippman: “We rehabilitate, we re-energize, we reinvigorate, we re-use, we recycle.” Overseen by police yet safe from being stopped, frisked, or ticketed for jaywalking, just across the street from the courthouse, restaurant patrons can “stomp and spend” as if Vancouver’s last low-income neighbourhood existed solely to be their playground.

Jose Guadalupe Posada, “Calavera de Don Quijote”
Mexican printmaker & political cartoonist (1852-1913)

This week another high-end destination restaurant has opened in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, this time in the main floor of the low-income affordable York Rooms hotel at 261 Powell Street. Cuchillo, which means “knife” in Spanish, is a “modern pan-Latin” 93-seat restaurant serving a typical mishmash of appetizer plates and premium cocktails that easily prices out the low-income DTES community. The restaurant space was a long-decommissioned Japanese bathhouse, one of five in the neighbourhood that once served as communal gathering spaces for a thriving working-class Japanese Canadian community. Now redeveloped into a high-end destination restaurant for tourists and condo dwellers, Cuchillo makes a clear statement to the low-income residents of the York: your days are numbered.

York Rooms was recently purchased by Steven Lippman, adding to the many single-room occupancy hotels in the DTES that he has aggressively acquired. Lippman is an infamous landlord and real estate developer who has been been accused of discriminatory renting, aggressive acquisitions, and complicity in illegal evictions. His business model is painfully simple: acquire cheap rental housing, evict the residents, renovate the space and raise the rents. Earning his initial fortune by founding Whistler Water, he is now founder and president of Living Balance International, a real estate firm that owns over 30 properties and over 300 SRO units in the DTES, including the illegally evicted American Hotel. Self-described as an “entrepreneur with a soul,” for the last six years his focus has been exclusively on aggressive real estate plays. Now he’s become a professional gentrifier and eviction specialist who has made millions off the displacement of Vancouver’s poorest citizens.

Lippman’s many victims