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In the face of an onslaught of swanky condos and ritzy cafés that are moving into the downtown eastside, residents and supporters took to the streets on Saturday to defend their right to housing.
More than 500 people participated in the fifth annual women’s march that rallied for more than three hours around downtown eastside and the rapidly expanding Gastown. The march was organized by women in the community and started off by serving free pizza to protest a new, expensive pizza place in the neighbourhood – one pie costs $24.
One of the main calls at the protest was for people to boycott gentrification.
Gentrification is a process where richer people purchase property and open businesses in lower-income neighbourhoods, which inevitably displaces and pushes out the incumbent community by hiking up living costs.
This phenomenon is spreading rampantly in the downtown eastside.
“Real estate value has skyrocketed, rent is going up, and sites meant for social housing – like Pantages – are now condos,” said Harsha Walia, organizer with the Downtown Eastside Power of Women Group.
Walia added that the city and the government are complicit in the gentrification by allowing developers to purchase property, to open restaurants and businesses, and to build condos that are unaffordable for those who live in the neighbourhood.
“We’re calling for people to not be complicit, and to boycott these businesses and condos because they shouldn’t be allowed to thrive in this community,” she said. “People have the moral responsibility to say they won’t participate in gentrification.”
These gentrifying businesses tend to bring in affluent customers who are at odds with the existing community and who are at times hostile to residents. They include: Caffe Brixton, London Pub, Everything Café, Keefer Bar, Charles Pub, Acme Café, Salt Tasting Room, Salty Tongue, Irish Heather, Sea Monster Sushi and Bread and Meat (http://dtesnotfordevelopers.wordpress.com).
Developers are also building new condos in the community at a rate eleven times that of affordable social housing. Condos that advocates want a boycott of are V6A, Ginger, The East, Burns Block, Paris Annex, and the newly proposed Sequel 138 at the site of now-demolished Pantages Theatre.
The march made several stops along the way to point out many of the ‘gentrifying sites’, including a mime act by the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) to mock patrons at the Milano Coffee Roasters – a high-end coffee shop.
As part of the act, members said: “We can’t afford to go to your café at all, you’re making a fool of us. Do you know that we’re a community here?”
They asked its customers (and workers), “How do you feel being gawked at? Do you feel welcomed?”
“The downtown eastside is not a freak show, everyone here deserves respect, stop gentrification!”
Among many other festivities at the rally, there was a salsa dancing session and performance by Màs Movement in front of patio customers at Chill Winston, a bar in Gastown.
“This is the spirit of the downtown eastside and this is the spirit of resistance,” Walia screamed into the megaphone at the end of the dancing.
The march also mourned the death of Verna, a resident at the Regent Hotel who was allegedly thrown out of her sixth floor window and fell to her death Friday night.
“It’s a sad day, but it’s also a joyful day,” said Carol Martin, a speaker at the march. “Because this is where we gain our strength.”
“This is our community and we are not going away,” Martin said, addressing passers-by and people at the bars in Gastown. “Stop walking around with a blinder on and pretending that we don’t exist.”
Laura Shaver, a resident of the downtown eastside and board member at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), said she was at the rally to support housing for women and anyone else without housing.
“There’s not enough housing, and our welfare isn’t enough for us to live appropriately,” Shaver said. “We’re here to show people that when we come together as a group, we will stand up strong for our rights.”