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Disappearing Main Street: Photos highlight gentrification in uber-hip neighbourhood

Main’s offbeat stores and restaurants and the warm faces behind at salons, offices and repair shops make it the favourite street of many Vancouverites.

David Niddrie on Main Street on Oct. 12.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro

David Niddrie on Main Street on Oct. 12.

If you put together all the photos of Main Street’s shops and sidewalks that David Niddrie and Jennifer Okrusko took in 2011, you’ll get one big photo of what the street looked like six years ago.

The Disappearing Main Street photo project took five months. It spans 62 blocks, both sides of Main from 2nd to 33rd, about five to eight images a block.

The two friends woke up early to avoid capturing cars and often ran into locals beginning or ending their days. Some appear in the photos, smoking a cigarette or enjoying a bench. They told the duo about their lives on the street.

“Everyone had their own Main Street,” said Okrusko.

The duo did as well. Both were from Calgary and called Main home when they moved to Vancouver separately. Niddrie is a photographer; Okrusko is an online video producer.

“There was an independent spirit that I liked,” said Niddrie. It’s evident in the businesses named after people, which Niddrie knows by heart: Ingrid’s, Richard’s, Bill’s. People who “aren’t Tim Hortons,” he joked.

Main’s offbeat stores and restaurants and the warm faces behind at salons, offices and repair shops make it the favourite street of many Vancouverites.

The duo created the online project to document what and who was where, but it’s gotten more attention these past two years as sections of their 2011 capture became unrecognizable.

“When people have these touchstones and places that are part of their routine disappear, it’s a jolt,” said Okrusko.

Gone were favourites like gallery Hot Art Wet City, greasy spoon Reno’s and the better, said the duo, of two Main Street Bean Around the Worlds. What the duo called the “last house on Main” at 3620 and 3622 Main St also disappeared; a red arts and crafts cottage that passersby will remember for mannequin heads in the window and arms on the lawn.

This is retail gentrification, when businesses that can afford higher rents squeeze out those that can’t. That means more chains and sellers of high-end goods and less mom-and-pops and everyday services.

Main Steet’s decline of affordable commercial spaces is also connected with the rising housing market and wealthier people moving into the former lower and middle-class area.

Zachary Hyde, a UBC sociology PhD student, said Main is now showing signs of what academics call “super-gentrification,” when displacement is driven by global and corporate wealth. He pointed to the opening of a Starbucks Reserve, the coffee giant’s higher-end chain.

Though Main’s transformation from a humbler street has also been celebrated. In a 2016 report, real estate company Cushman and Wakefield called Main Street “up and coming” and one of North America’s 15 “coolest streets,” with a high “Hip-O-Meter” rating.

But there’s the question of who the new Main Street is for.

“Neighbourhood change tends to be attached to groups of higher socio-economic status and the idea of cleaning up ‘dangerous neighbourhoods,’” said Hyde.

He cited a famous argument called “the right to the city”: everyone, no matter their background, should have access to urban life and spaces.

“Main used to be more like that,” said Hyde, when there were more businesses catering to people of all incomes.

Main might look up and coming on the surface, but that’s because you can’t see the people who are now excluded, something consumers, businesses and governments should keep in mind.

“Just because we don’t see problems doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry about them.”

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