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City Holler

Trish Kelly explores the issues and challenges that face our growing city.

Retail 'zones of exclusion' in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside hurting our neighbourhoods

Carnegie Community Action Project mapped 450+ businesses in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside to show spread of gentrification.

The upscaling of retail stores is displacing our less moneyed neighbours, one storefront at a time, argues Trish Kelly.

Emily Jackson/Metro File

The upscaling of retail stores is displacing our less moneyed neighbours, one storefront at a time, argues Trish Kelly.

A recent report on retail gentrification in the Downtown Eastside is a tough read for anyone who cares about the neighbourhood.

The Carnegie Community Action Project worked with low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown to create a map of businesses in the area. More than 450 area businesses were mapped and named either affordable and welcoming to low-income people or as contributing to the gentrification of the neighbourhood.

The report includes some stories by Chinese seniors who describe the alienating experience of watching your functional neighbourhood transformed into a series of $5-per-cup coffee shops and nightclubs, while passport photo offices and grocery stores shutter their doors. The report calls the 156 new retailers “Zones of Exclusion,” places low-income residents can’t afford or that don’t offer basic services the neighbourhood needs.

Trish Kelly:

There’s also a pair of contrasting lists in the report, one tracking all the affordable Chinese green grocers, cafes, and pubs that have closed in the neighbourhood, and the other listing fancy new retail that has popped up in the last three years.  

I think we’re all clear on how condo towers and rising rents are literally pushing low-income residents out of Vancouver neighbourhoods, but the upscaling of retail is also displacing our less moneyed neighbours, one storefront at a time. For low-income residents who either can’t afford what’s for sale inside or can’t bear the stink eye of the security guard who stands just inside the door, their own neighbourhood is increasingly off limits to them.

In discussing gentrification, emotions come up quickly. The report itself contains more exclamation marks than you’d expect in a research document. It’s understandable given the work to create the retail maps must have involved grieving for what’s been lost and a great deal of fear about the future.

What will low-income seniors do if all the cheap produce shops in Chinatown close and the only groceries available are beyond their budget? On the other side of the coin, how can we expect long-term retailers to stay open, if their customer base has less and less money to spend on anything but rent?

As the report writers state, government policy is needed to halt gentrification. City Hall could do more to incentivize retail that serves the needs of low-income residents, but what’s really needed is an increase to social assistance rates, so that low-income residents get back some buying power and existing retailers stand a chance of staying afloat.

Why is it so easy for the provincial government to ignore the obvious connection between untenably low social assistance rates and economic decline? Low social assistance rates are starving out local residents and businesses alike.

Trish Kelly lives and writes in East Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter @trishkellyc.

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