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Increasingly, Vancouver's Pidgin restaurant is focal point for BC social housing push

A province-wide campaign pressing for more social housing has fastened on a contentious corner of Vancouver and a new eatery there.

It's been a month since Pidgin restaurant opened at the corner of Carrall and Hastings in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, its row of front window seats framed in a large picture window that looks across the street at Pigeon Park, a well-known and widely-used public gathering space in the neighbourhood.

To highlight the troubling disparity they see between the Japanese and Korean-inspired cuisine inside, and the undeniable urban poverty outside, housing activists -- including members of the Social Housing Coalition of BC campaign, have picketed the restaurant for weeks. They want to draw attention to what they see as the damaging effects of upmarket development in the neighbourhood.

The protests spurred extensive mainstream media coverage, derision, and public explanations from the restaurant.

"Pidgin is by definition a bridging of language and culture and our location is not haphazard," reads a Valentine's Day statement on the Pidgin website, which was later printed and taped to the front windows.

"Despite the fact that the protestors have chosen to confront this business, we all agree, there absolutely needs to be more dignified housing and services for low income residents of the DTES, our inability to help those most in need in our society is a horrid reflection of the lack of progress by all levels of government. Rather than us being divided in our fight to help those in need, we welcome a dialogue with them and other community leaders to focus our collective strength on the real problems facing the DTES, not on a small business trying to be socially responsible."

This week, the Mainlander news site published a financial and business profile of the people behind the restaurant. Today, housing activists affiliated with the Pidgin pickets released more information about the building that now houses Pidgin on the ground floor and 21 market condominiums on the upper floors. From 1983 to 2008, the building was the site of 30 rental apartments. Studios rented for $440 a month, and two-bedroom units rented for $674. All tenants were evicted in 2008.

Meanwhile on the Mainlander site, a friend has come to Pidgin co-owner Brandon Grossutti's defense, stating his friend has been unfairly demonized when Grossutti himself faced economic barriers as a young person. The argument echoes restaurant critic and Pidgin supporter Andrew Morrison's public pronouncements that many restaurateurs who operate businesses in the Downtown Eastside and Gastown are "scratching to make a living just the same as everyone else."

"To many, a good restaurant on the Downtown Eastside equals gentrification," Morrison told Pecha Kucha audience members in spring 2012. "But the gentrifiers here are mostly young people who have grown up in the restaurant business, former bus boys and dishwashers who have clawed their way up. It's a shame that that truth is seldom recognized.

"No matter how many SROs there are, you can't legislate against a good wine list," he said in his talk. "People want to have a good dining experience if they can afford it."

The activists behind the Pidgin protests say there is not enough social housing available for the people who need it, especially in the Downtown Eastside. Those who belong to the Social Housing Coalition of BC campaign, which launched in early February, have demanded the provincial government to build 10,000 units of social housing per year and strengthen the Residential Tenancy Act so it better protects vulnerable renters. The campaign aims to make social housing a key issue in the 2013 provincial election.

Social Housing Now is staging regular Saturday demonstrations throughout the city. A rally and march downtown takes place Saturday, March 2, starting at 12 p.m. at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Jackie Wong reports on affordable housing for The Tyee Solutions Society.

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