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Mike Harcourt weighs in on delicate issues behind Pidgin protests

Ex-premier and former Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt says Downtown Eastside cannot become Yaletown East.

DARRYL DYCK for the globe and mail

Pickets continue outside the new, upscale Pidgin restaurant in the heart of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, protesting against what they see as creeping gentrification of an area long home to the down and out. The tactic has been widely criticized, but ex-premier and former Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt says the demonstrators have a point. Mr. Harcourt, chair of the Building Community Society, which is working to improve the DTES, shared his views on the hot-button issue with The Globe and Mail.

You don't share the scorn that has been directed at the Pidgin protesters. Why not?

I don't scorn them, because I think you've got to recognize the fear of the low-income residents of the neighbourhood becoming gentrified and turned into Yaletown. I'm not being critical of Yaletown. I'm simply saying this is the only community in the city where the poor are the majority, and there is fear that's going to change dramatically, that they are going to be turned into a freak show, into something to gawk at. So that's the issue, not the restaurant. It has angered a lot of low-income people and triggered a legitimate fear, which is worth respecting.

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Is the fear well-grounded?

If it becomes Yaletown East, yes. If you don't get the balance right, and you don't get the attitudes right, you have folks who go into this grittier, harder-edge neighbourhood, knowing people there have mental illnesses and serious problems, and then they start saying: "Hey, clean this neighbourhood up." Well, where would they go? There's no other neighbourhood left.

Can you stop that?

You can provide a lot more affordable housing to counter-balance the condos, and have a balanced approach towards development. If all the restaurants and shops in the neighbourhood become chichi, there's no place for the poor or working poor to get affordable groceries or a meal or buy clothes.

Then you really have taken away the essential nature of the Downtown Eastside. We want to transform it from the mess it is now into a place we're all proud of. How you do that is the real issue.

Is the right mix possible?

It's hard. You've got to work at it, like we did on the south side of False Creek. We social-engineered there, so that two-thirds of the people were low- or middle-income.

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How do you bring in the reasonably priced groceries and eateries? It's been pretty barren since long before the Pidgin showed up.

I'm not opposing the Pidgin, and I'm not opposed to change. I'm just talking about the worry of the people we're working with. You don't want Hastings to become Robson Street. We need to make conscious decisions to deal with that.

You can build affordable housing for the homeless or near-homeless and bring in supplements and rental housing programs for the working poor, and up the welfare shelter allowance from $375 to $425. You can have social enterprise restaurants and stores. You can do what the really entrepreneurial guy at Save-On-Meats [Mark Brand] has done.

Can we afford all that housing you say is necessary?

Every time you house a chronically homeless person, you save at least $20,000 to $30,000. You save on policing, ambulances, emergency wards and jails.

Why is gentrification such a bad thing for the Downtown Eastside?

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Gentrification is Yaletown East. You basically overwhelm the poor people with rich or richer people. But I also don't think it should stay a ghetto, forcing all those with problems into one small area of the city, which is what we've done. We've overloaded the Downtown Eastside, and that's why I'm into some offloading of the homeless, the mentally ill, back into the neighbourhoods they came from, while still keeping the original character of the Downtown Eastside. A healthy mix would have a majority stay low-income and working poor, some middle-income, and then you can have wealthier people in condos.

Should the restaurant be picketed, though?

I don't have a strong position one way or the other. But shining lights in people's eyes is where you go too far, and you lose support.

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