When Mark Brand walks through Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, he chats with other entrepreneurs along the way.
Mr. Brand, the energetic owner of the Save On Meats diner and butcher shop on Hastings Street, likes to keep in touch with merchants to take the quickening pulse of an area in transition.
"This is my wheelhouse. This is where I am comfortable," he said during a 30-minute tour of an array of businesses in Victory Square and Gastown, two of the seven districts within the Downtown Eastside. He stops to shake hands with Francis Regio, the boss at Cork & Fin restaurant on Carrall Street, which opened in 2010, a year before Mr. Brand launched Save On Meats.
"The Downtown Eastside is a neighbourhood that's up and coming. It's on a promising rise," Mr. Regio said. He notes that a range of retailers have lured shoppers from across Vancouver by offering everything from designer clothing to $3 doughnuts.
Entrepreneurs such as Mr. Brand and Mr. Regio have been at the heart of the Downtown Eastside's commercial revival, long before the City of Vancouver embarked in May on the first phase of its community plan for one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada. In 2006, the average annual household income in the Downtown Eastside barely surpassed $25,000, compared with more than $68,000 for Vancouver as a whole, according to Statistics Canada.
City planners, keeping in mind their mission to support "people on the margins of society," are striving to balance the need for affordable rental housing with development pressures, notably plans for new condos. Market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the area last year averaged $845 a month, compared with $1,045 citywide, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says.
Merchants say that beyond the panhandlers, drug overdoses, social ills and pockets of urban decay that linger, they see opportunities to be enterprising because of cheaper leases, spruced-up buildings and, generally, a vibrant, youthful environment. Overcoming outdated notions of a seedy area in decline, entrepreneurs who have flocked to the area consider the turning point to be 2009, when the Woodward's housing development opened to breathe new life into the neighbourhood.
On a seven-block stretch along Hastings Street, vacant storefronts are no longer spreading like dandelions. In 2005, when Mr. Brand arrived in Vancouver, nearly 35 per cent of the Hastings Street storefronts from Richards Street to Gore Avenue sat empty. In April this year, that vacancy rate fell below 13 per cent, say planners, who use DTES as shorthand for the Downtown Eastside.
"There has been a noticeable trend of new retail and restaurant outlets in certain parts of DTES, including Pender, Hastings, Powell, Abbott and Carrall streets," said a recent report by the City of Vancouver.
On Abbott Street, Sheima Armonpour opened the Einstein Wrap House three months ago with her husband, Alex. After serving chicken shawarma and lamb donairs to customers, Ms. Armonpour said she is pleased to be in a family-run business. "We are the bosses," she explained.
The challenge for city hall is to spur economic growth while forging "a healthy community" that pays homage to a diverse area, whether it is remembering the history of Chinatown in the 1880s or recognizing the needs of aboriginals, who now account for 10 per cent of the Downtown Eastside's 18,000 residents.
The pace of change since the 2008-09 recession has raised concerns in some quarters about the impact of gentrification on social housing, non-profit groups and affordability for seniors. Stephen Learey, executive director of the Strathcona Health Society, has mixed feelings about what has taken shape in the Downtown Eastside, where he worked back in the 1980s.
But Mr. Brand, who also co-owns the Diamond and Boneta restaurants, remains upbeat. Save On Meats alone employs 65 people. "I think that we've made a positive impact here," he declared. Using his kitchen at Save On Meats, Mr. Brand is giving back to the neighbourhood by helping supply meals to single-room occupancy hotels. "I encourage people to get involved with the community," he said.