The gentrification war in East Vancouver

Violent protesters go off-menu

A bitter aftertaste: Commercial Drive’s Famoso restaurant has suffered repeat attacks. (Gerry Kahrmann / Province)

Only in Vancouver could Mark Brand be made a target. The conscientious Downtown Eastside businessman serves a $1.50 sandwich at a loss, employs drug addicts with mental-health problems and regularly opens his freezers, Rocky-style, to a youth boxing club; he trains troubled residents in an “incubator kitchen” above his Hastings Street anchor, Save on Meats, and is tripling the number of healthy, hot lunches he serves to the down-and-out to 1,500—with plans to expand the model to two East Vancouver schools. Eventually, all Save On’s profits will be directed to charitable work.

Anywhere else, Brand, whose foodie empire counts nine local businesses, and whose plans to help the neighbourhood—which, he says, “has more courage, more love than any other in the city”—spill out in an excited babble, would be celebrated as a civic hero. But the tattooed entrepreneur, labelled the “poster child of gentrification” by a violent city anarchist group, has been at the receiving end of a campaign aiming to chase him out.

Brand was demonized in a poster campaign that papered the neighbourhood last year, and again at a “public information” session organized to turn local sentiment against him. Then Save On’s iconic sidewalk sign was stolen, only to turn up last week on a global anarchist website, the latest incident in a “class war” the group purports to be waging on East Vancouver businesses.

A block east on Hastings, Brandon Grossutti’s high-end restaurant, Pidgin, is being targeted by slogan-chanting, placard-waving protesters—a fight that has “escalated from property damage to violence and threats,” Grossutti says. Last week, East Vancouver’s Famoso restaurant, whose menu tops out at $14.50, had its floor-to-ceiling front windows kicked out for the third time since opening less than a year ago. The Anti-Gentrification Front targeting Brand and Grossutti is claiming responsibility.

Famoso, a small chain restaurant run by Alberta expats, had dared to open on Commercial Drive, a diverse neighbourhood that’s home to Italians, slam poets, yuppies with Labradors and the city’s lesbian community. The repeat attacks have left Famoso’s soft-spoken co-owner Trevor Stride, a former non-profit manager, “disappointed, frustrated and confused.” His insurers are demanding $20,000, Nicaragua-style steel shutters to repel radicals.

But if Vancouver’s anti-gentrification thugs were hoping to turn the city against these and other businesses, a very different sentiment is taking hold.

Stride is being swamped with flowers and well-wishers. Foodies are rallying behind Pidgin, and its cured steelhead and ponzu jalapeno salsa. “It’s as though the city has said ‘enough is enough,’ ” says Brand. “No one committing these acts has ever contributed anything to these neighbourhoods.”