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Friends roll up their sleeves to help with renovations at the Commercial Street Cafe. PHoto courtesy of Nadene Rehnby.

Friends roll up their sleeves to help with renovations at the Commercial Street Cafe. PHoto courtesy of Nadene Rehnby.

Family-owned cafes on “The Drive” are popping up all over.

One of my managers, Chris, recently quit after several years of working at the Rio Theatre to open up a new business with his roommate Margot and neighbours Nadene and Pete. The Commercial Street Cafe (3599 Commercial Street) opens tonight at 7 p.m. The Tangent Cafe (2095 Commercial Drive) opened just shy of a month ago on October 12, and is owned by Nate and his husband Linda.

Commercial Street Cafe is a new endeavor for the gang, who have roots in graphic design, publication,  management, makeup, just to name a few.

“My wife and I both have a passion for good food and drink and thought this was a good way to share it,” said Nate of the Tangent Cafe.

Community ethos

It seems like both businesses got some advice for getting their feet off the ground from that song by The Beatles – no, not “I Am The Walrus!” (that song only makes sense under a certain influence anyways) – “With A Little Help From My Friends.”

“We relied a lot on family and friends to do a lot of work, like repainting chairs,” said Nate. For most of the other dirty work, they hired outside contractors.

The Commercial Street Cafe was brought to life over 5 days of sweat and love. Numerous friends and family helped Chris, Margot, Nadene and Pete repaint and refurnish the old corner store to make it into the space they were dreaming of.

The Drive

The community-oriented vibe on Commercial offers the perfect haven for indie, mom n pop cafes to thrive.

The Tangent Cafe is the product of a re-branding of the previous restaurant at that location, so Nate and Linda renovated quickly to facilitate a quick turnaround so as not to lose out on regular customers of the old business.

“It’s been decent … we’re quite busy on the weekends for brunch,” said Nate.

They live on Commercial Drive so the location was a no-brainer.

The Commercial Street Cafe is just down the road from Chris’ gang, too.

“There are lots of places like this .. [Commercial Drive] is something of a destination in the region,” said Nate.

It’s nice to see that when you get out of the downtown core, there’s more to be had than just a Starbucks, Blenz or Waves – quality and service with a smile hasn’t gone the way of the pager and let’s hope it never does!

Vancouver City Council voted yesterday to rezone land along East Hastings St. for condo development, a decision that community activists are speaking against.

The site is located at 955 East Hastings street. The Wall Financial Corporation has proposed a 12-storey mixed-use project for the site.

“It provides desperately needed social housing, below market rental, light industrial, retail which, thanks to the motion today, could include a much needed grocery,” said Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer via email.

The site was zoned as M-1 industrial land, but council’s vote today rezoned it as CD-1, or comprehensive development area.

As per Wall Financial’s plan for the development, there will be commercial/retail and light industrial at street level. It will contain 352 housing units with 23 units aimed at people on social assistance.

Anti-gentrification advocates speak out

However, the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), an activist group, is opposed because they see it as the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside (DTES).

“We’re opposed to this project that it will have the same effect that Woodward’s had on the western part of the Downtown Eastside,” said Ivan Drury, researcher/organizer with CCAP.

Drury said that only 7% of the social housing in the development will be rented at welfare rates. While city council upholds that the development is creating social housing, Drury said that the planned development threatens 154 current SROs in the area through gentrification of the neighbourhood.

However, Councillor Reimer said there has been an interim rezoning policy for the area since March 28, 2012, and there will likely be a new rezoning policy in the near future as a result of citizen-led groups CCAP and Local Area Planning Process (LAPP).

“With the policies this development was approved under no longer in place, and control over the future policies directly in the hands of the community, it’s not possible to spark development. The planning process is the signal property owners are waiting for, not this rezoning,” said Councillor Reimer.

Sex trade workers could be displaced to unsafe areas

Another issue CCAP has with the rezoning and future development is how it may displace sex trade workers who work in that area.

“The reason they’re down there is because there are no residents down there. They’ve been pushed there by police and by the judgmental gaze of homeowners,” said Drury. “It’s still not a safe place or an acceptable way for women to be working, but they’ve created a community and they look out for each other.”

“The motion passed by council asks staff to work with applicant at the design phase to ensure it is safe for existing sex trade in the area,” said Councillor Reimer.

There are some people who say the DTES would be better if it were gentrified. An article on Vancity Buzz from September 17 says, “The proposal, if approved, will solidify the gentrification that is already underway in the eastern edge of the DTES. It would be a shame if the neighbourhood opposition and/or city council got in the way of this development. It’s exactly what the neighbourhood needs at this point.”

CCAP challenges that thinking. Through interviewing over 1200 DTES residents, they found that the marginalized people who live there feel a sense of community that’s unique to the neighbourhood. Their sense of belonging is very important and needs to be protected.

“Out of violence they’ve created systems of care, camaraderie, and systems of support, and that’s something we need to protect,” said Drury. “If we lose it we’re losing the soul of the city.”

News 1130 reported today that Bon Wong, proprietor of well-known East Van eatery Bon’s Off Broadway, received the Bad Boss Award from the Employee Action Rights Network (EARN).

Bon’s serves greasy spoon-style chinese and diner food, but is relied upon by many East Vancouverites (including myself) for its answer to a hangover cure on a plate: the $2.95 breakfast special. Two eggs any style, bacon/ham/sausage, toast, and hash browns (INSIDERS TIP: ask for garlic & onion in the hash browns. sends them to another level!) smothered in enough grease to coat your stomach and send you to the bathroom before the day’s over.

“One of the ways the costs are so low or the prices are so low perhaps is that people aren’t being paid what they’re legally entitled,” says EARN’s chairman Stephen Von Sychowski.

According to EARN, one current and one former employee have alleged that Bon Wong pays his employees under the table, below minimum wage and offers no overtime or vacation pay.

A sworn statement from a current employee says that bussers are paid $7 an hour (with a $10 tip-out from each server on shift) and servers are paid $6 an hour (plus tips). The statement also says the employee worked 11 an 12 hour shifts without overtime pay, was paid from the till, and provided with no T4 forms.

As reported in The Province, however, Wong denies the allegations against him. “A couple of staff got let go, so that’s where the story is coming from,” he told The Province. He upholds that liquor servers are being paid $9/hour and kitchen staff are being paid $10.25/hour.

Wong does, however, get tipped out $2 per hour from each server because he often works alongside them when business gets slammed during a rush.

“I’ve been working in this business for 30 years. If I was a bad boss, nobody would be working for me,” he told The Province.

I’d really like to look into this story further. Bon’s is a mainstay for my coworkers and I to converge and catch up or “recover” over the cheapest meal in town. Wong has always seemed like a pleasant man, rolling up his sleeves and working alongside his employees; it would be a shame were it all a sham, and I’m going to reconsider supporting a business which mistreats its employees.

However, working for an independent business owner myself, I understand that sometimes it’s hard to make ends meet and employers sometimes need to cut corners temporarily and employees need to either accept that and have some flexibility or quit if they’re unhappy with it. I can’t speak for what the conditions at Bon’s are like, obviously, but I know I’ve had to sit out late or bounced paycheques from my employer. It was maddening at the time and going to the Labour Board has crossed my coworkers’ minds on more than one occasion… but the money came through eventually, and I’m willing to sacrifice temporarily if it means my employer can stay in business and I get to keep working at a job I love.

Image

(Muriel Marjorie, DTES poet and cover photo for the Heart of the City Festival program guide. Photo by David Cooper.)

The Heart of the City festival is showcasing the culture, heart and soul of the DTES.

The massive program guide includes over 80 events happening from October 24-November 4. Events include workshops, poetry reading, community dances, musical performances, films – and more.

A misunderstood creative community

For Terry Hunter, associate director of the festival, it’s a treat being able to showcase Vancouver’s most diverse neighbourhood.

“I’m so thrilled to be able to work with the community to put our voice and our culture onstage,” said Hunter in a phone interview on Thursday.

“We want to change perceptions of the community. Many people have a black and white perception of the Downtown Eastside as a drug-ridden neighbourhood full of crime … People don’t see who we really are.

The artists of the DTES may or may not call themselves artists in a professional capacity, but regardless of their stature, they create some of the most prolific art in Vancouver right now. Because many come from marginalized situations, they see art as a means to communicate their voice, struggles and lives with the community.

“It’s all about relationships” – Terry Hunter

Planning such an extensive and diverse festival is no easy task to undertake.

“The only deadline we have is to get the info on the program guide,” said Hunter.

The team that plans the festival takes an integrative approach. They actively book events or showcases themselves, often grouped under an umbrella theme like “Rock and Roll.” Often, communities themselves plan something, and the Heart of the City team supports them in whatever ways needed.

“They might say, ‘We want to do a show but we need a space,’ or, ‘We want to do a show but we don’t have enough money,’ and then we help them come up with that,” said Hunter.

Other times, a community event that’s already been planned will ask to be included in the festival. If the team feels the event is connected with the community or what the festival is all about, it will be included. And, if there are annual events, like the Carnegie Community Dance, they’re put under the umbrella of the festival programming too.

“We’re very integrated and such a part of the community … We’re talking to people about events we might do next year,” said Hunter. “It’s all about relationships with people in the community.”

Highlights and major events

Some of the top festival picks, like Barrio Flamenco: Flamenco for the People and SURVIVAL, STRENGTH, SISTERHOOD: Power of Women in the Downtown Eastside have already past.

Terry Hunter recommended a few of his top events over the phone on Thursday.

Building: a Social Writing Evening (Dunlevy Snackbar, 433 Dunlevy) with the DTES Thursday Writing Collective, directed by Elee Kraljii Gardiner, offers participants an opportunity to engage in a social writing exercise in an intimate, grassroots setting.

Big Jazz at the Heart of the City Festival (Ukrainian Hall, 805 E. Pender) brings the Downtown Eastside’s hot Carnegie Jazz Band together with the “King of Swing” Dal Richards and his seven piece Combo. This is one you’ll need to wear your dancing shoes for!

“Dal Richards is a legend in Vancouver’s jazz scene,” said Hunter. “My mother and father danced to Dal on top of the Vancouver Hotel in the 1940s.”

Terry Hunter is also a member of the Carnegie Jazz Band, which is led by Brad Muirhead.

OUT OF THE BASEMENT & V6A PROJECT PREVIEW (Carnegie Community Centre 3rd floor Gallery, 401 Main) includes the unveiling of the V6A Project, which highlights 11 years of theatre and music production in the DTES. A booklet of over 100 pages lends insight into all the productions profiled. Terry Hunter worked on this project as well.

“Personally, I’m really looking forward to sharing this book. It’s our way of thanking and honouring the community.”

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