Rebranding Vancouver’s Neighbourhoods

Vancouver, The East Village | BCBusiness
Just in case the resemblance isn’t obvious, flags remind visitors to East Hastings Street that Vancouver has an East Village, too.

Marketers and business associations attempt to reinvent Vancouver by rechristening their neighbourhoods

If “world-class city” claims are to be believed, Vancouver is a household word around the globe. Nevertheless, attempts to rebrand some of the city’s neighbourhoods suggest an inferiority complex with a whiff of New York envy.

Take the Solo District, for example, a condo development rising on the banks of the scenic Lougheed Highway in Burnaby. The block of highrises overlooking the Brentwood mall may bear little resemblance to Manhattan’s famed SoHo district today, but perhaps with time the neighbourhood will grow into the promise of its name.

Then there’s the circle of merchants looking to spice up their commercial village in a quiet little northeast corner of Vancouver. More than 18 months have gone by since local business leaders said good riddance to Hastings North Business Improvement Association and hello to the newly christened The East Village BIA. Public outcry was immediate and continues on social media channels such as Reddit, whose users denounce the moniker’s alleged Manhattan impersonation and gripe about the How Dare They of it all.

The renamed association’s executive director, however, says the name change has been good for business. “We certainly know the area is changing and we needed to be part of that change,” Patricia Barnes says. “We’ve heard from a number of our businesses that they’re getting new people coming in wondering what The East Village is and what the buzz is about.”

The neighbourhood certainly is changing. The old guard of mom and pop butchers and bakers, Italian delis and no-nonsense eateries remains, but the strips of East Hastings and Powell streets between Commercial Drive and Renfrew Street are also attracting condo developers, swanky watering holes, boutique bistros and even a distillery—hard liquor being the latest incarnation of Vancouver’s obsession with hyperlocal, neo-artisanal food and drink.

In a tried-and-true game of supply and demand, these business newcomers are setting up shop to cater to young families moving to what’s become one of the last neighbourhoods with affordable real estate (“affordable” being a relative term in Lotusland).

Now a brief aside for offended neighbourhood name buffs: The arrival of The East Village wasn’t exactly a silent coup by a band of outlaws. Hastings North was already one of 22 business improvement areas recognized by the City of Vancouver—in this case, a collection of 625 businesses each paying an annual levy (a small portion of their property value) to an elected board of volunteers tasked with ensuring that the area in which they operate is inviting for current and future consumers and investors.

For the record, the made-over BIA straddles Grandview-Woodland and Hastings, two neighbourhoods, or “areas,” officially recognized by the City of Vancouver. (The City for some reason is reluctant to recognize neighbourhoods, but nevertheless lists 21 “city areas” on its website. These are not to be confused with the 22 officially recognized business improvement areas.)

The casual visitor can’t help but notice the bright East Village banners flying in the newly renamed BIA, which Barnes insists has little to do with New York City. “Village brings up that idea of being friendly and knowing everybody. A lot of our businesses know their customers by name,” she says. “And we’re proud of being in the east.”

As sweet as that backstory may be, it’s mostly irrelevant, argues Tim Silk, assistant professor of marketing at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Every marketing person will weave a story. The story doesn’t matter; it’s all about what the words evoke in meaning for the audience,” he explains. “Any association that Hastings evokes is no longer evoked. So it’s actually a clever move.”

He’s referring to the BIA’s former association with another Vancouver neighbourhood several kilometres to the west, which despite Herculean social enterprise and community efforts to bring about an inclusive revitalization, still evokes images of drug use and destitution.

“Any attempt to build a neighbourhood name can be a challenge because you have to build those associations from scratch,” Silk says. “But the beauty is you’ve got a clean slate.” A clean slate ready for the sort of classical conditioning first discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the 1880s, when he made his canine subjects associate the sound of a metronome with the presentation of food and later salivate at the sound alone. “What does The East Village mean to a Vancouverite?” Silk asks. “If there’s pre-existing prior associations that are positive because of some knowledge of New York, great, then you’re maybe leveraging that. And if there’s no meaning there, then that’s fantastic because you can build a meaning of your own.”

Barnes admits that kind of reasoning played a minor role in the rebranding effort, but insists the project’s main goal was to unify area businesses, old and new, under an umbrella of long-cherished localist values. “Change is always hard,” she says. “Our greatest challenge is to make sure we remain an area where small independent business can flourish.”