Will startups in the Downtown Eastside become gentrification villains?

TechPong | BCBusiness
TechPong, a ping-pong-oriented fundraiser, raised $71,000 for DTES charities.

Could San Francisco-style “culture wars” come to Vancouver?

Gentrification: For some, it signals progress—for others, the death of their community. And nowhere in Vancouver is riper for reinvention than the Downtown Eastside (DTES), a neighbourhood famous for being visibly impoverished. But increasingly, not far from the hallmarks of street life—shopping carts and sleeping bags—expensive bars and cafés are emerging. And alongside them, tech startups.
Besides being the next cool neighbourhood to set up shop, the DTES offers another benefit for the bootstrapping new business: cheap rent. It’s where Hootsuite first grew its ranks, swallowing up space after space as its staff grew into the hundreds (the company relocated to Mount Pleasant in 2013). But even though he’s moved his tech firm, the issue of gentrification, its goods and ills, is close to heart for Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes, who Tuesday night moderated a panel at the company’s Mount Pleasant office on the matter. The central question: How do “tech companies that are gentrifying neighbourhoods” avoid what he referred to as “San Francisco-style culture wars?”
In America’s tech capital, protestors have taken to blocking and spray-painting the Google buses that shuttle employees from the city to Silicon Valley. With their high seats and tinted windows, Google’s sleek buses, though environmentally admirable, have become symbols in a clash of classes: high-earning tech workers and low-income locals, whom critics say the former are pricing out. “I don’t believe we are at this point in Vancouver yet,” Holmes said at Tuesday’s event, but maybe in a few years.
While our tech industry is certainly smaller and our employees earn far less than they do in the Valley, the DTES is an audible enemy of gentrification. When it was announced in October that a Technology and Social Innovation Centre would open up in the old police station in the DTES, neighbourhood advocates argued the space should be used for social housing instead.
Can peace be made? For its part, Hootsuite is trying. The company is hosting an auction until December 16, with proceeds funding “code camps” for kids attending school in the DTES. Another event, TechPong, hosted by Chimp, a Vancouver-based online fundraising nonprofit, raised $71,000 for DTES charities by attracting 350 guests to a boozy ping-pong-oriented fundraiser this past October.
But “having people in the DTES have their say” is perhaps just as important as giving, said Steve Anderson, founder of OpenMedia.ca, on the panel at Tuesday’s event. Code camps are great, but residents may advocate for more social housing first and foremost. Listening, in short, could be the difference between helping versus simply handing locals a gift basket on the way out.
As Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer, another panellist, put it, “We don’t need to create Silicon Valley. We can do it our way.” America’s version isn’t always the best one, she said, and “if we get there”—culture wars and all that—“it’s because we chose to.”