Cuchillo is a crime scene. You won’t see yellow police tape or chalked outlines near street sewers, or any evidence of a bloody stabbing in front of Cuchillo — it’s all missing from this sinister spectacle. Instead the heart of Japantown on Powell Street and on unceded Coast Salish soil is wounded. The building’s owner, multimillionaire slumlord Steven Lippman, the City of Vancouver, and Cuchillo’s owners are all complicit in this unreported crime.
Living above Cuchillo restaurant (which means “knife” in Spanish) are the York Hotel’s 34 low-income residential tenants. The tenants have no kitchens or private bathrooms. Most have been very hard hit by rising rents that are well in excess of the $375 monthly shelter allowance.
Evictions and unaffordable housing are the new normal for York’s tenants. Cuchillo is located on the York’s ground floor and it’s a scam. This high-end destination spot entices mainly wealthy white Vancouverites to consume an exotic dining experience in the gentrifying DTES neighbourhood. Cuchillo seeks to make a handsome profit by combining images stolen from Mexican culture with a menu designed to satisfy Anglo-Canadian tastes.
Many diners frequenting Cuchillo live in Vancouver’s posh and socially segregated neighbourhoods. They arrive via taxi, limousine or in gas guzzling SUVs. The poor folks upstairs don’t eat there or wear hip fashions while sipping the nightly cocktail creations. The wild Mexican sea prawns and the char grilled flat iron steak sell for $21 dollars. Using racist marketing ploys, Cuchillo pilfers Mexican artistic images, rakes over Mexican regional cuisines, and guts the sacred Indigenous rituals of Latin America, namely “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead), of their deep spiritual meaning. Cuchillo rips off Mexican culture and repackages itself as the latest deal for cutting edge Latino cuisine catering to the city’s elite.
The opening of Cuchillo and so many other pricey restaurants, boutique shops, theme bars and developer condo deals, marks a turning point for the future of low-income people in Vancouver. In short, the DTES has become one big, horrific feeding frenzy. “It’s more of a crime to own a bank than to rob one,” observed Bertolt Brecht, a radical German artist, a century ago. Today, big banked deals in the DTES “rob the hood” of its soul and substance, and steal or convert what’s left of the affordable housing stock.
One restaurant, of course, doesn’t deliver a knockout blow to a community nor kill a budding housing justice movement. Nah. It doesn’t play out that way. But we need to sustain the struggle against corporate-driven real estate development and build a citywide social housing movement that seriously challenges displacement in the DTES and in Vancouver. Otherwise the poorest of the poor are doomed to be exiled from the city, and cast out to misery-filled isolated patches in the suburbs, or be continuously stripped of their humanity in Harper’s prisons. The people’s inquest of the DTES may read in a handful of years: death due to gentrification. To stop this madness, we have no choice but to fight and punch far above our weight to win. Only the ‘hood can save the ‘hood.