We don’t read about it in the news when low-income peoples’ hotels close down or upscale and throw low-income tenants out. And there was no public outcry, twitter trend, or feature articles when Flowers or Uncle Henry’s closed down. Not so for Fat Dragon restaurant, a short-lived (just 10 months) and never-successful boutique restaurant across from the Downtown Clinic and beside the Living Room on Powell St. Like the more recent second gentrification of the Walforf Hotel this restaurant has received the full media treatment and analysis throughout its life and death. The media and restaurant-going class are interested in the story of Fat Dragon because it is a story of how gentrification can fail.
Fat Dragon was important to gentrifier culture when it opened because they saw it as the frontier of boutique culture. When it opened in February 2012 Scout Magazine encouraged diners to go eat there even though “this section of the DTES around Oppenheimer Park that has been (and still is) considered a bridge too far by restaurateurs… There is a community here, and a strong one at that, but it has to face a daily gnarliness that no other neighbourhood in the city has to contend with.” The community Scout Magazine was talking about was the restaurant-going, architect studio working one; the majority low-income community was the “gnarliness” those others had to face.
When the expensive boutique Chinese fusion restaurant’s closure was announced in late December these same commentators mourned. Scout Magazine (which carried 11 stories on Fat Dragon in 10 months) blamed middle-class perceptions about the Downtown Eastside as reason for the restaurant’s failure. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of Vancouver diners still dread the core of the Downtown Eastside as if it were an urban Hades, a place where their cars would be broken into by crack addicts and their persons robbed by HIV-infected needle-point…”
The main point in these commentaries is that Fat Dragon was trying to serve and create a community of restaurant-goers that is different than (and hostile to) the majority low-income community around Fat Dragon. The failure, all the newspapaers agree, was due to the unwillingness and discomfort of these diners to venture into the Oppenheimer district. The remedy they suggest is the further gentrification of the area to make it more comfortable for shoppers and diners.
The lesson of Fat Dragon for would-be gentrifiers and for the DTES low-income community is that gentrification can fail. While the failure of Fat Dragon was a tiny catastrophes for one or two investors and a handful of workers, far more significantly it protects the character of the DTES Oppenheimer District as a predominately low-income community. Vancouver has more than enough neighbourhoods that welcome and celebrate boutique restaurants and designer condos. The failure of Fat Dragon says, not here. The DTES Oppenheimer District is a social justice zone.