This weekend, Gordon Katic and I spoke with Brandon Grossutti, the owner of the controversial PiDGiN restaurant, about his alleged theft of a papier-mâché pickle.
The pickle was constructed by a group of college-aged leftists who find Grossutti’s high-brow restaurant a distasteful addition to Pigeon Park, one of the last places where Vancouver’s poor and homeless people feel welcome. Specifically, the papier-mâché mascot was designed to satirize PiDGiN’s 6$ bowl of pickles, a price that most of the residents of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) could never afford. Brandon told us that since the protests the price has been lowered to 5$.
PiDGiN is by no means the only new, bourgeois institution in the DTES , but it is the most conspicuously and symbolically highbrow. Its menu includes dishes like “octopus, stinging nettle, baked potato mousse, seaweed.” The decor is modern and cool. There is a golden meat cleaver encased behind the bar. It’s stylish, by all accounts delicious and, with an average price of around 15$ a plate, it is aimed right at the young gentrifying class that has started to move into the microlofts and condos that have been replacing Single Residency Occupancy hotels (SROs) into the Downtown East Side since 2008.
Brandon and his wife have a newborn baby. He told us that he scrimped and saved to start the restaurant, which, nevertheless must have cost a small fortune. Brandon made this small fortune as a venture capitalist, something that has prompted the protesters to call him a “dillionarie.” At least while we are around, Brandon is gregarious, talkative and likable. We almost never see him inside of his restaurant. Instead he paces around in Pigeon Park talking to the locals and the cops. He seems to be on good terms with almost everyone besides for the protesters. Brandon is also consistently friendly with Gordon and I. When we started interviewing the protesters, he would wink or make a peace sign to us from across the street. He’s offered us free food. He laughs easily and tosses around terms like “white privilege” like he is a sociology major. But it’s also clear that Brandon is furious. When the protesters show up, he leans against a pole and glares at the 11 or 12 anti-social young people holding provocative signs in front of his restaurant. When Grossutti talks to us about the the protesters, their agenda and their priorities, he swears and bangs on one of PiDGiN’s custom-made tables.
Brandon admitted to us that when he saw the pickle mascot unattended in his doorway he swiped it. Trying to retrieve the pickle, protester Kim Hearty grabbed a bucket full of something from PiDGiN’s back door (we’ve been told glucose, pork fat or dirty water). She tried to orchestrate a hostage exchange: Brandon’s bucket for the people’s pickle. This is where the stories diverge. Hearty claimed Grossutti pushed her. Grossutti claims he merely yanked his bucket back. In either case, Hearty was charged with theft, assault and mischief and is now restrained from being anywhere close to PiDGiN. In spite of complaints by the protesters, Brandon has not been issued a warning. The pickle also hasn’t been returned to the anti-gentrification activists.
So, it isn’t a stretch to say that things have become a little petty at PiDGiN.
The pettiness is particularly stark because it’s set against a sort of tableaux of human suffering and institutionalized neglect. The truth is, it only takes a couple days hanging out in Pigeon Park to see just how untenable British Columbia’s prohibitionist and neoliberal policies are for the residents here. The situation is visibly dire. We are told over and over that the SROs are full of rats and vermin. Sexual abuse and violence are shockingly common here. Meanwhile in the park itself, people lie half-conscious on the grass, overwhelmed from the double pyschopharmacological punch of Listerine and crack-cocaine. The cops occasionally pass through and dump people’s alcohol and confiscate their drugs, but there isn’t much else for them to do. The homeless and poor people who hang out in Pigeon Park, disproportionately indigenous, are constantly telling us that they are starving. Their relationship with all of the white, middle-class people who have invaded their space—the yuppie’s dining at PiDGiN, the dissidents protesting it and us—is complicated and fraught. The actual residents of the DTES, whose voices have not played much of a role in the reporting that takes place here, seem pretty split on the restaurant. Some approach the protesters to tell them to “fuck off” and “leave Brandon alone.” Others stop by to sign their petitions and ask for a buck.
It’s clear that the media presence in the park has had a real impact too. When we asked a man name Caspar what he thought of PiDGiN he told us “we hate it.” When we asked him why, he told us he wanted 2.50$ in order to give us our soundbite. Who knows if he really hates the rich people who have come into his space or if he just thinks that Gordon and I would be willing to pay for a sexier, bellicose statement.
Sam is the host of the Terry Project Podcast, a graduate student in UBC’s history department and a freelance writer. You can read more of Sam’s writing at his website: samfenn.com. In September, the Terry Project will air two 30-minute radio documentaries about gentrification, social mix and homelessness in the Downtown East Side. It will feature Brandon Grossutti, the protesters and lots of social policy experts. More updates coming soon! To follow this story as it happens, follow Sam (@Samadeus) and follow Gordon (@gord_katic) on twitter.