photos: Photos: Jackie Wong.

Mount Pleasant's on the rise, but for whom?

As Vancouver's oldest suburb changes, let's consider what we've lost.

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 “Why in heaven's name this haste? Why sacrifice the present for the future? Unrestfullness...passion for speculation, fever for quick and showy results may so soak into the texture of the popular mind as to colour it for centuries to come."

–Lord James Bryce on “American Haste” in Temper of the West, 1888

One glance at Vancouver’s skylineshows a sleek modern city against a backdrop of mountain and sea. A blockade of condominiums stretches across the peninsula, a wall of shining glass reflecting a story of dramatic, rapid transformation.

Vancouver, in its current incarnation, is a new city, barely over 100 years young. Still, within its relatively short lifespan, it has gone through rapid growth. And with rapid growth comes rapid change.

The city’s landscape has been transformed into a settlement froma wilderness, a city from a town. Development, progress, modernity, and technological economic advancement have accompanied these changes. At the same time, repercussions manifest alongside the margins of rapid growth streams—displacement, dislocation and loss. Striking examples of this phenomenon abound in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where a community of vulnerable people currently face an aggressive programof gentrification and displacement.

Urban transformation and its effects may seem less obvious in Mount Pleasant, a quiet neighbourhood south of the city centre. For decades, the community on the hill was a quiet place for lower-income people to eke out a sustainable existence in a neighbourhood known as Vancouver’s first suburb. In the last five years Mount Pleasant has become a place of rapid transformation. A 21-storey high-rise called The Independent is slated for construction on Main and Broadway in the midst of what one community group calls the neighbourhood’s “Heritage Heart.”

That high-rise—which will stick outin a neighbourhood streetscape made mostly of aging, low-rise walkups—is only one of many upscale developments in the area. Those developments are aggressively changing the face of a once-affordable, inclusive neighbourhood for lower-income people.

I have been a resident of Mount Pleasant for over a decade. I live in one of the first apartment buildings built here, made from the signature yellow and beige bricks imported from Abbotsford at the turn of the century. When I first moved here, the neighbourhood was a lot different. Sure, there was a cafe or two, and art galleries and a few art spaces had starting popping up in the southwest quadrant. But there were also a lot more working-class people. It was a lot more affordable, rent was cheap and there was a plethora of family owned shops, restaurants and diners. The neighborhood was liveable if you didn’t have a lot of money, and a welcome refuge for a person without a disposable income.

These days I’m struck by the ever-increasing number of craft boutiques and locavore restaurants, I’m fascinated by the sheer number of people coming to the neighborhood on the weekends to shop for kitschy knick-knacks and tour the microbreweries.

This new demographic of young, upwardly mobile 30-somethings whose professions, families, and social capital have landed them a condo, a disposable income, and an affinity for small dogs, upscale barber shops and locally made (but not locally affordable) eateries are transforming this neighbourhood from a refuge for lower-income people into a new, artificially constructed “centre of the city.”

This new invention of a place is not an initiative taken up by its residents. Rather, it is imposed from the outside, as developers and politicians advocate a green-washed, crafted lifestyle, one that goes hand-in-hand with condominium development—encouraging large-scale densification and displacement.

The aggressive forces of third-wave gentrification consolidated in Gastown over the last 10 years are quickly spreading up the hill.

As urban “improvement” strategies begin to transform the neighborhood, it seems a fit time to think about the cycle of change throughout the history of this place. It is important to consider these changes and their ramifications for the people who live here.

Whenever Mount Pleasant has been altered through these engines of change, people have benefited by profits, legacy and consolidation of power.

But others have equally lost tangible aspects of their environment, their surroundings, their ways of life, and their ways of living together.

This new invention of a place is not an initiative taken up by its residents. Rather, it is imposed from the outside, as developers and politicians advocate a green-washed, crafted lifestyle, one that goes hand-in-hand with condominium development—encouraging large-scale densification and displacement.

From forest to suburb

In the mid-19th century, Mount Pleasant was a forest, inhabited by deer, elk, bears and salmon that would swim up the fast moving streams from the tidal areas of False Creek to spawn in fresh water lagoons at their headwaters. No permanent Musqueam settlement was located in its exact location. Nevertheless the allotment and pre-emption of land in Mount Pleasant disrupted Indigenous ways of living.

It was a heavily trafficked area. An ancient highway sits underneath the pavement of what is now Kingsway. It was a crossroads of trade, the main route connecting False Creek across the peninsula to the large Musqueam villages on the Fraser River. As speculators and surveyors began to purchase and pre-empt the land, transformation accelerated at an unprecedented pace in the area.

Much like today, developers had their own marketing tactics, seeking out a specific kind of resident to build a specific kind of place. Their vision was a working- class, family oriented neighbourhood in contrast to Gastown’s transient and restless workforce of working-class bachelors.

Advertising of the period reflects this vision as workers were encouraged to buy their own piece of property and live the Vancouver dream—to own a small cottage on an acre or so of land, finding an ideal balance of urban and pastoral living.

Thus a place was changed—and it was created arbitrarily by a handful of men from outside the region. Workers were able to live a bucolic family life with plenty of space.

An affordable refuge

Just like the Downtown Eastside in the 1980s and onwards, Mount Pleasant became a refuge for lower-income people. As land remained unimproved, cheap, un-maintained apartments became available.

Mount Pleasant still retained many of its older buildings built during the boom years, many of them Single Room Occupancy dwellings (SROs), small bachelor apartments that are infamous for populating the Downtown Eastside.

Places like the Santa Rosa, the Broadway Rooms, and The Belvedere existed and continue to exist as unofficial social housing. Mount Pleasant became a destination for lower-income people who wanted to escape the frenzy of the Downtown Eastside.

It also became a destination for poor migrant families. The Filipino community grew considerably in Mount Pleasant during the 1980s, around the area’s low-income mall—the Kingsgate.



The hipster frontier

A third demographic began to move into the “un-improved” frontier. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Mount Pleasant became a place for young artists attracted to the area for its cheap rent.

For years, an art culture was built up around Main and Broadway as artists moved in living alongside the migrant families, frequenting their family owned restaurants (some of which are still around), and occupying the cheap apartment buildings in the surrounding area.

Mount Pleasant slowly became known as Vancouver’s official hipster neighbourhood. Similarly to academic case studies of gentrification in New York City’s Brooklyn, Seattle’s Pioneer Square, and Vancouver’s Gastown, artists entered the urban frontier as unknowing scouts for eventual developers.

The casualties of change in Mount Pleasant are hard to pin down. Certainly, they are less likely to generate media firestorms like the activistson the DTES are able to create.

Partly it lies in the ambiguity of who gets displaced, for their voices haven’t been well documented. Class distinctions are alive and well in the neighborhood. Sometimes they are just harder to see in an ambiguous landscape of shaggy beards and messy buns.

The term hipster is ambiguous in itself: it blurs visible class distinctions as it becomes a scapegoat for everything in our cultural world. Yet, social class still exists in this hip, sometimes hidden, world.

Two groups of “hipsters” might happen to share a table together at a trendy micro-brewery, discussing their shared appreciation of hoppy beer, music and cycling. But at the end of the night they go home to drastically different environments—one group to their million-dollar condos, the other to their cockroach-infested basement suites.

Developers involved in changing the neighbourhood appeal to this high-class hipster demographic. They appear socially conscious—advocating “open concept” offices and green-washing their way through single-sided urban density debates. But are they really socially conscious?

At the same time they engage in politically correct rhetoric, they forge alliances with large multi-national development companies, ones that have their eyes on crushing small business hubs that already serve the community, such as the Kingsgate Mall (currently undergoing rezoning), family-owned businessesand displacing the current demographicof lower-income urban dwellers.

It is neo-colonialism in a sense, but without a defined sense of an “other,” for they use the same language, rhetoric and values of the pre-existing community, as a means to justify place-changing as “improvement.”

What remains hidden, however, are clear class divisions that hinge dramatically on income level and access to social mobility. What remains as a constant is the displacement and dislocation of inhabitants that currently occupy a place.

A new kind of resident is encouraged to move in and occupy the area. No longer the working-class families that were originally encouraged to populate Vancouver’s first suburb, developers have now turned their eyes towards young, wealthy, urban professionals.


Twenty-one storeys high and rising

Since 2010, Mount Pleasant has again entered an era of rapid change and development, perhaps unequalled since its early beginnings.

High-rise projects such as the Rize loom over the neighbourhood as a foreshadowing of profound change to come. A new kind of resident is encouraged to move in and occupy the area. No longer the working-class families that were originally encouraged to populate Vancouver’s first suburb, developers have now turned their eyes towards young, wealthy, urban professionals.

As clear class divisions get lost inthe murky brew of a crafted lifestyle, lower-income people have a more difficult challenge drawing a clear stance against place-changers whose defining characteristics include bike lanes, public transportation, organic coffee, condominiums and micro-brewed beer.

In an effort to engage the new hipster demographic, the Rize’s promotional literature for The Independent project states, “we believe in being unique and embracing individuality.”Using the caricature of the hipster and the urbanite insecurity of needing to belong to a “centre” of somewhere, modern developers like those behind the Rize development utilize the same tactics that colonial surveyors employed, re-imagining a neighborhood from the outside.

The ramifications of this crafted makeover are many. Property values go up, making it unaffordable for current residents to stay. Change also disrupts the local economy, as affordable places to shop, such as the Kingsgate Mall, are rezoned for more condos.


Necessary development?

Interestingly, a lot of the rhetoric for the necessity of condo building restson two assumptions—one, Vancouver’s population is booming and people need places to live and, two, building dense sky rises is more environmentally friendly.

Without going into depth, I’ll pose two responses to these suppositions. First, Vancouver’s population is not booming. According to Statistics Canada, Vancouver’s growth rate is 4.4 per cent. That’s below the national average of 5.9 per cent. Mount Pleasant’s population has only increased by a little over a thousand people in a decade. As far as cities and urban populations go, that is not a significant amount. As Mount Pleasant becomes the new “centre of the city” it actively displaces its present residents, the residents who have made it a home.

Ironically, this concept of place that has given Mount Pleasant its identity for the past 30 years is being used to change it, as identities are re-appropriated to sell condos. Young hipsters enthusiastically attend a performance by DJ/Mayor Gregor Robertson at the Biltmore, while at the same time the cheap, aging buildings they inhabit get rezoned for condominiums. While it is useful to acknowledge the role of artists as “urban pioneers,” it is also important to differentiate between views of empty space and unimproved space.

Developers had previously viewed the Downtown Eastside as empty space, and residents had struggled to fight against this misconception.

Mount Pleasant, however, is not marketed as empty space. Rather, developers are portraying their new condos as welcome additions to an already vibrant neighbourhood. This is arguably another misconception, one that is tougher to distinguish and separate from the views of residents from outsiders.

Mount Pleasant’s transformation can seem blurry because it encompasses parts of the pre-existing cultural fabric in its implementation of gentrification and displacement.

So what are the stakes of all this? Itis crucial to understand that with every instance of rapid urban change also comes loss—loss of choice, loss of heritage, loss of nature, loss of affordable living space, loss of complex social relationships and a community constructed over time.

Surely one could argue that new places and new social worlds in Mount Pleasant will emerge alongside these new changes. But as we observe a historical pattern of rapid development, of maniacal growth, of dramatic place-changing, how does it serve our communities and ultimately ourselves by continually altering our surroundings, our environments, our identities?


Nick Blomley. “Property, Pluralism and the Gentrification Frontier” Candian Journal of Sociology No. 187 (1997) p. 193-197

Robert MacDonald. “Working Class Vancouver 1886-1914: Urbanism and Class in British Columbia” BC Studies(No. 69-70) 1986 p.33

Deryck Holdsworth. House and Home in Vancouver:The Emergence of West Coast Urban Landscape 1886-1929 Vancouver: UBC press. 1981

Bruce MacDonald. Vancouver: A Visual History Vancouver: Talon Books. 1992 p.23

Bruce Alexander. The Roots of Addiction in Free Market Society Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (April 2001)

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  • commented 2015-11-13 13:38:23 -0800
    Although a little slow to comment, I found this to be a very interesting article, and very well written. Thank you!
  • commented 2015-08-18 20:21:51 -0700
    Thank you, great story. I’ve lived here since 1991 and I’ve experienced the same sense of dis-ease. My residential street used to be families and people of colour. Now they seem mostly gone, and I see white people with coffee cups and ponytails walking dogs. My humble, 1970s-era, 3-storey building now hosts six illegal Airbnb hotel-outfitted suites – that’s 10 percent of the building. Suites that went for $850/month now go for as much as $3000 a month. In their reviews, the visitors rave about how >quiet< the neighbourhood is and how >handy< the nearby cafes are. I love this neighbourhood, but it stings in an unexplainable way. (Posted in memory of Terry Lowe, a passionate citizen of Mount Pleasant.)
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