Too much change in Van Eastside?

Herb Varley measures the transformation of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside by the trendy cafes, upscale grocery stores and high-priced salons that are quickly creeping from the city's maze of glass condo buildings toward the notorious intersection of Main and Hastings.

Fifty dollars for a haircut. Ten for sandwich. Three bucks for a doughnut.

An afternoon of that, and Varley, a 28-year-old who's currently living in social housing, would have spent away more than a quarter of the portion of his social assistance money that's set aside for food and other living expenses.

"There's a spa, there's a Brazilian jiu-jitsu place, these boutique shops that don't cater to low-income people," says Varley.

Varley, who was born in Vancouver but whose family is from the Nisga'a First Nation in the province's north, moved to the Downtown Eastside three years ago after a decade of sleeping on relatives' floors and friends' couches. He spent some time at a single-room occupancy hotel, living in a cramped room in a run-down building infested with bed bugs and cockroaches, before finding a suite recently in a native social housing building.

Last year, Varley joined the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council and waded into an emotional debate about the future of the area, which has revealed deep divisions between activists, residents and politicians over how to fix its problems and what kind of community it should be.

"We have a very large, low-income population down here, but developers are trying to upscale the neighbourhood," says Varley. "I don't know where we're supposed to go."

Varley, the neighbourhood council and other activists in the neighbourhood decry the recent push to build condos and attract new businesses to the Downtown Eastside as harmful gentrification, which they argue will increase the cost of living and displace the low-income people who have lived there for years.

Vancouver's city council, the provincial government and developers behind such projects say the Downtown Eastside is going through a rejuvenation that will help the neighbourhood thrive and will actually bring in more affordable and social housing.

The Downtown Eastside is a neighbourhood best known by outsiders through a series of cliches and grim news stories: Canada's poorest postal code, where its gritty streets and alleys are strewn with stories of poverty and addiction. The home of the safe-injection site. The hunting ground of Robert Pickton.

About 18,000 people live in the Downtown Eastside, a relatively large geographic area that also encompasses Gastown, Chinatown, and the residential area of Strathcona. The most troubled part is a section known as the Downtown-Eastside/Oppenheimer District, located between the area around the Main and East Hastings intersection and Oppenheimer Park a few blocks to the northeast.

The unemployment rate in the Downtown Eastside is 11.3 per cent and nearly two-thirds of residents are considered low-income, according to a neighbourhood profile on the City of Vancouver's website. In 2006, the median household income was $13,691, compared with roughly $48,000 for Vancouver as a whole.

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