Gulzar Nanda remembers how the smells of sweets and gunpowder mixed together when he was a kid running around during the annual Diwali celebration in Vancouver’s Punjabi Market, while colourfully dressed neighbours ate desserts and lit firecrackers.“It was crazy. I’m talking hundreds of people … It was loud, it was fun and everybody was here,” Nanda said Thursday, standing on the sidewalk outside the Hi-Class Jewellers shop his family has run for 35 years, which now sits next to one of the block’s vacant storefronts. “It was the shop-keeps, their kids, people who lived in the neighbourhood.”Those Diwali celebrations in the Punjabi Market petered out in the 2000s, recalls Nanda, a 29-year-old member of the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective.“It was completely grassroots,” Nanda said. “And it doesn’t happen anymore.”
Gulzar Nanda with his mother Seema at the family business, Hi-Class Jewellers, on June 27. Vancouver city council unanimously passed a motion this month seeking to revitalize the Punjabi Market.
NICK PROCAYLO /
Next May will mark 50 years since Sucha Singh Claire opened a sari and fabric shop in what is now known as the Punjabi Market, and as this neighbourhood, which locals describe as the first large South Asian market outside South Asia, heads into this milestone anniversary, its future is unclear.During its heyday in the 1990s, the area’s commercial hub along South Main and Fraser streets boasted more than 300 shops. By 2016, a City of Vancouver retail analysis reported up to a third of its storefronts were vacant. Over the decades, Surrey, with its cheaper rents and booming South Asian population, became the Metro region’s Punjabi business hub, particularly in Newton.Last week, Vancouver city council unanimously passed a motion aiming to revitalize the Punjabi Market. The motion, introduced by Green. Coun. Pete Fry, directs city staff to consult with local community groups to identify “quick wins” such as public-realm improvements, before next year’s 50th anniversary celebration.In addition to those quick wins, Fry and other city councillors at a news conference Thursday outside city hall mentioned working with the B.C. government on ways to reduce property-tax burdens for independent businesses, but discussions on that front have been underway now for several years and have so far been neither quick nor wins.But considering Vancouver property values today, what can the city do to revitalize this kind of neighbourhood, and preserve its so-called “heritage businesses”?
From left, Daljit Sidhu, Kewal Pabla and Harinder Singh Toor stroll on Main Street on June 27 as Vancouver city council unanimously passed a motion this month seeking to revitalize the Punjabi Market.
NICK PROCAYLO /
It’s a question Vancouver and other expensive North American cities have already been trying to grapple with in other neighbourhoods. Vancouver formed a dedicated Chinatown Transformation Team last September, intended to “implement actions that focus on living heritage and culture for a vibrant Chinatown.” Earlier this month that team held a series of events asking the public to share their favourite “Hidden Gems of Chinatown,” drawing the participation of hundreds of community members, said city planner Helen Ma.Meanwhile, a “Chinatown legacy business review” previously underway has now been rolled into a larger city-wide study of the challenges facing small businesses, said Chris Robertson, assistant director of city-wide and regional planning. This includes a review of “policy responses” such as the potential to designate certain “legacy businesses” that could receive some kind of city support.San Francisco, another city whose ethnic enclaves and historic neighbourhoods are threatened by soaring rents, launched a “legacy business program” in 2015 through which city hall can nominate long-running businesses, and their landlords, to be eligible for grants.The Punjabi Market has enjoyed some support from city hall over the years, including the installation of what locals say are some of the first Punjabi-language official street signs outside South Asia. But there were other initiatives — like a proposal for an “India Gate” monument at the edge of the neighbourhood, similar to the one marking Chinatown’s entrance — that the government discussed years ago, but never came to fruition.
An artist’s rendering of the proposed India Gate at East 50th Avenue and Main Street in the Punjabi Market area Vancouver on April 17, 2008.
A business doesn’t need to have South Asian heritage to be a valued community asset in the Punjabi Market. Nanda and a group of locals in their 20s and 30s chatting on Main Street on Thursday pointed to the well-loved Roots Cafe, currently run by a local Filipino family.But Roots, and other neighbourhood businesses, face challenges familiar to independent retailers all over town. While recent and planned real estate developments in the Punjabi Market will bring new people and money to the area, they’re also the source of concern here. A big new development is more likely to replace long-running community institutions with its construction, than it’s to make room for mom-and-pop stores in its retail space when it opens.The recently completed six-storey, retail-and-residential building on the southwest corner of Main Street and East 49th Avenue is an example. Where the iconic awning of All India Sweets once stood, a Tim Hortons recently opened — directly across the street from Roots Cafe.A sign in the Roots Cafe window reads: “We grew up right here. Corner of 47th and St. George … We just hope, in some way, we can give back to this neighbourhood. Because it’s worth it. And it’s very good to be home.”firstname.lastname@example.org/fumano