Main and Prior: art, punk, slums, condos

901 Main artists Dennis Brown and Eri Ishii in Ishii's studio

901 Main artists Dennis Brown and Eri Ishii in Ishii's studio

The dirty, noisy corner of Prior and Main, where conflicting pressures in the city’s life are grinding together, is seething with conflict and controversy.

The 901 Main artists, who highlighted Vancouver’s crisis in creative space with their 2008 campaign to fight eviction,  now confront a new threat, just one of the arguments raging among the communities living in parallel universes in this two-block area.

The activism of the 901 Main artists last year produced a commitment from Amacon, which wants to convert their studios to a private residence for Amacon’s owner, to provide new space at an upcoming heritage development further south on Main.

But Amacon wanted much higher rents at the new location and the talks foundered earlier this year. Now the developer is imposing major increases at 901 Main, forcing some artists out and placing the future of the entire group at risk. This for a building where the toilets often don’t work and residents bear the brunt of basic maintenance and security. The 901 group is a pillar of the Eastside Cultural Crawl.

The 901 Main building, a former BC Electric workers hostel built just before the First World War, stands above the Main St. off-ramp of the Georgia Viaduct, which nearly destroyed Chinatown and Strathcona in the 1970s. Across the street is a condominium project and the old American Hotel, boarded up after police a police crackdown on gangs and drug dealers several years ago.

Next door is the Cobalt Hotel, owned by the notorious Sahota family. The Cobalt is one of the properties that housing advocates think of when they call the Sahotas “slumlords.”

Some may want the Cobalt closed upstairs, but downstairs, where the punk rock bar programming is often organized by unsuccessful independent council candidate wendythirteen, there’s a grassroots campaign to Keep the Cobalt Open. The pro-Cobalt movement, which sees the 2010 Winter Olympic Games as the dark force threatening their venue, numbers more than 5,300 on Facebook.

In a recent issue of Vancouver’s excellent street paper Megaphone, wendythirteen reported noise complaints from neighbours had triggered three police calls in in less than a week. Was it noise from the bar or the shouts of distraught tenants upstairs?

No one was sure and city officials were unaware of the complaints, but wendythirteen is unready to help the Sahotas improve soundproofing: “I can’t afford it, nor am I willing to do it,” she told Megaphone. “The slumlords won’t fix their shit — why should I put money into fixing their building?”

She blames new residents in the latest Citygate tower behind the Cobalt for the complaints, a reasonable assumption given the top-of-market prices they paid to live next to an off-ramp and behind a skid road hotel with a punk rock bar.

The Citygate folks are doing their best, conducting periodic cleanups, needle collections and Keep Vancouver Spectacular anti-litter drives. These are duties formerly undertaken by the artists, who may soon leave.

Can’t these people all get along? Perhaps it’s time for a community meeting.

After all, they live there. The Sahotas and the Amacon owners do not.