I was surprised for my birthday this year with a trip to The Mackenzie Room, a haute Canadian cuisine restaurant with a rustic room. I had never been before, and I’d heard good things. The Mackenzie Room, on Powell Street, is located in Vancouver’s former Japantown, which is now part of the Downtown Eastside. It sits across from Oppenheimer Park, once home to the Vancouver Asahi, the Japanese-Canadian baseball team so skilled and innovative that it dominated the Pacific Northwest baseball scene from 1914 to 1941, when the team experienced a sharp and unexpected decline in form. As it turns out, it is difficult to compete when your whole entire team has been reassigned against their will—from their own homes to a government-funded internment camp, on account of being “Japanese.”
Oppenheimer Park is presently home to a tent city, estimated to contain approximately 120 tents. The contrast, then, from inside Mackenzie Room to outside the window in the park could not be more stark. It’s a chalkboard menu with wine pairings and most tables around you are going at it hard, degustation style; the food never seems to stop arriving. Towards the dessert course, guilt arrives, unannounced: the food was good, the cocktails better, but is gastronomic delight even supposed to be found, one wonders, when staring at a park where several hundred people live in a tent with nowhere else to go? To be fair, The Mackenzie Room isn’t the only high-end restaurant situated in the neighbourhood, nor is the sight of people sleeping rough unusual in East Vancouver. But nowhere is the contrast more glaring than it is here: even though old Japantown is architecturally one of the most historically rich neighbourhoods in Vancouver, it seems telling that in one of the city’s finest, street-level, exposed-brick kind of places, the best seats are all in the back of the house, away from the excessively tenty front windows.
The tent city of Oppenheimer Park has proliferated so drastically in the last two years that this year’s Powell Street Festival—which celebrates the Japanese-Canadian community that once existed there—had to relocate. The festival, which was held yesterday, on August 4, 2019, confined itself to the surrounding streets instead. As the organizers pointed out, a festival that celebrates the resilience of a displaced people cannot itself be contemporaneously responsible for displacing other people, especially not just for a one-day party. I doubt if dining at Mackenzie Room makes a person any more or less complicit than we all are, always already, of belonging to a society in which ridiculous and obscene disparity is a systemic permanence, and knowing that but not knowing what to do about it: at the same time, I think this is fair to say, eating there doesn’t maybe make you feel like you are trying your absolute best.