Heading to the Downtown Eastside for the swankiest party of the Games

Bob Rennie's bash drew Iggy, Olympians, and protesters

Michael Ignatieff looks slightly stunned as he pushes his way into the packed reception at Bob Rennie’s fantabulous private art gallery in the Downtown Eastside with his wife Zsuzsanna on Wednesday afternoon. “Is this a church?,” he asks, gazing upward at the soaring ceilings and high windows that permitted beatific light. Then he went into scholarly mode: “Because the analogy would be apt.”

The question too is apt. Rennie, a ridiculously rich 51-year-old condo developer and big-time art collector, has God-like status in this city. He’s been called Vancouver’s most influential citizen. The money helps. Last year, Rennie Marketing Systems generated over $1.5 billion in sales. But the boyish entrepreneur also makes things happen. When New York architect Robert Stern’s design for the Olympic Village got panned, Rennie had him fired and replaced by his pal, Arthur Erickson. His big project is the Downtown Eastside, Canada’s poorest postal code. Rennie pushed through the redevelopment of the Woodward building which now houses Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts, social housing and retail space. And he poured tens of millions into renovating Chinatown’s oldest structure, the Wang Sing Building which dates back to 1889.  The condemned space was in such derelict condition workers had to wear hazard suits.

Now it’s his headquarters and a private gallery for his renowned collection of socially conscious contemporary art. During the Games, the gallery has been taken over by the World Olympians Association, an alumni group founded by the IOC, which is using it as a place for former Olympians to hang out. For the duration, Rennie’s collection is in storage and the walls are covered with an exhibit of splendid photographs taken at the Beijing Games.

Because Rennie is a guy who likes to make things happen, he decided to throw an afternoon shindig in the middle of the Games, a kind of social summit to bring together communities that don’t generally mingle—Olympic mucky-mucks, athletes, artists, politicians, arts administrators, and social activists from the community, many of whom opposed the Games. And because Bob asked them, they came, even with the big Canada-Russian hockey game about to start (it was broadcast on the wall).

Hundreds packed into the space, among them current mayor Gregor Robinson Robertson, former mayor Senator Larry Campbell, Canada Olympic Committee CEO Chris Rudge, city councilor Kim Capri, Team Canada medalists Maëlle Ricker and Mike Robertson. Caitlin Jones, the executive director of artist-run Western Front, wearing a “I’m cranky about BC arts cuts” button stood next to Liberal insider Patrick Kinsella.

When Ignatieff arrives, Rennie leaps over to give him a quick hug. “He’s my new best friend,” the real estate developer boasts. Ignatieff dropped by to chat with him earlier in the week, Rennie explains, and ended up staying for an hour and a half. Such is the power of Bob.

Rennie is in his element as host, addressing the crowd about the galvanizing power of the Games, the thrill of just walking down the street. “It’s socially acceptable now to have a conscience,” he tells the group.

Already the gallery has become a landmark. Rennie tells me Rudge approached him last October, after it opened, asking if the COC could use the space for Canada Olympic House, a retreat for Canadian athletes and their families. The idea of bringing the team to the off-the-track Downtown Eastside pleased him, he said. Creating a place that would bring people who wouldn’t otherwise step foot in the area was his goal, he says. So he was less happy when the Hudson’s Bay Company ended up putting the retreat in its flagship downtown store. “It is a big sponsor,” Rudge explains later.

The mood in the room is buoyant—about the Games and Rennie’s ambitions for the neighbourhood, though a few people express disappointment they weren’t going to get a peak of Rennie’s famous collection.

Carrie Belanger of 411 Senior Centre, a drop-in for senior citizens in the neighbourhood, tells me her concerns about the Olympics—that it would bring congestion that would limit her clients’ access—proved mostly unfounded. “There has been some inconvenience but the energy has been fabulous,” she says. VANOC has been generous with tickets for her clients: “Never in a million years would they have access to sporting and cultural events.”

Minister Ric Matthews of First United Church Mission around the corner believes Rennie is trying to bridge the space between the elite that attends the Olympics and people in the margins. What he wants is to find a middle ground that will also preserve the low-income neighbourhood. “It’s protecting space so people feel at home.”

Ron Burnett, president of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, is more hopeful. “If we can create a cultural impact in the area, we can help homelessness,” he says. “You can’t see a solution if you stay away.” The risk, he allows, is that gentrification will drive up property values and push out residents who have no other place to go. “It’s a challenging problem. But I think the city has made an amazing effort in buying land and hotels and creating a sense of momentum.” He cites the revitalization of New York’s Bowery, as an example: “You create a democratic space—a sense of participation from all classes.”

Rennie’s critics, of whom there are many in this town, are here too—outside, where a handful of protesters picketed with signs reading “Resort City Trend Sped Up by Olympics” and “Bob, we want social housing not condos.”

Rider Cooey, a protester wearing a “2010 Welfare Olympics” t-shirt, says Rennie’s pattern is to gentrify and condo-ize. The Downtown Eastside is his latest target. “This building is his vanity project,” he says, “He’s a marketer. The more he gets those quotes out about making a difference in the neighbourhood, the more successful he’ll be.”

Jean Swanson, coordinator of Carnegie Community Action Project, a neighbourhood community centre, has tangled with Rennie in the past. “Who does it benefit?” she asks of the gallery. “Maybe it makes the area look prettier. Meanwhile, residents are being pushed out, rents in crummy hotels are running $800 a month.”  A mapping project found 95 per cent want to live here—with good housing, she says. “They like the non-judgmental nature of it; they’re stigmatized in other neighbourhoods.”

As I talk with them, Rennie’s guests keep coming and going through doors guarded by police. No one who walks down the street here can escape the complexity of the challenge: a block from the single-room occupancy hotel Balmoral, there’s Bombast, a swank furniture store selling $3,500 sofas. And in between the streets are filled with homeless for whom the neighbourhood is home, at least for now.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.