Money Tree

Money Tree
Brian McBay

A lot of streets that are too wide end up engaging with its pedestrian traffic only along its length – relying on the crosswalk as a bridge to the other side. However, Commercial Drive is narrow enough to easily cross the street, creating meaningful friction that might be key to its success. Successful, as a means of generating profits – but also having ‘community’ forces that mark out aesthetics and practices. This is what people might mean when they speak about Commercial Drive as a space for ‘alternative’ economies. Where, perhaps capital comes after community? Or at least a conception that Commercial drive is a unique space for community-based businesses, rather than on paper, behind closed doors by a group of enterprising branders. In this way, there is a nervousness around the loss the commercial drive from the networks of left leaning people. How long can it hold out before its taken over by new slick branded shops scrub the streets and pave the way for something more typical?

On the corner of 1st and Commercial Drive is a new business. It is a single story, but has ceilings that are at least 20’ tall. The building has newly installed double-paned vertical windows that run the length of the building, and the floors are newly tiled. Fluorescent lights produce a clean and white light that can be seen from the street. And a shiny new sign hangs above the doorway. It’s ‘Money Tree’, a cheque cashing business that appears to have spent a pretty penny cleaning up the space. A couple years back, I met a fellow who invested in one of these businesses. He told me that in the 90s, he put down $15,000 as a shareholder to get the business going and that was the best thing he did. People cringe when they see the new space as they walk by. I’m curious though, how will this new enterprise change Commercial Drive?

November 20, 2011, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a walk with Charles Demers. Raised in the Commercial Drive neighbourhood, I imagined he would protest the new business. Instead, Demers made a comment that struck me about this space. He said that the Money Tree is a good thing for the drive – not because the US-based companies website states that:

Moneytree has earned its industry leadership position by working toward its mission of exceeding customers’ expectations, creating a professional work environment and making a positive impact on the communities in which we live and work.

But because – it reiterates a lower- and middle-class zone – a space, not ready for gentry that is the cause of the nervousness. Since then, I have begun to think of the power of ‘middle-enterprises’. Enterprises associated with exploitative forms of business that are deemed borderline criminal, or have a lot of physical impact on the neighbourhood but very little business success. For example, malls such as Tinseltown were designed to usher in change in the DTES but instead were left half vacant and worked instead to perhaps reduce the speed of gentrification. These middle-enterprises come into the neighbourhood and are powerful in as a means of reinforcing urban spaces for a particular type of use or business. Making it all the more difficult to ‘flip’ the neighbourhood. In other words, if you want to keep your middle-class neighbourhood from changing, start a horrible business.