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People’s court 

Two longtime tenants of Scotia Square’s food court were surprised with eviction notices last week. What does trading local businesses for franchises say about our community?

click to enlarge CHRISTIN ROPER
  • Christin Roper

Halifax is a city of stories. There are the stories of history, the stories from our writers, our musicians. But most important are our collective stories, the stories we tell to explain what this city is about, who we are. Here's one such story: A young immigrant from Lebanon shows up in town with nothing much except pluck, a work ethic and a damn good falafel recipe. He scrapes together enough coin to rent a lunch stall at Scotia Square, and he puts his nose to the grindstone, working day after day, for 31 years. An affable man, he's well-liked. He raises a family. He's one of us.

It's a good story, and even better because it's true. The story of Ray Khattar, owner of Ray's Lebanese Cuisine in Scotia Square Mall, speaks to the best of Halifax. We can be a welcoming place, a place where anyone from anywhere on earth can make it.

Sure, we're a small city, and our conservative tastes don't leave a lot of room for international food, especially if the purveyors have to pay the high rents of a stand-alone restaurant. But the food court serves as a mediator, a place where non-adventurous diners can step outside their comfort zone and discover the wonders of Ray's Lebanese, Taste of India, Korea Garden. So on the food front, Halifax will never be a New York or a Toronto, but on a little half-acre downtown, our best social side, that welcoming side of the city, comes together with international flair, and hot damn that's good food.

But no more. Last week, Crombie REIT, which manages the mall, gave Ray's Lebanese Cuisine and Taste of India until March 31 to vacate the premises. "I've been here 31 years, and I have never missed a rent payment, not one month," Khattar says.

Khattar says he was told Crombie is focusing on getting more franchised operations into the food court. That seems to be consistent with recent events: In 2011, PG's was evicted in order to reconfigure the food court to accommodate a Tim Hortons. Last month, a McDonald's opened. The unconfirmed rumour is a Subway will replace Ray's and Taste of India.

Crombie did not return a call for comment.

Ray's and Taste are falling victim to a second story we've been telling about ourselves lately. It goes like this: Halifax can be a player on the world stage, and if we dump enough money into enticing companies to set up offices here---off-shore firms that bundle and sell fictitious financial instruments---then we'll become an "international financial centre," the "next Singapore."

This second story is a delusion, but it fits perfectly into the financialization of everything over the past 20 years. The real economy sucks, so we prop it up with various financial bubbles. Right now, every Canadian city has a building boom, with dozens of construction cranes over every downtown, even though there's no increased demand for commercial space and incomes aren't rising to match rents or condo prices.

Inevitably, the real estate bubble will pop, but for the moment there's a lot of dough dumped into "real estate investment trusts," one of which is Crombie REIT. And what matters to REITs is maximum quarterly return to investors, period.

We'll never know exactly what's behind the decision to evict Ray's and Taste of India from the food court and bring in big chain franchisees. A deal with the chains to get space in Crombie properties nationwide? Do the Sobeys own the franchises? Whatever the reason, it correlates with that second story we tell about ourselves, that we need to commodify our city, sell our collective soul, in order to "put Halifax on the map."

The stories we tell about ourselves matter. Me, I like the story about the plucky immigrant and the good lunch.

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