Improving the Punjabi Market despite pandemic

Community members are optimistic among revitalization efforts

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By Marilyn Reichert

This story has been updated to include comments from Pete Fry, Vancouver councillor and Michael Lee, Vancouver-Langara MLA.

A group of volunteers and business owners remain hopeful the Punjabi Market will experience a renaissance, despite the challenges of the pandemic.

Jag Nagra, creative director of the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective, was concerned the vibrant market of her childhood was being neglected.

“It looks quite rundown compared to the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Nagra said. “We don’t want to walk down the street in the future and say, this is where Punjabi Market used to be.”

Nagra’s concerns led her to network with local business owners.

The collective approached the city for help in 2019. In response, supported by Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry, the city passed a motion declaring May 31, 2020, the market’s 50th anniversary, as Punjabi Market Day.

“We were hoping to have a huge festival, but everything got shut down with the pandemic. All of a sudden, our big dreams came to a halt,” Nagra said.

The collective is now working with arts organizations to bring in more foot traffic. Four art murals in the market were part of the 2021 Murals in the Market initiative by the collective. More are expected in 2022.

The collective, in partnership with the Indian Summer Festival, organized a self-guided walking tour. Visitors using their phones can take a narrated walk through the market to learn about the rich history of the neighbourhood.

“How do we capture the magic, symbolism and importance of this part of the city,” Fry said. “If you went back 50 years, it was quite groundbreaking what was happening here.”

The Vancouver Punjabi Market, located on Main Street between 49th Avenue and 52nd Avenue, was the first of its kind in North America, Fry said.

“There is a renaissance of young South Asian culture, purveyors and sponsors wanting to see this regeneration happen.”

Business owners waiting for change

Madan Dhingla, his wife, and a part-time employee serve few customers at their store, Mona Cloth House.

“We have been here since 1990. Before the pandemic we had six employees,” Madan Dhingla said. “All the weddings were put on hold . . . what we are selling is all for special functions. And nothing has happened for the two years, no tourists, no local weddings.”

Dhingla said the city had not done enough for business owners. “So far, there’s more talk than anything,” he said.

But other shop owners like Yared Nigussu are hopeful the Punjabi Market will experience its rebirth.

Nigussu opened his Art Lab Studio four years ago.

“I think the Punjabi Market used to be vibrant. It just disappeared,” Nigussu said.

Importance of cultural heritage

Michael Lee, Vancouver-Langara MLA, credited initiatives that have managed to prosper despite the pandemic.

“I think the mural fest has been a tremendous success . . . and the walking tour, that has been another great initiative. There are lots of good activities I believe that can bring people back,” Lee said.

“These are historic places that are part of the cultural fabric of our city…I think it enriches our lives to be part of such a diverse community,” said the MLA, whose office is in the market. “When we lose our heritage, when we lose our cultural places of gathering, and touch points like this, we start to lose the soul of our communities.”

Watch the video above to hear Jag Nagra and Pete Fry discuss the efforts to add arts and culture to the neighbourhood.

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