Seniors come first at Antonio Ashori’s Downtown Eastside pub.
“This is a grandfather’s pub,” Ashori says with a wave of his hand, his graying hair and youthful demeanor reflected in the atmosphere he’s created.
Walking into the Empress is a bit like walking into an episode of Cheers.
The big difference is most of the patrons have white hair.
“These people here, they’re not who you see on the street,” he says.
Two years ago when he bought the hotel and pub, he banned fighting and dealing. The Empress was home to trouble makers.
This safer, cleaner Empress has now attracted many retired and senior clients living in the Downtown Eastside.
They are the people who used to spend their days and nights in single room occupancy hotel rooms alone. They used to “wake up in the morning and have nothing to do”.
When Ashori, 50, immigrated to Canada from Iran in 1995, he left many friends and relatives behind.
He knew what it was like to be alone.
Today, he watches how the aging clients in his pub turn to each other for support in their old age. He recognizes the importance of maintaining a community taproom that is secure and conducive to friendship.
“[These people] don’t deserve to suffer,” Ashori says. “I’m just feeling it myself: I’ll work hard in this country and after that I’ll get old and then be like the leftover food on a plate where I’ll be put in the garbage.”
When other bars in the area became rougher, Terry Hanley and her husband gravitated towards a place where there were “lots of old men sitting around”.Hanley is a regular at the Empress. She said old people don’t want to drink in a chaotic environment where they could get injured.
“How you can tell if a bar is safe or not is by how many people walk around,” Hanley says. “If there are people walking around all the time, you know they’re drug dealing. But if most of the people are sitting down drinking, then you know it’s a safe bar.”
Hanley, 61, notes that many seniors don’t have big pensions and have limited mobility.
“It’s the closest bar to home, the toilets are usually clean — I rate every bar on its toilets — and it’s affordable,” Hanley says. “I live next door to [the strip club] Number Five Orange, but I can’t afford seven bucks for a beer and I’m not interested in looking at strippers.”
Ashori takes action day-by-day to keep up a welcoming environment. When he’s not at the pub, he takes trips to the local hardware store to buy supplies to improve the building.
There’s never a wobbly chair or sticky table in the Empress.
“In my country, there is a poem that says: if I die, you bring me 100 flowers to put on my grave. But remember me right now with one single flower. Don’t wait for me to die for you to put flowers on my grave. Remember me right now when I’m alive.”
The City Of Vancouver appears to be taking up Ashori’s lead.The city is monitoring the Downtown Eastside, among other areas, in order to determine seniors’ future needs.
Current senior centers in East Hastings include the Carnegie Community Center and the Vancouver Second Mile Society.
According to Mary Clare Zak, Director of Social Planning, the City of Vancouver will be discussing how to plan for social facilities such as senior centers.
The process involves looking at the needs of demographic populations and determining the infrastructure for social, housing and meeting-place facilities.
“It’s important, as Vancouver citizens, to have a strong not-for-profit sector as a part of our mix in the city, in terms of our being able to support livability,” Zak says. “The other reason for our social infrastructure plan is to ensure that [seniors] have a space in the city as well as social services.”
This is the kind of approach Ashori takes every day at the Empress. He believes that it’s everyone’s job to make sure seniors “always have somewhere to go when they wake up”.