For a while now, I've wanted to dedicate a post to gentrification, one of the most important and contentious realities in my neighbourhood today. I've written bits and pieces on it here (satirically) and here (when I moved in), but I've never really delved into it. I think the reason I've resisted writing about gentrification is that I don't feel sure of my convictions - I've felt conflicted about my own analysis and response to it. But I think it's time to tackle this topic.
One of my problems is that I have too many thoughts, so I'm going to embark on yet another series of posts. This post will be the introduction to gentrification. Then I'll examine some of the justifications I hear for gentrification. Finally, I'll take a theological approach and ask what our response to gentrification could look like.
What is gentrification? You'll get a different spin on it depending on whom you ask. Some might say it's neighbourhood revitalization. Others call it social cleansing. This video gives a tongue-in-cheek, cynical view of gentrification. It's a process that's happening in many poor urban centers worldwide. In North America, it usually begins when artists and hipsters (and - according to the video - lesbians!) move into inner-city, impoverished neighbourhoods that most middle- and upper-class people avoid or consider undesirable. Trendy restaurants and coffee shops pop up. Real estate developers track the new interest, build condos and re-brand the neighbourhood as "edgy" and "affordable." Landlords renovate old low-income housing buildings and increase the rent, resulting in the "renovictions" of people who once lived there but can no longer afford it. Property values increase in the surrounding area, so that even in surviving low-income housing buildings, rents go up. New businesses move in, catering to wealthier people, and security guards are posted. Poorer people are eventually priced out of the neighbourhood, which is now so transformed that it doesn't even seem like their neighbourhood anymore. But it's prettier, "safer," and business is definitely booming.
The situation in Vancouver is amplified by the reality that developers are running out of room to build in the downtown core. But there are plenty of people who would be happy to live in close proximity to downtown, like, say, just east of it, in the neighbourhood I live in, the Downtown Eastside (DTES). Gentrification has been happening here over the last several years, and the pace is accelerating. Now condo developments have been built or announced at each edge of the neighbourhood, and even right in the middle of it. Every week or so I see brand new restaurants and stores - places whose decor and prices indicate that they do not seek to attract the clientele of the low-income majority currently living in the neighbourhood.
|A kid from church running through the park, pre-V6A condos|
|Douglas at work (photo from http://scoutmagazine.ca)|
These new owners had the idea to consult the neighbourhood about what kind of business they wanted there, saying it "reduces risk for business investment, and provides added pressure for the business to act accountably in the neighbourhood." They posted their web address on the vacant store window, asking people to vote in their online poll. And lots of people did. Well, people who regularly use computers and the internet, so... maybe not so many Chinese seniors and low-income people. Eventually the idea of a grocery store and eatery won out, and that space became Harvest Community Foods, which the condo dwellers (and others passing through on the bike route) seem to really enjoy.
|Life & Color Salon, 233 Union St.|
I will return to this Union Street case study over the next few weeks and months, as I deconstruct some of the justifications for gentrification, and as I ask how Christians in particular should or could respond to gentrification. Please stick with me!