Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gentrification: the series

One note before I start: I tend to hate New Years' resolutions, but I have a sort-of-resolution for 2013.  I really want to practice writing this year, to find my voice.  So my goal is to write a blog entry at least once a month.  I say this with fear and trembling... please hold me accountable!

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
As most of you know, I co-pastor a church that meets in a park on Union Street, in the Chinatown sub-district of the DTES.  We chose that location because many of our church members live in Solheim Place, a social housing building for families directly across the street from this park.  (This location also has an interesting history of gentrification and displacement in the 1960s, which I'll explain in one of the next posts in this series.)  During our first summer there, four years ago, there were two big holes next to the Solheim building, where two new condo developments were slated to go in: Ginger and V6A.  Over the next couple years, the condos were completed, and an influx of middle-income and high-income people moved in.

Douglas at work (photo from
A couple low-income businesses on the ground level of this block of Union Street closed their doors for good as the condos were being completed, including a barber named Douglas who did $9 haircuts.  He was especially popular among the low-income Chinese seniors in the neighbourhood.  A friend tells me that the owner of that property increased the rent until the barber had to leave, and sold it (presumably for a great price) to new owners.

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.

This is where gentrification gets complex and messy.  The thing is, there is a lot to like about Harvest Foods.  They sell organic, seasonal, local food.  They purchase from small Vancouver businesses with sustainable practices.  They buy produce from SOLEfoods, a DTES community garden organization that employs people in the neighbourhood, including someone from our church.  They've given money to Union Gospel Mission and are about to fundraise for the local school lunch program.  They have a few lower-priced items.  They actually tried to do some kind of neighbourhood consulting, which is more than you can say for most gentrifying businesses.  I've been there twice, and both times the staff were extremely friendly, even giving me and my friend a slice of pie for free.  I'm sure they would gladly welcome my low-income church friends from Solheim Place, were they to show up.  But the fact remains that none of my church friends can afford the quality groceries at Harvest Foods on a welfare budget of $26 a week for food.  I would wager that the barrier for them is even subtler than price - they do not feel that it is a space that's for them, that is catering to them.  And Douglas, the low-income barber who cut their hair, was kicked out to make space for it.  But I honestly believe no one meant any harm by it - in fact, the good people at Harvest Foods may have no idea that there have been any negative impacts.

Life & Color Salon, 233 Union St.
There is a new hairdresser on the block.  Last June, three doors down from Harvest Foods, Life & Color salon opened its doors.  But if the Chinese seniors still want haircuts, they'll have to shell out $40-75 from their $610 total monthly income.

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!


Tora Klassen said...

I'm looking forward to reading more of your thoughts, Beth! Thanks for diving into such a complex issue.

Anonymous said...

Eye-popping and heart opening... Thanks Beth!