Tuesday, December 31, 2013

20 Songs I Liked This Year (PART 2)

Here's the rest of the songs I liked this year, continuing on from the last post in alphabetical order...

Hold On We're Going Home by Drake ft. Majid Jordan

I don't actually know why I like this song.  I'm not a big Drake fan, though I guess this song is pretty different from most of his stuff anyway.  Maybe because Danice has played it so much and it's just worked its way into my heart.  It was released just before Danice & I came out publicly, and I found it calming in that chaotic time.  Hold on, we're going home.

Lisa Baby by Walk the Moon

Walk the Moon is another example of a band I discovered through PS22, and a good example of a band I like that Danice is fairly indifferent towards, but she came to their concert anyway, with me & Cara, and had a relatively good time, except during the one song she hates (I Can Lift a Car - the one I linked to above - because, as she says, who can actually lift a car all by themselves?  I told her it's a metaphor, but she still doesn't like it.)  I feel too old to like Walk the Moon, as evidenced by the average age of people at their concert, but I think they write good hooks, play tight, sing a good falsetto, and put on an energetic show.

Only Love by Ben Howard

I think I first heard Ben Howard this year through a roommate's influence, but I can't remember which one (Sharlene? Britney? Cara?), and ended up downloading his whole album.  His album is great particularly for chill times, like when I was doing a puzzle with my family last week.  This is a simple, repetitive song, but it's so beautiful and entrancing.  I recently looked up a video of him playing the song, in an attempt to learn it myself, and discovered (after staring at his strange fingerings in confusion) that he is a lefty guitarist.  So that's another point in his favour.

 Pilot Me by Josh Garrels

I first heard this re-worked hymn at Britney & Jordan's wedding, during the signing of the registry, so it carries instant memories of that beautiful May day.  It was also what forced me to finally listen to this Josh Garrels that everyone had talked about.  Remember my love for falsetto?  This guy has falsetto.  Ulysses is another favourite of mine, but I can't sing it because it goes too high and too low for me.  His concert at St. Andrew's Wesley church was not only a hip-Christians-of-Vancouver reunion - it provided breathtakingly beautiful acoustics for a gorgeous voice.

 Retrograde by James Blake

This might be my favourite song of the year, and I discovered it randomly on my Facebook feed.  I then played it at my office desk literally 20 times on repeat.  That flighty and plaintive hummed riff... the alternately faint and punchy vocals... the sparseness on either side of the big synth part... the moment when the synth drops, and the moment when it disappears... I have no idea what he's singing about, but I'm hooked.  Can't convince Danice on this one, either, but at least Cara is with me - it's GOOD.

 Suit & Tie by Justin Timberlake ft. Jay-Z

This one takes me back to our Grammy party, when we first heard the song and saw it performed with JT and those snazzy, jazzy dancers.  I remember Jenny Toews, Jacquie and Danice going crazy.  I remember thinking that I could maybe finally legitimately like JT's music, a couple decades after most of my peers.  This has become a dance party favourite, and Danice and I also splurged to see JT & Jay-Z do it live with thousands of other Vancouverites at BC Place this summer.  Here's the equally impressive SNL performance.

Unbelievers by Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend seems like a pretentious band to like, but I can't help it - their music makes me instantly happy.  Who else could make such a profound reflection on the reality that most Christians think most people on earth are going to burn in hell forever, and do it to such a peppy melody and beat?  For some reason I can't handle the whiny background melody on the equally profound Ya Hey, so this track is the one I've listened to instead.

Where's the Fun in Forever by Miguel

I think Danice first played this for me on our road trip down to Los Angeles to visit Kat, as a break from all the West Coast hip hop she wanted me to be exposed to on our drive.  I was struck by the awesome bass line in this song, and asked her to write it down on the list of songs I wanted to steal from her once we had access to our computers again.  It's smooth R&B at its best.  And it's much better than the one with a hashtag where he sings with a very scantily-clad Mariah Carey.  What's the deal with the girl-on-your-motorcycle trend in pop music?

The Wire by Haim

This is a late entry on my list... One day, a few weeks ago, Danice said, "I think you'd like Haim.  You should check them out."  She knows me well.  I have been liking the tight sound of the drum-machine/hand-clap trend lately.  This one puts that to good use, and has a very singable chorus, and an over-the-top but funny video.  And they've got the sibling thing drawing me in again.  But I gotta say, their live performance on SNL left a lot to be desired.  I think I like them only after their sound has been well-produced.  :)

You Ain't Alone by Alabama Shakes

A good way to end the list.  As we head into the new year, you ain't alone.  And if you ever feel alone, or like you don't fit in or belong, check out a video of Brittany Howard, lead singer of the Alabama Shakes.  She is one of the most surprising human beings I've encountered this year.  She definitely doesn't "fit in" in terms of traditional pop star proportions or personalities, but she is so, so, so wonderful and talented and humble and unabashedly herself.  At their concert back in March, I couldn't take my eyes off her.  She blew my socks off - I felt like I was watching a living legend.  And she's only 23.

Monday, December 30, 2013

20 Songs I Liked This Year (first installment)

Most of the music I listen to, I listen to because Danice introduces me to it.  This is very convenient for me, because I have very little drive to actually discover new music on my own.  Danice loves making best-of lists at the end of the year.  I made a list of my own this year, and for some reason (likely egomania, but hopefully a drive to share what I love), I want to put it here on my blog.

These are not the best songs of 2013 (some of them didn't even come out this year, and many are guilty pleasures).  Rather, they're the ones that got stuck in my head in 2013, the ones that instantly bring back memories of 2013, and the ones I hope I'll revisit in future years.

Oh yeah, and only five of them overlap with Danice's list.  I am my own person!

In alphabetical order, here are the first 10.


Afterlife by Arcade Fire

Danice bought this album last month right before our trip to visit Lexi and Lindsey in Victoria.  This song stood out for both of us as being the catchiest and most hopeful.  They're right - "afterlife" is an awful word.  I also loved this video, and how it surprised me by breaking the fourth wall.

Again by John Legend

This was the first year I got into John Legend.  No idea why it took me so long.  I had a live performance of this one on repeat for a while earlier this year, just soaking up this guy's sultry vocal poetry and sometimes-sloppy-in-the-heat-of-the-moment broken piano chords.  Love all the dynamics he drags me through.

Can't Hold Us by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

My sisters, Danice and I had some great discussions this summer about Macklemore and the complexities of privilege and ally-ship and advocacy in the wake of Same Love.  I'm still a little hesitant about being a full-on Macklemore fan, but this song made me want to dance this year, and carries absolutely zero controversy.  Couldn't get the "naa naa na-na naa na-na-na" part out of my head.  The video is a lot of fun, too.

Closer by Tegan & Sara

Yes, I'm a lesbian, and I'm supposed to like Tegan & Sara, but I can't get into their earlier music.  Even this newer more successful album didn't hook me.  But this song was different.  I saw the video, and it made me so genuinely happy, because it reminded me of the best of our dance parties.  I successfully recreated the poofy pink streamer ceiling decoration at our Valentine's Day house dance party.

 Dance in the Graveyards by Delta Rae

I'm a PS22 fan - if you haven't heard of them, google them.  Sometimes I'm introduced to music by watching videos of PS22 singing with bands, and that's how I discovered Delta Rae.  I got hooked on their video of the gritty song Bottom of the River with PS22, but Dance in the Graveyards was the much more hopeful song that I actually downloaded and listened to.  Most of their stuff reminds me of sappy CCM bands, but what can I say - I have a soft spot for sibling harmonies.  Disclaimer: this video kind of sucks.

Drunk in Love by Beyonce

Beyonce's surprise album drop a couple weeks ago meant an absolute derailing of my Friday morning with Danice, as all our plans got pushed back by a video-watching session.  I have since watched them through a few times, and they're pretty incredible, though more explicitly about sex than her previous material.  They have inspired excellent debates in my house about whether Beyonce can really call herself a feminist if she plays into patriarchy by using her nearly-naked body to market her music, and whether she can tell us to love our bodies no matter what when she herself is so stereotypically beautiful, and how she can possibly sustain a healthy monogamous marriage when she lets the whole world see every part of this aforementioned body.  Debates aside, this music is going to be playing on my iTunes for a long time.  And with the exception of the "surfboard" part, I love this song and the way it makes married sex sound sexy.

Electric Lady by Janelle Monae

Here's a woman I can definitely call a feminist, and who regularly challenges traditional ideas of beauty and patriarchy.  Her concert a couple years ago proved to me that she's a freakin genius.  This song will remind me of the drive up to Whistler with Danice last month, where we got engaged.  The riff on "way-ay-ay-ay-ay down" is regularly in my head.

Fam Jam by Shad

I get a little fan-girl-ish talking about Shad because he's the most talented artist who has ever skirted the edges of my world - he goes to church with a bunch of my friends, and I was in a class with him once.  I know, I know, I'm almost famous.  His Flying Colours is the first hip hop album I've actually listened to slowly, looking up the lyrics, delighting over each clever move and double-entendre.  I could have picked many songs off the album (verse 3 of Stylin! seriously!), but this one has the best video.  He is at the top of his game, but he never takes himself too seriously...

Get Lucky by Daft Punk

Most danceable song of 2013.  I know, it's everywhere, but I can't help loving it.  And I especially enjoy the fact that Danice got in hot water for playing it in a DJ set at a youth retreat. 

Green Garden by Laura Mvula

Laura's music is some of the most uniquely beautiful I've heard this year, as is her striking face.  She surprised me especially with her jazzy and sometimes discordant vocal chords.  This album is pretty sleepy, in a good way, with a lot of slower, relaxing, study-to-able music.  But this track gets you moving.  And the video is one of the best I've seen all year.


Next 10 coming soon!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sermon for the Holy Fools

Hi guys,

Some folks have been asking to read a piece I had published in Geez magazine this month.  It was written for a "Sermons you would never hear in church" contest.  First, the disclaimers and fine print:

1: I don't know if you can really call it a "sermon" with a 750 word limit.  And sermons are meant to be spoken, not written & read, in my opinion.
2: I believe the purpose of a sermon is to open up Scripture and let it breathe in our lives.  I don't explicitly do that here - it's more autobiographical for the purposes of the contest.  Nevertheless, I believe there is some Good News (gospel) in it.

3: When I wrote this back in August, I was coming out publicly, and I had strong thoughts & feelings.  I still do, but know that these things shift and settle somewhat as time passes.

4: This is the version I submitted - the version they published was edited somewhat, including a title change.

5: Even though I'm posting this here, you should still go out and buy (and subscribe to) Geez!  It's a fringes-of-church kind of publication that never fails to make me think, even when I vehemently disagree with the columnists.

Ok enough!  Here it is....


Sermon for the Holy Fools

“You’re a holy fool.”

I hardly ever trust those next-thought-that-pops-into-your-head-is-God’s-message-to-you exercises.  But a year ago, I was on retreat, that’s what they told us to do, and that’s what I heard.

At the time, it made me laugh.  I interpreted it as a divine “lighten up”.  More recently, though, I wondered if “holy fool” had deeper meaning.  Google unearthed some intriguing Russian Orthodox saints who claimed the title, but they didn’t seem to have much in common with me.  

So what kind of holy fool am I?

I am a fool in love.  I am a female pastor who fell in love with another female pastor at an evangelical seminary.  We spent five years standing at a crossroads.  Would we love in a celibate, closeted way, and seek ordination in our denomination?  Or would we love in a romantic, hopefully eventually married way, and be disqualified?

Yesterday, we told everyone we’re gay and in love, irreversibly becoming (in the minds of many) two women pointing their love all in the wrong directions and calling it good.  We have become the Lesbian Pastors, our sexuality suddenly overshadowing all our other legitimate character traits.  We have been called saints for our ministry among the addicted, the homeless, and the teenaged, but by revealing that we ourselves belong in a marginalized group, we will be called sinners and fools.

Being gay is not foolish; we couldn’t have chosen otherwise.  What’s foolish is when two pastors reveal they’re gay when they could have easily hidden and progressed in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” world of evangelicalism.  Even more foolish: two gay pastors pursuing marriage mostly because it seems right to the Holy Spirit and to them, because they can’t imagine how their mutually sacrificial love increases the overall sin quotient of humanity.  How foolish, like the Virgin herself, to proceed on this reputation-destroying course after having an experience of God they can’t conclusively validate in Scripture; to have nothing to lean on except this mischievous God, and the few would-be Elizabeths in their lives who call them blessed.

While this “fool” role is new to me, the “holy” part has been my life’s project.  I’m the eldest child of a pastor, the product of a long fixation on other people’s perceptions of my piety.  Regrettably, striving to earn the favor of God and my peers has yielded more pride and perfectionism than holiness.  Ironically, receiving regular criticism for this foolish life choice could create the very conditions required to wean me from my addiction to approval.  It could be what propels me down the long path toward true, humble holiness.  

One test of my developing holiness will be whether my love can overflow even onto those who call us fools, or worse.  When they label us “sinners,” will I grin and answer, “You bet, but probably not in the ways you’d think”?  When they hurl more biting titles like “dyke,” “heretic,” and “abomination,” will I translate them “fool,” and rejoice in the company we keep?  Will perfect love overcome all our fear?

As of today, we are recently pulpit-less holy fools in training.  We can no longer pastor among those in our clan, now that we have been denominationally deemed unfit to do so.  Sadly, we have plenty of sermons they do not have ears to hear.

So instead of preaching to them, I speak now to the fellowship of the disqualified, to the addicted, incarcerated, prostituted, shamed, pitied, and damned.  You outcasts, you so-called sinners, all holy fools, whether gay or straight, tell me: do you have room for me, my words, and my gifts?  How wide is your tent?  I know I only have one lesbian toe over your threshold, while most of my well-educated, middle-class, white, cisgender self is firmly rooted in the world of the privileged.  Can I come in anyway?

I want to be with you, to be counted among you, you who renounce all the condescending descriptors in my last paragraph and instead dare to call yourselves beloved.  I want to follow you and the Spirit into places we’ve been told not to go.  I want to taste freedom by your side and speak grace in your presence.  I want to delight together in the mischievous king who chooses the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, and then surprises us by welcoming everyone, wise and foolish, ashamed and unashamed, to a wedding feast without a guest list.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Deconstructing Gentrification Justifications: "We have a right to live here and you don't."

I've been inspired to pick up this gentrification series again, thanks in part to some recent thought-provoking comments on previous posts by a business owner.  Apologies for my 4-month hiatus... I had some life changes that took up most of my mental energy for a while.  I'll write about that soon enough.

It's been a while, so if you need a refresher on what I've written so far on gentrification, read my introductory post here.  This post is the last in a series of analyses of some of the common justifications for gentrification.  Next, we'll look at some potential ways to respond to the reality of gentrification.

1. Increasing the diversity of the neighbourhood (social mix) is good.
2. We need to do something about this neighbourhood!  Anything is better than what's there now.
3. Gentrification is inevitable, so at least be happy you get some benefits!
4. We have the right to live here, and you don't.

I think one of the most honest, fundamental reasons why upper-class and middle-class people defend gentrification is because they believe they have more of a right to live where they want than people on welfare.  Most people won't say that, because it sounds harsh, but deep down, this is how we've been trained to think.

I sympathize somewhat with the lament of middle-class people who grew up in Vancouver, and who unfortunately cannot afford to buy a house in the city.  In an abstract sense, they've been displaced by out-of-control Vancouver real estate.  Many end up buying homes in Surrey or Coquitlam, and some spend hours commuting in and out of Vancouver for work.  They work hard, and still cannot live in the city they love.  Meanwhile, they see DTES residents - addicts, panhandlers, people who don't seem to contribute anything to society - living on prime real estate right next door to downtown Vancouver, thanks mostly to taxes on middle-class hard-earned dollars.  DTES residents don't even seem grateful for this unearned privilege - they seem to feel entitled to live in that neighbourhood.  What gives them the right?

Well, what gives anyone the right to live anywhere?  Whom does the land belong to?  Now that's a question that could take us in a whole bunch of directions.

The most obvious response, from our discussion above, is that the land belongs to the person(s) who purchased it.  Money gives you the right to live somewhere.  If this is true, then gentrification is quite defensible.  If you've got the money to buy the land and build the condos and the upscale boutique shops, who are we to stop you?  We'll feel a little miffed if you got your millions from your parents and didn't work for it.  But man, if you've worked hard to earn your money - especially if you started at the "bottom" and "pulled yourself up by your bootstraps" - well you should be able to live wherever you can afford to live, and open businesses wherever you can afford to open businesses.

The issue I have with this framework (and with capitalism in general) is that it assumes a level playing field.  It assumes that because everyone in Canada has access to the same (early) education, everyone has the same potential to become financially successful, or at least stable, and have the same claims to land and business, so long as they work hard enough.  I just don't think this is true.  I think the system automatically benefits some and tramples others.  Many of the trampled ones actually work harder than the ones who benefit.  And a large percentage of the trampled ones don't even have bootstraps to pull themselves up by.  Those who benefit from the system often feel bad and give charitably to those it tramples, which helps for a bit, but doesn't bring equality, and ultimately disempowers and further robs the dignity of the trampled.
The DTES - diverse for centuries.

A second response to "Whom does the land belong to?" could be: the people who have historical claim to it.  This could be the people who have lived there the longest, or the people who have shaped it most, or who have some other legal claim to it.  Vancouver is part of the unceded land of the Coast Salish peoples.  This means it was never given over in treaty or taken by war.  If I were using this framework of historical claim, I would give these First Nations dibs on questions of ownership.  In much more recent history, the DTES has been home to all kinds of people - Chinese, First Nations, Japanese, even Black people, with one thing in common - for at least the last 70 years, they have been predominantly low-income people.  That's another claim of sorts.

By the way, there are interesting parallels between the colonial attitudes that justified displacing the Coast Salish peoples from this land centuries ago and the neocolonial attitudes that some people use to justify gentrification today.  Take the "doctrine of discovery" and the related idea of "terra nullius" - the way the Europeans legitimized taking ownership of "discovered" lands, because they were "empty."  Earlier this year, business "pioneer" Brandon Grossutti, owner of the relatively new high-end Pidgin restaurant in the DTES, told the National Post : "They say that we're displacing people from their neighbourhood, but we aren't.  There was no one in this building for as long as anyone can remember.  Then we came along."  In fact, until five years ago, the building that now contains the Pidgin, along with 21 new market-rate condos, contained 30 relatively low-cost rental units.  All tenants were evicted in 2008 (which apparently is "as long as anyone can remember") to make way for this more profitable development.  In a recent Georgia Straight article drawing these same comparisons, Dave Diewert said, “Justifying displacement, in the past and the present, is a certain rhetoric: ‘Those who are displaced are inferior anyway. They’re not using the land properly. They’re in the way of progress, and after all, we know best.’ It’s a continuously patronizing discourse which attempts to legitimize displacement.”
Forced displacement of Squamish people from Kitsilano area in 1920.

I've got to bring in my own bias on this question of "right to the land."  I believe the land ultimately belongs to God.  We are tenants of God's land, foreigners and strangers in it (Lev. 25:23).  My "hard-earned" money?  It doesn't actually belong to me, because nothing does.  I don't actually have any inherent right to anything, even if I feel like I worked for it.  Everything in my so-called possession is really an unmerited gift from God - a gift not just for me, but the benefit of everyone's needs, and thus a gift I'm often called to re-gift.  In the words of Basil the Great, one of the church fathers, giving to the poor is simply "returning what is theirs."  In this framework, work is not done in order to earn money.  Work is a privilege, a chance to use our God-given skills and knowledge in order to serve our neighbours.  When someone is unable to work, because of job shortages, or illness, or unbearable pain numbed by addiction, it's not contempt toward them that we should feel, but sorrow, and a desire to restore that dignity to them, because everyone is impoverished when their gifts and skills are not put to use.

Early Jewish law does not assume the economic playing field is automatically level, rather it institutes regular playing-field-leveling events: every seven years, debts were forgiven and slaves were freed.  Every fiftieth year was the year of Jubilee, when all land was supposed to be returned to its original owners.  Since land was the primary means of wealth, those who had been forced to sell it due to hard times would have a real chance in the system again.

That sounds lovely and utopian, you may say, but we live in a capitalistic system.  Even if we wanted to try to go  back to something like that, we couldn't.  Today's world is too complicated.  Maybe so.  I'm no expert in socioeconomic systems and how to change them.  But I do know that I'm not satisfied with money, or even work, being the only thing that dictates who deserves what.

Some of the oldest low-income housing in the DTES.
I'm not entirely comfortable with the language of rights at all, to be perfectly honest.  I prefer the language of responsibility.  I believe we are responsible to each other - as Ani Difranco says, we owe each other the world.  Those of us who have more resources are responsible to those who have less.  I believe we're responsible to go above and beyond our people-trampling capitalistic system's expectations, to think creatively about how to bring about real equality.  We're responsible to also consider historical claims to land.  And those of us with more power and choice are going to be held responsible if we choose to use that power to push out or discredit the voices those who are more vulnerable.  Even if I feel displaced or limited by the Vancouver real estate market as a middle-income person, I still have way more choices than my friends on welfare who only have $375 allotted for housing expenses.  If I make the choice to further gentrify the neighbourhood where they've found housing for the last 70 years, which will increase their rental rates and further limit their housing options... it may be within my rights, but it's not a great way to be human.

** If you'd like to continue digging into the issue of gentrification this week, check out this event in Vancouver.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Deconstructing Gentrification Justifications: "Gentrification is Inevitable"

This is a shorter post as part of my gentrification series... I'm eager to finish this soon.  It's entirely possible that the DTES will be completely gentrified before I'm even done writing!

First, if you haven't already done so, read my introductory post on gentrification here.  I'm now  in the middle of trying to deconstruct some of the common justifications for gentrification.  The first two are written, and now we're on to the third.

1. Increasing the diversity of the neighbourhood (social mix) is good.
2. We need to do something about this neighbourhood!  Anything is better than what's there now.
3. Gentrification is inevitable, so at least be happy you get some benefits!
4. We have the right to live here, and you don't.


"Gentrification is inevitable."

Even though this is one of the most common justifications and cop-outs I hear,
I won't waste a lot of time on it.

Earthquakes, tornadoes and floods are inevitable.
Rain in Vancouver is inevitable.
Growing older is inevitable.
Death is inevitable.

Gentrification is NOT inevitable.
It is the result of human choices.
We have the human capacity choose differently, if we want to.

I refuse to believe that developers have no choice except to build condos in the DTES.
I refuse to believe that restauranteurs are inextricably compelled to open fancy restaurants in the DTES.
I refuse to believe that the mayor's hands are tied, that the premier is powerless,
that the prime minister is stumped,
and that none of them can find any money to put toward building housing for low-income people.
I refuse to believe in a personified "market" that must run rampant and do whatever it wants to do.
I refuse to believe that we have no choice but to bulldoze over a bunch of marginalized people.
I refuse to justify these practices by offering a few scattered units of social housing in the condos, like crumbs from our feasting table.

I refuse to succumb to this brazen lack of imagination and willpower.

I refuse to say,
"Sorry, current DTES residents, the market is our god, and the market has spoken.
Because people will buy condos here, we really must build them here.
Placating art in the DTES, courtesy Bob Rennie.
Because people will come eat and shop in this trendy, edgy new locale, we really must open businesses here that you can't afford.
And because this will drive up your property values and rents,
I'm sorry, but most of you are going to have to leave this neighbourhood you call home.
We can't stop it.
But cheer up!
At least a couple of you can live among your new rich neighbours in these five new social housing units we're building!
And we'll even agree to hire one of you as a minimum-wage dishwasher in this new bistro.
Because we care."

I refuse to say, "There is no alternative."
The TINA slogan must be buried with Margaret Thatcher.

Because we are creative, innovative, free human beings.

DTES residents paint the old police station.
There are, in fact, plenty of alternatives.
We can take a variety of paths.
We can choose people over profits.
We can choose to sacrifice the fulfillment of our "wants" so that others can have their needs fulfilled.
We can choose to create a sanctuary for those who have been consistently victimized and sinned-against (more on this in a couple weeks).
We can do it if we want to.

But do we want to?
Maybe that's what some of us mean by inevitability...
... that gentrification is inevitable because most of society wants it so badly.
I can let that fear paralyze me, too.
Especially after the dismal election results on Tuesday night,
   along with Christy Clark's expression of gratitude to the condo developers who made it all possible (Click that link - you'll see that even Bob Rennie is feeling magnanimous and asking his colleagues to protect 3 blocks of the DTES from gentrification!  What a swell guy.)

These are the questions we SHOULD be asking:
Is there enough compassion in Vancouver to prevent gentrification?
Is there enough selflessness to preserve a neighbourhood for people who have no other option but the street?
Is there enough will to listen, to understand, to prioritize, and to empathize with people who have endured so much suffering already in their lives?
Or will we continue to see them as people who don't deserve our care? (more on that in the next post)
Are we resigned to becoming a boring, greed-and-market-driven version of Vancouver?

Friends, gentrification CAN be stopped,
but only if we want to stop it.
We have to remind each other to be the best, most compassionate version of ourselves.
We have to call each other out when we're becoming worse versions of ourselves.
We have to do it together.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Deconstructing Gentrification Justifications : "Anything is better than what's there now!"

Hunger striker entering his 3rd week of hunger.  Read more here.
I've been slacking off a bit on this gentrification blog series, even as the debate on gentrification in my neighbourhood has heated up with the Pidgin Restaurant Picket and the Hunger Strike by Formerly-Homeless Dave, so I'm going to try to get back in gear and complete it.

First, if you haven't already done so, read my introductory post on gentrification here.

I'm in the middle of trying to deconstruct some of the common justifications for gentrification.  The first is done, and we're on to the second.

1. Increasing the diversity of the neighbourhood (social mix) is good.
2. We need to do something about this neighbourhood!  Anything is better than what's there now.
3. Gentrification is inevitable, so at least be happy you get some benefits!
4. We have the right to live here, and you don't.


"We need to do something about the Downtown Eastside."

Imagine hearing someone say this.  In your imagination, whose voice is speaking?  How are they saying this?  Are they frustrated?  Hopeful?  Empathetic?

When I hear it in my imagination, I primarily hear the voices of people who live in other neighbourhoods.  Privileged people.  They might drive by Main and Hastings on their way to work.  Some of them work in the DTES.  Some of them come and eat in the new restaurants opening up in the DTES.  Some of them just read about the DTES in the paper.  Some of them really care about the people in the DTES.

I hear this phrase in my own privileged voice, as someone who is desperate to fix broken things.  But it makes me ask, why are we privileged people interested in "doing something" about the DTES?

If I'm honest with myself, it's not primarily to help all the people living in the DTES.  It's actually to help myself.  Because I'm uncomfortable with, or embarrassed about, or ashamed of the DTES.  I'm ashamed at how money has been wasted.  I'm embarrassed it hasn't done much good.  I'm uncomfortable with the suffering I see.

Christena Cleveland's blog does a good job of unpacking this.  She writes, "Solving oppressed people’s problems rids privileged people of their own discomfort... I periodically ask myself, whose discomfort is motivating me to act – my own or the oppressed person’s? Oftentimes, I must admit that my own discomfort with oppressed people’s suffering primarily motivates me to advocate for oppressed people. I feel better when they are no longer suffering and I no longer have to stand with them in their suffering or think about their suffering. When this occurs, their feelings and needs are secondary to my own.  And once again the situation revolves around me, the privileged person. Mission not accomplished."

I don't think the middle and upper class of Vancouver are entirely evil and greedy and just want to take over the DTES.  I don't think they're all just eager to sweep addicts and poor people out of sight.  I think there are a lot of Vancouverites who really and sincerely believe that gentrification will help the people of the DTES.  The problem with this is that they haven't asked the people of the DTES whether they want their neighbourhood to be gentrified, or how they want to be helped.**
This whole idea of "asking the residents" may sound strange if you see people in the DTES as dependents who are unable to think for or beyond themselves.  Now it is true that some people in the DTES are in such deep life crisis, or are so mentally ill that thinking big-picture and long-term about the neighbourhood would be very difficult.  When "survival" is at the top of your priority list, contributing to the future of your neighbourhood is, frankly, pretty low on your list.  It's also true that some people are just happy to leech off the system and not contribute anything to the health of the DTES (though it would be interesting to explore how they got that way... that's a topic for another blog post!).  But people in such limiting situations exist in every neighbourhood - they're just not always as visible as they are in the DTES.  And there are plenty of current DTES residents who are eager to dream about what their neighbourhood could look like.

The approach I've grown to admire is often called an asset-based approach, or a strengths-based approach.  It's based on the idea that people are experts on their own lives.  It privileges the wealth of lived experience they possess.  The residents start by identifying the strengths or assets of their community.  Can't think of any strengths in the DTES?  Did you know that DTES residents contribute more volunteer hours to their community than any other neighbourhood in Vancouver?  The DTES also has a higher concentration of artists than any other neighbourhood in Vancouver.  And many people, including myself, find an unparalleled sense of community, empathy and acceptance in the DTES.

After identifying strengths, the residents identify their community's weaknesses, ask what they can contribute to solve their own problems, and in what specific areas they want to request help from outside sources. 

A good example of a strengths-based and community-led approach would be the CCAP Vision for the DTES, summarized in their "Assets to Action" report.  Hundreds of DTES residents contributed to this beautiful vision for their neighbourhood.  It is definitely worth a read.

It's simply not true that "anything would be better than what is in the DTES now."  "Anything" implies experimentation regardless of the consequences, and "anything" will likely fail to protect the most vulnerable people in the neighbourhood, and fail to observe or preserve the strengths of the community.  No matter how compassionate and eager to help privileged people may be, if we proceed without listening and letting oppressed people lead the way, if we treat DTES residents like children to be parented or savages to be tamed, and if we rush into fixing problems primarily to rid ourselves of discomfort, we will certainly fail.  (Just ask the average third-world citizen how well it's gone over when NGOs have done this kind of thing in their countries.)  Simply "trying something new," and treating the DTES like a laboratory for city planning,a zoning, and policing is unethical and unjust.  We need to free the residents of the DTES to dictate what "would be better" for themselves, to determine their own future goals, and to decide how to get there, for the sake of their children and grandchildren.

 "We need to do something about the DTES."  I can't wait for the day when the majority of people empowered to dream and act and speak this phrase are the residents of the DTES, and when the rest of us have the patience and the trust to let them do so.


**In a way, the people of the DTES are currently being asked how they want to be helped.  I am serving as one of the low-income representatives on the Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) for the DTES.  This city-funded process was a concession prize to the neighbourhood after we lost a fight against a big condo project in Chinatown.  It took a year to set the terms of reference for the LAPP, and our thirty-person committee, made up of low-income people, business people, and service providers, has now been meeting for over a year.  We're supposed to have a plan for the neighbourhood by November.  But the process has been incredibly frustrating for almost everyone involved.  I spoke up at the last meeting to point out that our time is almost entirely consumed by listening to reports and dealing with governance and process issues, leaving us almost zero time to brainstorm, to discuss controversial issues and to attempt to find points of consensus.  I have low expectations that the plan will reflect the wishes of most DTES residents, and even lower expectations that the City will follow the plan.  So I'm not sure yet whether this counts as "asking the neighbourhood how it wants to be helped."  I'll keep you posted.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter #5

He is risen indeed!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday #5

It's the first thing we did as a church
Good Friday
Jodi said we shouldn't start on Easter
no right to celebrate life in the DTES
if we haven't tasted the death
so we did
twenty-one of us
made a pinecone cross

today was our fifth Good Friday
hardly any left from that first twenty-one
(where did they all go?)
welcoming other communities to join us
our biggest crowd ever
wandering the streets
drawing stares

it is right that we should be
in the park
Oppenheimer is Gethsemane
we listen to the betrayal

it is right that we should be
at community court
not at the provincial court
it was the community
who wanted him dead
can't blame big shot judges
we all killed him

it is right that we should be
on stolen ground
contested space
he had no place of his own

it is right that we should be
in the alley
avoided all days but today
Judah points down at
the "needles with the poison still in them"
dumping ground
toilet of the people
the stink of it
death strips his dignity 
death rules even him
at least for now

it is right to end on the beach
how excited we are to build 
this instrument of execution
much bigger this time, 
wood, not pinecones
kids balance on it
Jenny and Adria hammer in
some old, rusty nails

biking home afterward
past the women on the corner
whose bodies are for sale
I marvel at how
this place can still muster a Good Friday
on a beautiful sunny day

I grew up an easy-Easter girl
now I spend all year
in Good Friday
some days I think he's here
here among the poison needles
with the abandoned
with the betrayed
with the devil on his back

other days
he's dead

Monday, February 18, 2013

Deconstructing Gentrification Justifications: "Mix it up a bit, why don't you?"

First, if you haven't already done so, read my introductory post on gentrification here.

For a while now, I've been reading the comments on online articles about gentrification in the DTES.  I know, I know, reading online comments is a bad idea, a sure way to experience the worst in humanity.  But I have this theory that you can actually distill some popular opinions from online comments if you cut through the inflammatory language and go to the core of the argument.  I have boiled them down to four main categories, and I will dedicate a short post to each of them, from least brutal to most brutal (and perhaps most honest).

1. Increasing the diversity of the neighbourhood (social mix) is good.
2. We need to do something about this neighbourhood!  Anything is better than what's there now.
3. Gentrification is inevitable, so at least be happy you get some benefits!
4. We have the right to live here, and you don't.


Social mix (my definition): The idea that it is desirable to have a balance between lower-income and higher-income people (and their respective housing types) in a neighbourhood, in order to promote diversity, sustainability, health, and quality of life for everyone.

Some social mixing happening at Jacob's Well.
I should really be the most ardent proponent of the "social mix" argument.  My work, in essence, is social mix.  As I'll discuss below, most people in life prefer to form fairly comfortable friendships with people who are similar to them.  But my two DTES communities, Jacob's Well and God's House of Many Faces, both promote the importance of mutually transformative friendships between people from very different groups, which is an integral part of the larger-scale work of reconciliation that we pray will happen between people groups.  We believe that the Kingdom of God is incredibly diverse, and that we should start practicing this Kingdom life right now on earth.

The problem is, it's not easy.  We need practice.  Jacob's Well and church are about training ourselves in this neighbour-love.  Loving our very-different-neighbor takes hard work, humility, patience, willingness to be wrong and to learn, a high tolerance for awkwardness & misunderstandings, and the desire to see the best in each other.  Even when we begin with these good intentions, we regularly screw things up and offend one another. We have to suck it up, forgive each other, and start again.

So imagine what happens when higher-income people move into the neighbourhood without a real desire to get to know and love their low-income neighbors.  You don't need to imagine.  I'll give you a couple examples.

Until they moved to Mount Pleasant last month, a social media company called Hootsuite had offices in the DTES. One of their employees posted this on Twitter the day they moved: "Last day in #DTES office, I will probably miss the midget prostitute the most. Smell ya later Eastside (literally). Hello Mt Pleasant!"

One year ago, a man named Mike Comrie wrote an article in the National Post called "Raising kids amid the hookers, junkies and drunks of Vancouver's worst neighbourhood."  The father of two wrote this: "I had to quickly learn how to politely decline enthusiastic gifts of “recycled” stuffed animals offered by dumpster divers, and how to take it in stride when alarmingly filthy individuals, clearly intoxicated and probably insane, wanted to exchange baby talk with our little ones."  Ironically, this middle-income man who social-mixed himself into the DTES ends his letter by articulating hopes that gentrification will move along more quickly.

(For some responses and alternative perspectives on raising kids in our neighbourhood, see the video below, and PLEASE read the very thoughtful reply to Mike's letter from Krista-Dawn, a mother of two and member of my church, posted here.)

It's not that Mike Comrie or the woman from Hootsuite are evil people.  They're fairly normal people.  They're like you and I - they tend to associate with people who are a lot like them, and when they encounter people who are very different from them, they often misunderstand them, are afraid of them, or are disgusted by them.  This same tendency is what leads many low-income people in the DTES to want to stay together in the DTES instead of moving to neighbourhoods that don't already include low-income people (besides the fact that there is no housing for them there).  They want to be in a place where they fit in, where they don't have to pretend to be something they're not, where they're not treated with fear or disgust.  A place where they're with people like them, where they feel a sense of belonging and community.

Woodwards housing
My biggest problem with social mix is that it naively posits that merely putting diverse people close together will produce health and neighborliness.  It won't, without willing participants and the help of the Holy Spirit, because of the human tendencies I described above.  It hasn't produced neighborliness at the most highly touted social-mix project in our 'hood, the Woodwards housing complex.  There, 500 condos stand beside 200 units of social housing, in what is supposed to be a beautiful, diverse revitalizing community in the neighbourhood.   My friend Karen lives in the social housing at Woodwards.  She has yet to even meet a single person who lives in the condos.  But she has seen the whole area around her building transform into a high-income zone, and she can no longer afford anything at the restaurants and stores.

Some take the idea of social mix so far as to say that putting rich people in poor neighbourhoods will make poor people more likely to want to improve their lives (i.e. stop behaving so badly and being so lazy).  The sheer hubris of this thinking is staggering, not to mention the way it ignores the root causes of poverty.  (Oh yeah, definitely, what poor people need in order to escape their poverty is the reminder of what it looks like to be rich.)  It also implies that the rich people are the healthy ones, and that they don't need to improve their lives or learn from the poor.  People in the DTES have much to teach, if we'll listen, and this is part of what it means to be neighbourly.  For starters, they have learned how to live and build community in the midst of incredible racial and cultural diversity.  The DTES is, in some ways, very mixed already.

If we really believed in the benefits social mix, we'd be eagerly making room for poor people to live in rich neighbourhoods.  But this is not the case, as I highlighted in this satirical blog post.  Most Vancouver neighbourhoods fight hard to prevent social housing buildings, housing for the mentally ill, and shelters from being built on their turf, because it would bring "dangerous" people near and would decrease their property values.  We see far more "NIMBYs" than "YIMBYs". 

That's why I'm inclined to believe that social mix is a utopian, benevolent-sounding mask for what amounts to capitalist and colonialist greed.  More on that in a future blog post.

Having said that, "social mix" is still a key part of my long-term, Kingdom-of-God vision for the earth.  I need to learn from poor people, and they have things to learn from me.  We need to learn to love one another as neighbours.  So as we think about solutions to gentrification, we can't just settle with staying completely segregated.  We need ways for people who are ready and eager to be neighbourly to actually move in and be neighbourly, without displacing the most vulnerable.  More on that in a future blog post, too!