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!