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!