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.

1 comment:

page turner said...

All that love and wisdom and red hair too?!
Welcome Beth! Very good to meetcha! ;)