What use does a 70-year-old Italian housewife have for a brewpub? Does anyone care?
She may enjoy a cold one at the end of a hard day as much as the next gal. But at the cost of the 30-year-old neighborhood deli that it replaced? It would be understandable if she felt less and less at home in her own community.
This fictional story of gentrification is one being felt by real residents of big-city downtown communities Canada wide: the influx of young, mostly white trendsetters with cultural ambitions, and the cash to make them happen. Often viewed as saviors of derelict neighborhoods, they could also be described as a bulldozing force, stopping at nothing in its path.
To many, such a change is an unavoidable byproduct of market economics. Nothing personal – it’s just the invisible hand at work. Really, though gentrification is much more: it’s a change in what types of aesthetics, people, and cultures are valued. These values, far from being determined solely by equity-minded homebuyers, are largely shaped by the movers and shakers that draft our city blueprints, whether they are planners, politicians, or journalists.
Some see themselves as the paragons of such values, and prophesy the future of our cities in turn. Marcus Gee, the Globe and Mail’s always-eager zeitgeist correspondent, has embraced this role of urban aristocrat with fervour. In his recent article on gentrification in Hamilton (“How Hamilton is revitalizing its downtown to bring new life,” Globe and Mail, Jan. 2/15), he paints a picture of a “grim” downtown, full of crime, poverty and despair, being gradually, but steadily, “renewed”.
Gee feigns caution in his assessment – he clarifies that homeless people are, after all, still as numerous as hipsters – but ultimately lauds the gallant coalition of bureaucrats and investors that are bringing “new life” to the epitome of urban decay. For every greasy pizzeria that gives way to a trendy shop, Hamilton takes one more step towards something better.
But what’s the endgame? For all of his enthusiasm for Hamilton’s revitalization, he is more concerned with stigmatizing what was, than elaborating on meaningful socio-economic change. The “derelict” streets, the “sketchy no-go zones,” “dilapidated” buildings – it sounds more like he’s describing the zombie apocalypse, than a living, breathing community where people actually live. Notably, he mentions no crime statistics, and doesn’t profile any existing residents of business owners: the article reads, quite simply, like a dystopian tale of where no chic urbanite should tread.
The closest he comes to naming gentrification’s virtues is by lauding the “vitality and creativity” that follows in its wake. To Gee, these virtues are ostensibly synonymous with loft condos and bike lanes. Whatever, and whomever, existed before: we don’t care where you go, but make way.
His is a mindless diagnosis of urban dysfunction, and a myopic prognosis of change. In the spirit of Richard Florida’s “creative class” narrative, Gee assumes that middle class, educated, and cosmopolitan (i.e. gentrified) communities are the only agents of meaningful socio-economic change.
The nonsense of this notion is shown by the myriad organizations in my hometown, Toronto, that are mobilizing marginalized communities to spur change on their own. Take Sketch, the renowned art drop-in for street-involved youth, or The Stop Community Food Centre, which includes community members – regardless of socio-economic status – in its governance and programming. This is vitality and creativity, sans gentrification. And yes, people still ride bikes to get there.
Gee rightly identifies public investment in transportation and place-making as important for Hamilton’s future. This is undeniable. But in highlighting all of the buildings to be refurbished and neighborhoods reworked, he neglects to speak of those who have lived, worked, and played there for generations. In extolling the new and vilifying the old, Gee adopts the mantra of unbridled gentrification: those who are already here are as bereft of value as the grimy streets.
In the midst of snazzy designs and clever financing schemes, the urban aristocrats must be mindful of the power of their preferences. Who belongs in our cities? Who will be displaced and excluded by the new urban values? It’s something to think about over a pint at the local brewpub.