Is Gentrification Always a Bad Thing?
Vancouver, like New York City, is a city of neighbourhoods with distinct personalities: Kitsilano is home to yoga/beach worshippers, Main Street has its hipster vibe; Commercial Drive is an eclectic mix of activists, lesbians, and bohemians; Yaletown is full of upscale yuppies; the West End is the Village; Chinatown and Little India are ethnic enclaves; Coal Harbour is full of offshore investors; then there is the historic district of Gastown and - Canada’s poorest postal code - the Downtown Eastside.
Photo by Disposable Landscapes
The Downtown Eastside has been getting a lot of attention lately for what should be good news - new local retailers, restauranteurs and middle-income people are moving into a neighbourhood that once could have passed for a third world village. HIV rates are so high that the United Nations once declared it a crisis zone, with UN spokesperson Patricia Leidl saying, “It’s one of the worst areas of urban blight that I’ve ever seen and I’ve travelled all over the world.” Open drug use is rampant. 61 survival sex trade workers went missing and many were murdered by a serial killer trolling the area in the 90s.
What has happened in the past 20 years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is horrific. It is true that there is a strong community among the low-income people there, but I would argue there is more tragedy than triumph condensed into those few blocks around Main and Hastings.
Photo by Disposable Landscapes
The Downtown Eastside has always been working class, in fact Vancouver’s origins are based in the community. Gastown’s sawmills helped to spawn a commercial zone along Hastings Street. Eventually, head offices, banks, theatres, hotels and department stores all set up shop there. It was home to the main library (now the Carnegie Centre) and City Hall. Hastings Street was also a key transportation hub — a streetcar terminus that allowed riders to catch connections to other parts of the city. In 1958, streetcars stopped running in the area. Soon after, the library moved and the loss of vibrancy continued into the 1990s when Woodwards - a popular department store in the heart of the community - closed. After that the steady stream of pedestrians disappeared completely, allowing for open drug use to take to the streets. But today, change is in the air.
Photo by Fred Herzog
Gentrification describes changes that result when wealthier people (“gentry”) acquire or rent property in low income communities. Urban gentrification is associated with movement. Consequent to gentrification, the average income increases in the community. It is commonly believed that this results in the displacement of the poorer native residents of the neighborhood, who are unable to pay increased rents, house prices, and property taxes. Often old industrial buildings are converted to residences and shops. In addition, new businesses, catering to a more affluent base of consumers, move in, further increasing the appeal to more affluent migrants and decreasing the accessibility to the poor.
Photo by Vancouverish
Is this happening in the Downtown Eastside and Gastown? I would say yes.
Is this a bad thing? Well, that is a bit more complicated.
Rabble.ca recently wrote a scathing article criticizing the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside as a ‘violent’ social cleansing:
In cities like Vancouver that purport to be progressive, the violence of gentrification is masked behind a three-fold ideological discourse aimed at giving it an air of reasonableness. First is “urban renewal.” This presumes that the downtrodden ghetto will be uplifted and revitalized through social entrepreneurship and trickle-down investment, a now widely discredited theory at the global level. Second is the language of “affordability.” When peddled by developers, it does not mean affordable for current residents. Rather, the affordability is pitched to higher-income buyers such as young artists, students, and professionals.
The third is “social mix.” While it sounds inclusive, in reality it means that people with higher-incomes are at liberty to utilize their social capital to alter the demographics of a low-income community. On the one hand, low-income services such as shelters and food banks are systematically expunged from higher income neighbourhoods. On the other hand, space in low-income neighbourhoods that could be used for community-based actualization is appropriated by those with greater power and wealth.
Openfile Vancouver raised a good point in response - gentrification of the Downtown Eastside continues to be a contentious and complex issue. Is it fair to blame small business owners who set up shop in the neighbourhood if it’s cheaper than anywhere else in the city? In a city that’s so expensive, is gentrification inevitable?
It is inevitable, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. People should not be romanticizing the Downtown Eastside of the nineties and early 2000s. Having lived here my whole life and gone to Woodwards and Gastown as a child in the 80s, what happened there after Woodwards closed is a disgrace. Open drug use, homelessness and mentally ill people walking around lost without support is not something we need to hold on to. It can’t be compared to other examples of gentrification where a low-income, hard working, family oriented neighbourhood is lost. While there are many glimmers of hope and community in the area, sadly there is little in the current Downtown Eastside that we should get sentimental about.
Photo by Vancouverish
People who oppose the opening of small businesses in the area are no different than high-income neighbourhoods that oppose social housing or density in their community. Both smell like NIMBYism to me.
Just because legitimate businesses and middle class people move in, it does not equate to a sinister sort of gentrification. As long as balance of support for low-income and middle/high income are in place and protected, you have a thriving community. Nobody benefits when an neighbourhood is not mixed income. Rich only exposed to rich, or poor only exposed to poor. Having a creative, vibrant neighbourhood involves a mixture of incomes.
Unfortunately, that may mean that low-income people become more exposed to other lifestyles. However, if governments, non-profits and businesses continue to provide support services and affordable housing throughout the city, as opposed to concentrated in one neighbourhood, it could end up looking more like the neighbourhoods we still love in Vancouver (Main Street, Commercial Drive, and Strathcona are all neighbourhoods with mixed income and housing). Nobody wants to see the Downtown Eastside become an upscale Kitsilano or Yaletown, but there has to be some openness to new lifestyles, businesses and market housing in the community.
Photo by Vancouverish
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