Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I heart gentrification

Sipping on my socially conscious, holier than thou hot chocolate, I realized that it usually started with an artist or two. Youthful and cocky, it only takes a few of these agile, trendy, and envy inducing creatures to move into a building with graffiti on the side, snap a few pictures of them standing by it for whatever people did with pictures before Facebook, and suddenly I'm buying a fair trade beverage in a place where half the people can’t afford bus fare. And thanks to everything that happening, everything between the original glittering muses and my virtuous premium coco, the moral dilemma begins.

To be fair, we cannot always blame the artists. They may start the fire, but it is the high rollers and the property developers who ‘burn it all down.’ Gentrification has become an issue in many cities all over the continent. Funnily enough, all the sons and daughters of the people who bustled into suburbs in the 1950s causing the White Flight trend are now growing up and taking advantage of the low income living in the once less glamorous parts of the area. So who are we to complain when they come back? We live in a free land, a place where one area of the city should not belong to one kind of person. Why should it matter if you can see more pairs of skinny jeans than ethnic diversity? Doesn’t their presence create more economy, more bus routes, more more more? Everyone should have a right to cheap housing...

But it doesn’t stay cheap. The artists, then students, change the culture. There are plenty of jokes about starving students but no one dares crack a smile about starving families. Rent soars as necessities like coffee shops and computer repair centres get put in. Scholarships and loans and skipping the weekly ‘Beer Wednesday’ can afford the perhaps modest increase. Hungry children and parents living with their parents and minimum wage with no room for advancement can’t. Now White Flight comes around, forces others out of the city... but these kinds of suburbs are not the clean lawns and smiling neighbours usually attributed to the label.
As we try to shop local, another super dee dooper trend!, we say “There is an economy here!” We pay 5$ for a coffee and show what we are willing to hand over for a taste and image. We tell people this is reasonable and encourage others to come. The neighborhood starts to look like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, but the people there before the businesses, the shell of the area, are dropped and disappear. We contribute to local economy with a sense of self satisfaction. We patronize with our patronage. We force their original clients out with our iPods, satchels, and secondhand Kafka but then pat ourselves on the back for buying meat from anywhere else than a sparkling supermarket. Aren’t we edgy? Let’s take a picture!

We hate when the bulldozers come, chain ourselves to trees, beg for our community not to turn into condos. Other students from other cities, other places, unaware that the area was once ‘bad’, bring their belongings.  A brand name drugstore gets put in and other places follow, barely behind. Nail polish can be purchased at 1:08 am. Trendy French cinema is available on random nights. Whims can be met. 

But there are more bus routes there now, so people can get jobs in places that were once not accessible! The local library gets an overhaul, or at least a little bit more money. Police focus shifts from crack users huddled around a fire to drunken youth giggling in the streets. Walking home later at night is not so bad. Everything is a trade off. Old stores stay open despite competition; there is still a family owned barber shop or pizza place or bargain grocer even if they are now wedged comfortably in between a Starbucks and a travel agency. I salute them. I hope they flourish. I hope this has helped their Canadian dream.

I hope a medium income family has gotten rich off my stupidity. I hope they realized that all it takes to get me in their cafe is a coat of bright coloured paint and the presence of a few vintage books on some shelves. Maybe the word ‘local.’ For others, all it took was a vegan option. I hope they sit at night and laugh, “I can’t believe we used to charge a dollar for a coffee!” I hope their stomachs are full because I moved to an area with cheap rent so I could buy expensive, of the moment food. I hope I am a joke to other people. I hope someday they will forgive me and they will like me if I keep smiling politely and tipping well.

"But I can’t be blamed for all of this. I don’t even drink coffee." Can I?

The area is like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, but it looks different to everyone. I walk between old brick buildings and admire signs with pretty and un-ironic retro font. The wings of my neighborhood flap, and it is beautiful to me. I hope I am on the back of the butterfly, and not the one putting it a jar. I see people walking up and down the street; there is still poverty and there is still crime. Gentrification is a temporary answer and hardly a solution for the people actually affected. I wish this butterfly could be beautiful for everyone. I wish I knew how to help people fly.
Is gentrification an issue in your area? In your opinion, is gentrification a race issue (from either side)? Do you think about this at all when you see new Starbucks/whatever's contemporary going up? Has this had a positive effects in your area?  

More? Standard definition / Gentrification: The Game! / There Goes the Hood & links to other books on the subject / A Tale of Two Torontos / From another continent's perspective / Something I found while writing, by someone who says it better than I / White flight
If you only go to one link, go here.

16 comments:

Lydia said...

Thinking about it, this actually has happened to an area around me. Soho, in New York, used to be a poverty-stricken area, but it's recently gotten a lot trendier and "nicer". Maybe it's not as good a thing as I originally thought. As always, you've made me more aware of the impacts of something that seemed pretty minor to me! I'm definitely going to think twice next time I walk past a sparkling new starbucks.

Jem said...

This certainly has occurred in my small town- except not with big box stores. The town has grown over the last few years but mainly its been small, locally owned business which are leading the way, which is surprising. I think part of the reason why my town has managed to evade this sort of change is because we are the first fair trade town in new york. We take pride in the fact that we are quite organic and "hippie" if you want to call it that. So when a walmart wanted to move into the town people put up a big fight and prevented the store from moving in- for now at least. So maybe my town is a rarity, but I certainly have noticed that in other places which were once more desolate or had family run businesses, newer chain businesses have sprung up. It might give a town or city a boost in the short term but they certainly loose a bit of their charm in the long term. These places start to go from individual places to Anywhere, America or Canada. Also, I'm loving the new blog, its great! :)

Always Something said...

Lydia & Jem - Thanks! I always wonder how this actually effects other communities. I only ever really see information about this about places in New York and London, and in NY I only ever see stuff about Brooklyn! Probably just because they're such photogenic areas, aha.

The movie Do the Right Thing is kind of about this. It's pretty interesting and it was the Obamas' first date!

m. dominic said...

i have nothing of real value to imput here, at least not yet, but i'd like you to know this was a really neat read.

tess said...

It's really good to have you back and blogging! Thought provoking, conscientious, well-spoken, and all with great photos!

When I went to college in Washington DC, gentrification was definitely a push button subject. Areas that were once havens of Black Renaissance in the 1920s were wrecked during the race riots of the 1960s and due to a metro line built in the 1970s, accessible to everyone and full of designer cafes. Of course there are certain parts of the city that didn't want to be included on the metro line because they didn't want everyone getting to them (racism, much?). However that one area I was just referring to probably had some help in its gentrification because of its cultural reputation. There are other predominantly black areas in DC that the hipsters are colonizing with Asian fusion restaurants and dive bars, but will probably never gentrify because some of the old neighborhood families refuse to be bought off and therefore the illusion that the neighborhood never had anything but vintage shops and bakeries won't work out. It's controversial, but I think gentrification isn't completely catastrophic. If the neighborhood can still retain some of its history and bring more people in to view that history and get a fancy cupcake than why not? I've seen a lot of parts of that city I never would've otherwise

Belle said...

I am so happy you are blogging again! I booked marked your new blog right away! Thank you so much for your comment, it brightened my day completely. I cannot wait to read more from you. I love looking at your pictures, Halifax is so beautiful and its so nice to have another Canadian blogger.
Belle

Caddy said...

I live in the tropics and might not be able to relate to the above. But I just wanted to comment and say it's good to have you back Mary.

my, oh my! said...

smkeajfkrggkjrbgkjer!!!!!

I didn't even read this post yet because I am totally ecstatic at finding your new blog!!! Embarrassing as it is, I check your "Hail Mary" blog so often, hoping you would start it again and now I find you here! This makes me so incredibly happy!!

Okay, now I will read your post, and comment appropriately.

my, oh my! said...

Being from Toronto, I definitely see gentrification going on around me. The thing that immediately comes to mind when I think of gentrification in my life is the popping up of vintage stores in areas where people really can't afford to buy a $25 dollar shirt because it is "vintage". I mean, I understand the whole deal with "oh my goodness look at me I'm so trendy and hipster! I'm saving the environment by buying vintage clothing!" and that's great and all, but at the same time, there's the conflict that as more of these "trendy" stores begin entering the neighbourhood, and gentrification starts developing into a much larger scale, big problems arise out of it.
To be totally honest, I haven't really thought much of this issue, so thanks for the post Mary!

Becca Jane said...

I am not quite sure how to feel about this, namely since I guess I take advantage of it a little bit, at least some of the time, having a coffee shop conveniently located is pretty nice.

However, I think that it can be problematic because it increases the divide between the good neighbourhoods and the bad, whereas if neighbourhoods were left to develop more organically this wouldn't be the case, or at least not to the same extent. i don't know if that makes sense or not? I guess I just feel like in those small towns that haven't succumbed to the box stores and this kind of thing like the big cities have, you still find a bit of everything, the good the bad, but a mix that makes things interesting, where the divide isn't so noticeable, whereas in the cities where small businesses get swallowed up a bit it is more of a noticeable thing..

I can always count on your posts to get me thinking, even if I don't always express those thoughts well. So glad to have found your lovely (new) blog! And please do visit if you are in Ottawa this summer!

Madeline said...

well in the inner north of melbourne australia, same story. People moved out to suburbs in the hills in the 50s and lots of greek and italian immigrants moved in.

I don't think its a race issue here though, the greek and italian population is still huge and a positive part of melbourne culture. My parents moved from the (always respectable) eastern suburbs in the late 80's and have watched our area transform...previously I understand it was a pretty dodgy area without many shops and cafes, now every second building is a cafe! so i suppose economically its positive.

it does change things though, it replaces students with middle class families - if I move out of home I don't know how or where I could live in the inner suburbs and the outer suburbs are inconveniently located and/or not so safe or pleasant...

well, for better or for worse it will continue, an interesting and thought provoking post!

Nesha said...

BOY can you write. Your writing voice is terrific... are you a professional writer? Or an aspiring one?

nesha,
http://thebuttonowl.co.uk/

Always Something said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emily, Ruby Slipper Journeys said...

Great to find this blog! I've been thinking about gentrification a lot recently... erm, mainly a lot of the things you wrote in your post so I won't reiterate it all here. But I will say that I've noticed near-continual gentrification in my home city of Vancouver. No neighbourhood is safe from it. Last time I was there, an artist friend of mine had a studio in the Downtown Eastside, the absolute dodgiest part of town, full of drug addicts and ex-mental patients. I remember thinking, "Oh typical, the artists are in there now. Soon all the crazy people will have been pushed out, who knows where, and they'll be selling million dollar condos."

Now I live in London, and am watching the creeping gentrification throughout the East End. Where does it stop? Will any low income people be able to afford living in the city in the future? Actually, I'm already mystified how any of them can...

Anonymous said...

You forgot to the mention the gays as part of the earlier stages of the gentrification process.

Allison said...

I think there's enough adjectives that I don't necessarily have to define people by their sexuality. :)