The Upside to Gentrification?

January 22, 2014 § 7 Comments

I read an interesting article on NPR.org this morning, about gentrification.  Based on recent research from Columbia University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, gentrification may not entirely suck for low-income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  The Columbia study looked at displacement in Harlem and across the US, calculating how many low income people moved out of their neighbourhoods when gentrification occurred.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank looked at the credit scores of low income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  In the first case, researchers found that people didn’t necessarily move out, in fact, low income earners were no more likely to move out of a gentrifying neighbourhood than a non-gentrifying one.  In the case of the Federal Reserve Bank, the credit scores of low income earners actually improved with gentrification of their neighbourhoods.

Not surprisingly, I find these kinds of studies slightly disarming.  Lance Freeman, Director of the Urban Planning programme at Columbia, expected to find that displacement was a common occurrence.  But he is still cautious to note that gentrification can and does indeed lead to displacement.

Most studies, at least most I have read from a wide variety of disciplines, lay out the reasons for displacement with gentrification: higher housing costs, higher food costs, higher taxes (if they own), amongst others.  In my experience of living in gentrifying neighbourhoods, the cost of gentrification is obvious on the street, as the original residents get marginalised as cafés, hipster clothing stores, and yuppy restaurants open.  There is no place for them to go, and the coffee shops and bodegas they used to frequent close down.  However, it is also obvious that people stay.  In part, they are helped by things such as rent control, or dedicated low income housing.  And, at least from my own anecdotal evidence, mixed-residential neighbourhoods are certainly friendlier, more community-based, and generally nicer to live in.

Last weekend, there was a story in the Boston Globe about a Southie woman, Maureen Dahill, who ran for State Senate, but lost gloriously, in large part because she supported the right of LGBT groups to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Dahill ran for office in order to attempt to bridge the gulf between “new” and “old” Southie, between the yuppies, artists, and hipsters, and the old Irish.  Dahill, a native of South Boston, works in the fashion industry, her husband is a firefighter. In other words, she was the ideal candidate for the role.

What I find interesting, aside from the fact she was trounced in the election, was the discussion in this article about the gulf that exists between the old and the new in Southie.  And this is something that is overlooked by quantified research studies such as the Columbia and Federal Reserve Bank ones.  However, what they add to the discussion is that there are those who remain, who refuse to leave for a variety of reasons.  The job now is to, if not attempt to emulate Dahill’s failed campaign (the Globe notes that from the get go “there were many who didn’t want any part of her bridge-building.”  The article doesn’t identify which side of the gulf this resistance came from.

At any rate, it is refreshing to see researchers attempt to explore the myths of gentrification, but I would also caution that we do not need a neo-liberal backlash that leads us to conclude that gentrification is good, it’s the best thing that can happen to us.  We must still discuss the human costs of gentrification, we must still fret over the plight of low income earners in neighbourhoods where rents go from $500 to $3,000 a month in short order.

 

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The Value of Death and the Value of Passion

December 14, 2013 § 4 Comments

I am reading what is turning out to be one of the best books I’ve read in years, Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination.  Schulman is a survivor of the AIDS Plague in New York City in the 80s and early 90s.  She is deeply implicated in queer culture in New York, in the fight for the rights of those inflicted with AIDS during that era and the fight to commemorate and remember those who died.  81,542 people died of AIDS in New York City from 1981 to 2008.  2008 is 12 years after the Plague ended, according to Schulman.

The Gentrification of the Mind is a blistering indictment of gentrification in the East Village of Manhattan, an area of the city I knew as Alphabet City, and the area around St. Mark’s Place.  It’s the same terrain of Manhattan that Eleanor Henderson’s fantastic novel, Ten Thousand Saints, takes place in (I wrote about that here).  This is one of the things I love about cities: the simultaneous and layered existences of people in neighbourhoods, their lives spatially entwined, but culturally separate.

Schulman’s fury drips off the page of The Gentrification of the Mind, which is largely her own memoir of living through that era, in that neighbourhood where she still lives.  In the same flat she lived in in 1982.  She makes an interesting juxtaposition of the value of death, arguing that the 81,542 were of no value to our society, that their deaths were marginalised and, ultimately, forgotten.  Whereas the 2,752 people who died in New York on 9/11 have experienced the exact opposite in death: their lives have been valued, re-assessed and immortalised.  Her point is not to take away from those who died in 9/11, but to interestingly juxtapose those who died due to the neglect of their government and culture and those who died due to external forces.

I just finished reading Amy Waldman’s The Submission, a fictionalised account of the process leading to the creation of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero.  Waldman reminds us that the lives of those killed on 9/11 were not valued equally, something that should be intrinsic to us all.  The lives of the people who worked in the food courts, the restaurants, cafés and those who manned the parking lots, the custodial staff did not mater, in the end, as much as the first responders, the office workers, the people on the planes.

And this is an interesting argument.  Schulman’s response is much more visceral than mine, but she was there in the 80s and 90s.  I wasn’t.  She was also there on 9/11, I wasn’t.  But I am an historian, she is not.  Death is never equal, just as life isn’t.  It has been this way since forever.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in Ancient Greece, the lives of the foot soldiers and the sailors under Odysseus’ command are worth nothing, whereas the lives of Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus are valued.  The deaths of the first two cause mourning and grief for Odysseus, both at Marathon and on his epic journey home.

All throughout history, people’s lives have been valued differently.  What Schulman sees relative to the victims of the AIDS Plague and 9/11 shouldn’t be surprising.  It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it okay.  But, fact of the matter, it’s the same as it ever was.  And, after researching, writing, and teaching history for much of the past two decades, I can’t even get all that upset about the devaluation of the marginalised in society anymore.  I don’t think it’s any more right in 2013 than I did as an angry young man 20 years ago, but I have become so jaded as to not even register surprise or anger anymore.

So in reading Schulman’s book, I am surprised by her anger and her passion, and I am also intrigued by it, and I’m a little sad that being an historian is making me increasingly resigned to bad things happening in the world.  It might be time to get my Howard Zinn, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm out, and remember that those men, even after a lifetime of studying, writing, and teaching history, maintained a righteous anger at injustice.

On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, Pt. IV

June 17, 2012 § 3 Comments

Yesterday, during Bloomsday, I presented The Point a 1978 documentary on Pointe-Saint-Charles directed by Robert Duncan and produced by William Weintraub.  The film presents a very depressing picture of a very depressed neighbourhood in the late 1970s: a picture of unemployment, alcoholism, violence, and dislocation.  The graduating class of James Lyng Catholic High School faced a bleak future in 1978, unilingual and unskilled.

I then presented a bit of context to the film, both the historical time period in which the film, and by whom (Anglos in the late 1970s, between the election of the Parti québécois as the provincial government in 1976 and the First Referendum on Québec sovereignty in 1980).  In shot, a very volatile period in Montréal’s and Québec’s history.  I also pointed out that the Pointe was more than just some sad sack inner-city slum, pointing to such things as the Clinique communitaire de Pointe-Saint-Charles and other examples of neighbourhood organisation and resistance (i.e.: the very things that I love the Pointe for).  I felt it was important to demonstrate to the audience that a poor, dislocated neighbourhood with rampant unemployment during the years of deindustrialisation was more than just that, it was a community (this is something I have learned in studying Griffintown, especially from talking to former Griffintowners).

I then moved on to discuss gentrification here in the Pointe.  I am of two minds on it.  On the one hand, the Pointe is not Griffintown, the condo developers and gentrifying tenement owners do not have to start from scratch.  There is a very strong community here already. On the other hand, the community that exists here only works when those of us who are interlopers get involved, and understand what already exists here and how precious that is.

I have posted before in this series “On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood,” (here, here, and here) my experiences and impressions as I look around the Pointe, both good and bad.

But tonight, sitting on my front stoop, talking on the phone (because it’s about the only place I can get a continuous signal in my flat), the entire process of gentrification was brought home to me in blatant fashion.  A young woman, in her early 20s, and pregnant, is looking for a place to live.  The flat upstairs is for rent, so I talked to her, told her about it, how big it was, etc.  It was apparent that she is a single mother-to-be, as she used the singular in referring to her needs for a flat.  She looked sad and defeated, because the flats around here cost too much for her to afford.  As she turned to go, she said “It looks like they just want to push all the poor people out of the Pointe.”

What can you say to that?  Especially when you’re one of the guilty.  It is a simple fact that rents are going up in the Pointe, both because former rental units are being bought up and converted into single-family homes, and because landlords are realising they can make a lot more money if they renovate and gentrify their flats.  And so where does that leave this woman?  A quick search of Craigslist for flats in the Pointe reveals the same thing, they’re getting expensive.  And so where do those who can’t afford to live here go?

I don’t have the answer for that one.

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