Is Gentrification Inevitable?

June 3, 2014 § 3 Comments

Yesterday, in response to this post, I was accosted on Twitter and accused of many things, most of which were untrue, but most notably of standing by and watching gentrification from the sidelines and not offering any solutions. In and around that accusation, repeated in many different ways, I was also told that ‘gentrification is inevitable.’  Since then, I have been wondering if it is.

Now, I must point out that my critic, who ultimately dismissed me as “just a guy in Boston making false judgements about my hometown,” is also a real estate agent and is of the opinion that her neighbourhood, Verdun, is the next up and coming neighbourhood in Montreal.  So she has a vested interest in gentrification and rising property values.  Not that I don’t, of course, both when I lived in Montreal and now.  And it also doesn’t matter which city I visit, gentrification benefits me.  I’m a middle-class white guy.  But is gentrification inevitable?

Mulberry Bend, by Jacob Riis

Mulberry Bend, by Jacob Riis

I was in New York City a couple of weeks ago, on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.  We eventually had dinner on Mulberry Street, on the terrasse of an overpriced, but delicious, Italian restaurant.  As I looked up the block, I could see the formerly notorious Mulberry Bend.  The Mulberry Bend, when the Five Points still existed, was perhaps the worst bit of real estate in the Western world for poverty and crime.  It was central to Jacob Riis’ 1896 classic, How the Other Half Lives.  Today, however, Mulberry Street is beautiful and on this sunny Sunday the street was blocked off to cars and a street fair was going on.  Even twenty years ago, this wasn’t really all that nice a part of town. But today, it’s all smoothed over and gentrified.

But is the kind of gentrification that has occurred on Mulberry Street inevitable?

I think it might be relative, it might be locational.  Take, for example, New Haven, CT.  New Haven is a smallish city and has been dealing with a variety of social problems, from high crime,  to drug use, since deindustrialisation in the 1960s and 70s.  It has also experienced ‘white flight’ and the people who ended up being stuck in inner-city New Haven had no hope, no option for a better life.  And so, New Haven, despite being the home of Yale University, has struggled.  On the train into New York City last weekend, I saw its newest solution, called Re:New Haven.  The city is offering people up to $80,000 in incentives to purchase a home and live in New Haven.  It seems to be working, at least according to the couple sitting next to us on the terrasse on Mulberry Street, who were from New Haven (as is the friend I was with that night, though he no longer lives in his hometown), who reported a boom in new restaurants and other hangouts. On that front, Re:New Haven sounds like a brilliant idea.  But there is always a cost for gentrification.  In the case of New Haven, African Americans who already live in these gentrifying neighbourhoods pay the cost.

New Haven has decided that gentrification is inevitable.  And it certainly looks that way on the ground in New York City and Montreal.  But there’s also a question of neighbourhood, especially in big cities.  If you look at New York City, it’s interesting to note that Queen’s and Staten Island are not getting as much love from the gentrifiers.  No doubt because they are rather inconveniently located vis-à-vis Manhattan. Similarly, in Montral, gentrification is in neighbourhoods that are conveniently located in relation to the downtown core of the city.  Thus, Saint-Henri, Griffintown and Pointe-Saint-Charles make sense in their gentrification.  Even Verdun is no more than 15 minutes from downtown on the métro.  But, other neighbourhoods, are more or less free of gentrification, or at least have not been overly affected.  Take, for example, Hochelaha-Maisonneuve, or HOMA, a chronically depressed neighbourhood in the east end.  Despite attempts over the past decade to gentrify, the neighbourhood remains largely immune.  Similarly, neighbourhoods north of the Métropolitaine in the north end of the city are also seemingly gentrification-proof.

Collective action against gentrification tends not to work.  It happens either way, whether residents welcome or resist it. However, my interlocutor yesterday also had interesting ideas about practical, boots-on-the-ground ways to ameliorate the effects of gentrification for the working classes of Verdun.  Pointe-Saint-Charles has long had similar ideas, but, each time I’m back home in Montreal and go through the Pointe, I see fewer and fewer of the old school working classes and the stores and restaurants that served them and more gentrified homes and hipster coffee shops and the like.

But what makes gentrification inevitable?  A search for cheap(er) housing?  A search for The Next Big Thing?  Recently, Richard Florida’s thesis about the Creative Class in cities is getting some static, because in many places it hasn’t worked out how he predicted.  And yet gentrification carries on.

Expensive Bikes and the sud-ouest of Montreal

June 2, 2014 § 4 Comments

I was in Montreal for a nano-second last week, in and out in 22 hours.  As I sat Friday morning sipping a proper café au lait and a croissant amande at Pain D’Oré at Atwater Market, a woman kitted out in cycling gear pulled up outside the boulangerie.  She took off her gloves and helmet, and then leaned her very expensive bike up against the shop’s window and came in to get her coffee and croissant.  I thought to myself that things had changed in the sud-ouest of Montreal.

Not too long ago, in response to a post on this blog about gentrification, my friend Max, who is a gentrifier, and has bought a place in a gentrifying neighbourhood, chided me for being so dead-set against gentrification.  I am not necessarily.  But I think we need to problematise the process, to recognise what we’ve lost, and so on, to not simply jump into the future unquestioningly.  But.  He pointed out some benefits about gentrification in his neighbourhood: he could find a decent cup of coffee and he said hipsters, as annoying as they generally are, are safe.  He doesn’t have to worry about his wife walking home at night.

I thought about that as I watched this woman leave her expensive bike outside the boulangerie, unlocked.  When she came back out with coffee and croissant, she moved her bike to her table on the terrasse.  I lived in the sud-ouest for the majority of my time in Montreal, mostly in Pointe-Saint-Charles, but also in Saint-Henri on the Last Ungentrified Block in Saint-Henri ™.  The rue Saint-Ferdinand, north of Saint-Antoine remains ungentrified.  I drove up it last week just to make sure.  But the streets on either side of Saint-Ferdinand ARE gentrified, so, too, is the block on Saint-Ferdinand below my old one.  So are large swaths of Saint-Antoine.  And so on.  The first place I lived in the Pointe wasn’t.  There are housing projects on the block, and my place backed onto the asphalt back lot of a project (Montreal’s projects, I might note, at least in the sud-ouest are not great towering cinderblock apartments, they are usually no more than 3-4 story apartment blocks.  They usually fit into their neighbourhoods).  My second place was definitely gentrified, as, by that point in my life, I was no longer a struggling student, but a tenured CÉGEP professor.

And still.  There is no way in hell I would ever leave an expensive bike outside a boulangerie at Atwater Market.  I never left my car unlocked.  Or my front door.  I keep a close eye on my computer bag.  Do I just trust people less?  Or had I just lived in the Pointe longer than this woman?  But, yet, her bike was completely safe, and not because I was sitting in the window.  About 15 people passed it as she got her coffee and croissant.  And no one even gave the unlocked, very expensive bike a second look.

Has the sud-ouest changed that much? Or was her bike simply in a high traffic area and safe?  I can’t decide.

I should also point out, for American readers, that gentrification in Canada tends not to get caught up in questions of race like it does here in the US.   Most gentrifying and gentrified neighbourhoods of Canadian cities are places where inner-city working-class white people lived.  So while class is still a very prevalent issue, race tends not to be.  There are exceptions. of course, such as in the traditional Anglo Black neighbourhood of Montreal, Little Burgundy, which is undergoing a massive shift right now.  But, on the whole, discussions surrounding gentrification don’t centre around notions of race.  Then again, few things in Canada do, at least publicly.  But that doesn’t mean that race and skin colour aren’t central components to Canadian life.

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