When I first realized that some people were opposed to gentrification, it surprised me. Am I gentry? I suppose I am since I am white, educated, and middle class. Is my in-fill house part of gentrification? Yes, it is. Is that so bad? I am struggling to reconcile my pleasure in moving here and into this house with my recognition that I represent change. I am not from around here, and my house looks different from other houses on the street.
Building a new home in an old neighbourhood seems like a good use of space. An old, derelict house was removed and replaced by a home with better plumbing and wiring. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Well, it turns out that this act of renewal is imbued with a lot of social and political significance. I know this because I find myself numbered among those called gentrifiers, and it isn’t a compliment.
Last year I had been living in a different city in a big empty house, and my son and his family had been renting an old house that needed repair. It made sense for us to pool our resources. The place we bought has a two-story house for them and an apartment in the basement which is perfect for me. About forty percent of the houses nearby were built before the end of World War II, and as more of them become irreparable they are taken down and new houses are installed.
In the process, though, low-rent housing is gradually disappearing, and this is a big problem. Also disappearing, one house at a time, is the look and feel of the last century. Many people mourn this loss and understandably fight against it. They want to keep the charm of the old days, the mom-and-pop stores, the little cafés, and the feeling of community. Taco Bell is not an improvement on the local taqueria, and Walmart doesn’t provide the variety of ethnic clothing seen in small high street shops.
Our main street has many stores with signs in their windows indicating their support for this multicultural area, but often those same stores struggle to stay afloat. Like many older communities, this one has to contend with some homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, and prostitution, and these have a depressing effect on retail sales. The majority of the residents, though, are law-abiding white-collar and blue-collar workers. We have street festivals that are a great success and parks that are well-used by families with small children.
The area is fairly close to the city centre, has public transit, and is within walking distance of the football and hockey arenas. As such, it is very attractive to people who prefer to live close to downtown work, arts, and culture. It is a great location for housing, but not so great for small stores. The traffic on the main street is busily passing through to bigger shopping centres. The gentry doesn’t shop here.
“Gentrification” has become a word loaded with significance, to the extent that it sometimes shuts down debate. It usually refers to low-income residents being forced out of their homes to make way for higher-income newcomers. Large-scale displacement of low-income residents is a problem in bigger cities like San Francisco, Vancouver, and New York in which property prices have escalated astronomically. In those circumstances, industrial and apartment buildings have been emptied out and redeveloped into lofts and condos.
But that is not what is happening here. The rate of change here is very slow and is happening one small residential lot at a time. In fact, gentrification here does not appear to be causing disadvantage, but is mostly benefitting the long-term residents. Perhaps that is where the problem arises. The appearance of improvement may be hiding individual stories of poverty and eviction. I simply don’t know how many people have had to move out of their homes because the rent went higher than they could afford.
Moving into a newer house in an older neighbourhood does make me a gentrifier, but I should stop burdening myself with the guilt that goes along with the word. I am simply a new neighbour. So long as I continue to greet people on the street and shovel the snow from my sidewalk, I am not a threat to the community’s well-being.
I am just one of many new residents who are happy to be living on a tree-lined street, enjoying the parks, walking children to the old schools, and participating in the festivals. I am also happy to be living in the same building as my son and his family. Incidentally, both he and his partner are employed by agencies that house the homeless. The gentry who indirectly contribute to displacement are paid to find homes for the displaced. Is that situational irony? Alanis Morissette might say so.