by carl wilson

Gentrifiers Like Me

parkdalesign.jpg

The Star's Joe Fiorito gives his account of the Parkdale gentrification discussion I moderated early this week. Unfortunately, his tone is terribly smug and superior, although he comes around to some of the right ideas in the end - "inclusive zoning," in particular, was one of the more valuable ideas raised. I wish he'd talked more seriously about the idea he uses as his hook at the beginning, because it's one of the things the event made me think about a lot: Am I a gentrifier, as a middle-class professional in the arts community who, first, bought a renovated house in the Portugese neighbourhood east of Parkdale, and later, moved into a converted industrial-loft apartment on the other side of the tracks? Sure I am. Not to the degree that a developer building a condo tower is, but as much as someone who opens a fancy housewares shop so they can sell shit to people in my building and the even pricier condo building up the street. How does that relate to my generally wary position on the issue, and what kind of ethical responsibility does it entail?

It's obviously stupid to think that "renovating your kitchen makes you a bad person," as the Star's headline tendentiously teases. Caring for and investing in your immediate environment is a worthy value, just as it is to care for the global environment. Another idea raised at the forum was to subsidize home ownership for poor and working-class people in the area. It's a complicated proposition (to figure out how mortgages etc. work in that instance) but it's a more direct form of security, preventing people from being so easily dispossessed of their homes by profit-seeking landlords - but over and above that, ownership gives people a bigger stake, more pride in the condition of your home and your neighbourhood, which is good for social conditions for everyone around you. It's collective self-esteem, which breeds a willingness to speak up and defend your interests, and so on. These are the intangibles that affluent people have that poorer people don't, which probably count for more than most of the material differences. (Which is why middle-class or wealthy kids who become artists and live at poverty-level incomes don't truly share class interests with working-class families, etc. - they have a different sense of agency, of status, and so forth. Although in many cases that experience of living at a different income level also differentiates them from their class origins. They're a distinct, aberrant social formation, which is why they get demonized by everyone, but also why they seldom have a coherent understanding of their own position.)

However, what we gentrifiers do with that confidence and know-how is another matter. Do we fall into Nimbyist opposition to halfway houses and other social programs in our neighbourhoods, for instance? Do we just selfishly take care of our own stuff and turn a blind eye to what our neighbours have or need? Or do we have a responsibility to try to use some of our privilege to assist those neighbours in getting what they need? Obviously those responsibilities aren't just localized - we've all got an ethical obligation to take care of one another, and those with more means have more of an opportunity to do so and therefore a bigger obligation. The millionaires in Rosedale don't see what's happening in Parkdale, but they still bear an ethical burden for it. However, I also think, personally, that if I'm complicit in the gentrification of my neighbourhood - if the presence of loft apartments and nicer shops in the area works to my benefit - then I incur a special duty to make sure that my neighbours aren't going to suffer as a consequence: That there's still affordable housing, still affordable studio space for artists, that people don't become homeless, that those who are have services, that something of the heritage and personality of the area is preserved, that the changes that happen are beneficial to a broad range of people and not just the privileged few - or even the privileged many. Think of it as the extra rent you pay to live in a special, but troubled, place.

I'm still working all this out in my own mind, and wish Fiorito's column had confronted such questions instead of snarking cluelessly about the people who attended the forum. (Who were by no remote stretch of the imagination all "planning students." Did Fiorito stay for the question period, where people of all descriptions were discussing crime and drugs in the community, housing co-operatives, high rises, political representation, etc., etc., etc.? Were Parkdale's city councillor, MPP and MP all there to talk to "planning students"? Give me a freakin' break.)

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 26 at 1:25 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

COMMENTS

In the States, a lot of people do stay. Our house was built in 1900. Some time in the 1950s, it was duplexed. My beloved spouse started renting the first floor apartment in 1985, at first with a roommate and then on her own. In '94 she bought the house. We started dating in '97; in '00 I moved in and she evicted her upstairs tenant and we re-un-duplexed the place.

She's a social worker; has worked with homeless people for 22 years. She's an activist; we met at a sit-in for homeless people's rights.

Since I started hanging around here, the elderly Filipino couple next door sold their house and (very nice, hip) white yuppies bought it; the owner of the beater rental on the other side next door sold it to (very very nice) white yuppies; the elderly African American woman on the corner sold her house and (not very nice at all) white yuppies bought it; the elderly Filipino brother and sister across the alley sold their house to their (white hippie/artist) next door neighbors (our very good friends) who are rehabbing it and will move into it and rent out their own house.

The neighborhood is a lot safer now and we couldn't afford this house together; a number of restaurants have opened nearby. But we hope to stay, but depending how schools shake out, we might not; there still are a lot of poor people in our neighborhood, and our kid is 4, and the neighborhood elementary has one of the worst reputations in the city (hippie leftist friends of ours who have taught there say they wouldn't send their kid there). We'll probably go private school for kindergarten and hope he tests into a magnet public school for 1st grade. Not going to force the kid to be a political activist against his best interests.

So even with the best intentions, and even while staying, and even while being active in anti-poverty work, we've still gentrified the neighborhood.

Posted by john on January 29, 2007 9:34 AM

 

 

It may not be "about" romanticizing poverty but it seems clear that when you have hundreds of young people playing truant from their parents social class and all residing in the same areas and only a handful of whom could be relied on, gentrification or no, to stay in the areas long enough to be considered part of a community then these young people can only be described as a disruptive element to a neighbourhood, especially one that is increasingly attractive to condo developers.

Posted by benstimpson on January 29, 2007 8:49 AM

 

 

Middle class and upper class artists who are working for poverty wages and living in poor neighborhoods have resources to fall back on, as well as entree into social networks that provide access to decent jobs. I've gotten very few jobs where I didn't know someone who worked there already, including every job I've gotten working in low-income housing and homeless services.

That said, I do think rock ideology/imagery romanticizes poverty, big time.

I heard Gary Giddins read when he was touring with his Bing bio. Bing's class persona came up in the Q&A;, and Giddins spoke very defensively, and very absurdly, of Bing's working class persona. There's never been a more middle-class-seeming singer than Bing. (OK, maybe Perry Como, but you know what I mean.)

Giddins knows -- it ain't hip to be middle class, and he had to try to stamp out any suggestion that the subject of his bio could be described as such.

Those hats! Those sweaters! Those golf clubs! I admire Bing's class persona, but it's hardly blue collar.

Posted by john on January 29, 2007 1:25 AM

 

 

Thank you Carl!

Now could everyone repeat after me…

It’s not about artists romanticizing poverty or protecting a mythologized romantic existence.

It’s about making sure the three over 50-years-old painters above me, the shitty screamo band next door to me, the welding shop behind me, all have a place to work in for oh, at least a year or two. Is that too much to ask?

It’s actually not about art really. It’s about protecting light industry—an entire economic strata. Why?

Reason 1: Because I believe it’s right that people shouldn’t live with a developer swinging a sword of Damocles above their head.

Reason 2: Cities. Been to Manhattan lately? It blows. Why? Economic exclusion. Escape From New York in reverse. Is this what we want, as far as “international cities” go? I don’t mean to be “provincial” but the end game for the spectacular-ization of cities is something like Cairo, with its gated communities (Named “Beverly Hills” and “Orange County”) protected by tanks from the dead-at-age-15 poverty surrounding it.

That’s not science fiction. That’s happening now and if you think you can’t fight those same forces on your own doorstep you’re coward and if you think people don’t have a duty to fight it on their doorstep, you’re an asshole with an internet connection.

Posted by Brian on January 29, 2007 12:30 AM

 

 

The thing that bugs me about your p.o.v. on that, KS, is that I feel like a few asshole kids - a significant portion but still a minority of the kids in that scene, and more importantly, a phase that 90 p. cent of such kids will grow out of - are used to develop a stereotype of artists and arts scenes that I think is incredibly unfair, and is frequently used in conversations like this one to undermine the legitimate interests artists have in having neighbourhoods that are suitable for them to live in - which they have as much right to be concerned about as anyone else does.

Posted by zoilus on January 28, 2007 9:04 PM

 

 

". . . middle-class or wealthy kids who become artists and live at poverty-level incomes don't truly share class interests with working-class families, etc. - they have a different sense of agency, of status, and so forth."

This is an excellent articulation of a very true thing. In the generally run down North End (actually the geographic centre) of Halifax, there's similar, though far less widespread worry about gentrification. But it really seems to be the slumming arts kids who are making the most fuss. There was a weird spate of "Go elsewhere" being spray painted, and recently there's a "The way you live makes me barf" on a new condo, and for some reason I don't think it's the working class recent immigrants you meet in programs at the North End library doing any of that. Not that they're a homogeneous group by any means, and not that I'm claiming to speak for them (which I feel a lot of the slumming arts kids do, gleefully and disrespectfully), but the working class people in the sketchy part of town that I know, anyway, seem to be more about "How the shit do I get out of this sketchy part of town?" than "How are going to keep rents down in this sketchy part of town if that new hair salon opens?". Whereas the slum is essential to the slumming arts kid's smug, shitheaded identity. It is possible that I am harder on those kids than they deserve, but they really get on my tits. Many of them romanticize poverty in a way I have never heard anybody who has actually been legitimately, seemingly unalterably broke ever do.

And I've got to say that the Fiorito article really didn't seem that bad, Carl.

Great stuff, though.

Posted by KS on January 28, 2007 3:16 PM

 

 

Fiorito's one of my favourite columnists, or at least he was when I regularly read him in the Montreal Gazette and the Hour back in the day, so I just want to jump in to defend his honour for a moment. He didn't write that all the people at the meeting were "planning students," but that the one quarter of people in attendance who didn't identify as renters or owners might have been. And it was a joke, and a gentle one in my view.

Fiorito's a city columnist recounting his own personal experience at a meeting in his own neighbourhood in his own folksy manner. He even comes to the "right ideas" at the end, so I'm not sure what your beef is, beyond that he didn't tackle the issue a completely earnest, self-flagellating way.

I only point bother bringing this up, because you need to get more people like Fiorito writing and talking about these issues in the way he does; he's an ally who might reach others whose eyes glaze (mine do) when the G-word comes up. Holding a public meeting and then alliteratively dissing the discussion that ensues (smug, superior and snarking) in its wake because it strays a hair from your ideal tone is counter-productive.

Posted by JKelly on January 28, 2007 10:34 AM

 

 

Joe Fiorito is so boss. I remember one column he did in the star about one of the large highrises south of queen on Cowan (I think) and he ended it with this stand-alone sentence: "I have lived in smaller villages." He is so awesomely unflinchingly preposterous. His way of groping around in the dark for gravitas is kind of refreshing compared to the WASPy crossarmed harrumphing of the Globe's columnists. Anyway, if you edit out the snark then the column does, as you say, come around and beyond that provides one of the better précis histories of what's been going on in Parkdale in the past decade or so. Carl, can you elaborate on the inclusive zoning idea proposed? How would that play out with regards to the highrises on Spencer and Cowan and Jameson and King and even Queen further west? Those buildings will always qualify as affordable and there are plenty of vacancies but they are decidedly not nice places to live. I rarely hear them mentioned in discussions about gentrification mostly because students or arts and culture types (Yubos?) tend to avoid living in them and thus avoid thinking about them.

Posted by benstimpson on January 26, 2007 3:31 PM

 

 

A few ways to subsidize mortgages:
1) The government puts up money to lend to low-income first-time home buyers at way-below-market rates and terms.
2) A nonprofit lender raises funds from private foundations to lend to low-income first-time homebuyers at somewhat-below market rates and terms.

That's what the organization I work for does. It works for lots and lots of people.

The problem isn't gentrification per se. It's economic displacement. If you can find ways to allow renters to gentrify-in-place, that's great.

Our programs haven't solved the displacement problem, not by a long shot, but we have been able to facilitate hundreds of low-income households to staying in their neighborhoods as more affluent people have moved in around them.

The socio-psychological benefits are as you describe, but some of the economic benefits are surprising as well. Regardless of income (at least in the States), the children of home owners are for more likely to attend college than the children of renters. They're also far more likely to become home owners as well. The reasons are complex, but mostly have to do with the increase in wealth that people (in growing cities) experience if they own land.

In our program, the government-funded subsidized 2nd mortgages are deferred for 8 years with 3% simple (not compound) interest accruing. So if you earn X dollars, and can therefore afford a mortgage in the amount of Y, if you add this government 2nd mortgage of Z dollars, you can then afford to buy something that you wouldn't otherwise have been able to afford. The program is predicated on the premise that in 8 years, your income will have grown sufficiently to be able to handle the 2nd mortgage. In the huge majority of cases, so far, it's worked out well.

So to go on so long -- but since you brought it up . . .

I've always been a gentrifier too. Hippies, artists, and social workers make poor neighborhoods safe for yuppies. As you said.

Posted by john on January 26, 2007 3:15 PM

 

 

Thanks, Carl. You raise a number of valuable points. It's interesting to consider how Parkdale—certainly one of the most diverse and interesting parts of Toronto in part because of its history and relatively low cost of living—will handle the inevitable influx of buyers around our ages. And it's not just a moral question, I don't think (which you allude to with your point about extra rent). Even from a self-interested perspective, do we really gain much from a quality of life perspective if property values go up at the cost of a vibrant, multi-faceted community?

Posted by Jeremy on January 26, 2007 3:10 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson