Why Gentrification Matters to Me

By Anthony Greenberg

While people like cities for many different reasons, I think a city’s best quality is its diversity. For centuries urban centres have been the place where different people from different places (literally and figuratively) come together – either out of necessity or by choice. While some cities are more segregated than others, for the most part one of the loveliest qualities of a city is the fact that those different people can peacefully co-exist and share common spaces in close proximity. Sociologists have studied this, rock stars have written memoirs about it, and the “bright lights” have been romanticized in media representations of cities for decades and decades.

The gentrification process –the influx of higher income residents into a traditionally low income neighbourhood –is a topic I’ve been fiercely interested in for many years now. The discussion surrounding this process is complex, nuanced, and often polarizing.  In Canada, contemporary examples are the transformation of Toronto’s Queen St. West over the past two decades, or the more recent transformation of the Main Street neighbourhood in Vancouver.

I’m not quite sure why I’ve been so interested in this process as the urban environment I grew up in, Winnipeg, was not the sort of place this phenomenon greatly affected at a rate or scale of the larger centres. In fact, the gentrification process is relevant to just a few major urban centres. This might seem like a controversial statement, as many social justice advocates will argue that no matter how many excess affordable neighbourhoods there are left in a single city, the displacement (often understood as gentrification’s end result) or any form of disruption to a community is ethically unforgivable regardless of circumstance. But that fact is, since the middle of the last century, most cities in North America have been combating decline in population and investment, not the opposite. Many are still campaigning for re-investment in their central neighbourhoods to achieve economic stability.

The root of my interest lies in the often forgotten social component of sustainable development. Cities that have undergone “vicious” gentrification (as Jane Jacobs once put it), such as Toronto, New York City, Vancouver and London, England—the very places that less thriving centres  have modelled themselves after. But once the living costs in these places have exceeded a certain threshold so that only those with high incomes can live there, they are no longer a breeding ground of diversity – the quality that (in my opinion) makes cities so great.

Sharon Zukin, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, has been one of the foremost contributors to the gentrification debate. Zukin’s unique contribution has been a culture-based lens with which to view the process, and is one that most greatly influenced my understanding. As the gentrification process began in the 1960s and 70s and academics tried to figure out what market forces were enticing middle class people to move back into the City’s core, Zukin came in and assessed the sort of people who were renovating old lofts, the structures and agencies who were facilitating this and the cultural marketing of an attractive “urban lifestyle.” This discussion was explored most thoroughly in her seminal work, Loft Living, from 1989.

More recently, Zukin published a book called Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, which explored how New York City has become a shell of its once diverse and working self, into something resembling a museum. The old tenements of the Lower East Side have been retained to appear rugged; Old shop signs are left up, distressed brick remains, but wine bars and locavore restaurants pop up inside them. She argues there is a façade of authenticity, but it is a skewed one in which the City of Utility has been reframed and fetishized for the sake of leisure.

I am not one to reject culture shifts or shame “bourgeois” tastes, but as a city transforms to a place of people with a singular income bracket, the promise of diversity dissipates. It becomes inaccessible to most of the nation’s population. Sure, New York City or Toronto might be the sort of urban ideal which many cities want to model themselves after, but what good is this model if that city will inevitably become inaccessible to the majority of the nation’s population? I do not want to live in a city that only appears urban.

It’s fair to ask why anyone should be concerned with gentrification if it is only a problem in select major centres. Aside from the problems it can present at the neighbourhood scale (for a seminal writing on this, see Chester Hartman’s “The Right to Stay Put”), my apprehension as a city-builder is, how can I advocate for the renewal of major urban centres, to promote the vital urbanism I find so enthralling, if we can’t find an equitable model with which to sustain that vitality? A model in which a city can be vibrant, yet affordable, fun, yet full of opportunity and opportunistic for all parties—regardless of gender, race, or income.

Until we can find a form of development that’s not driven by the landlord or developer’s search for the highest profit or that includes more government mechanisms that protect affordable housing,  I will be fascinated by the complicated, intriguing mess that is gentrification.

Anthony is a young urban planner in Toronto. See what inspires him by following his Tumblr: thespacebetweenbuildings.tumblr.com

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Categories: Cities, Urbanism

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  1. Meanwhile | words away - March 16, 2012

    […] Magazine, Anthony Greenberg recently wrote an excellent piece on gentrification called “Why Gentrification Matters to Me.”  An excerpt: More recently, (Sharon) Zukin published a book called Naked City: The Death […]

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