Toronto (a.k.a. Accordion City)

Gentrification with Justice

Comic by Toles on gentrification.

One of the first results of a Google image search for “gentrification”.

Gideon Strauss points to an article in ByFaith Online (“The Web Magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America”) titled Gentrification with Justice. An excerpt (with one bit of emphasis on my part):

I have now seen first hand (yes, inadvertently participated in) the devastating impact that gentrification can have on the poor of an urban community. I have faced panicking families at my front door who had just been evicted from their homes, their meager belongings set out on the curb. I have helped them in their frantic search to find scarce affordable apartments and have collected donations to assist with rent and utility deposits.

But I have also seen what happens to the poor when the “gentry” do not return to the city. The effects of isolation are equally severe. A pathology creeps into a community when achieving neighbors depart – a disease born of isolation that depletes a work ethic, lowers aspirations and saps human initiative. I have seen courageous welfare mothers struggle in vain to save their children from the powerful undertow of the streets. I have witnessed the sinister forces of a drug culture as it ravages unchecked the lives of those who have few options for escape. Without the presence of strong, connected neighbor-leaders who have the best interests of the community at heart, a neglected neighborhood becomes a desperate dead-end place.

The romantic notion that the culture of a dependent, poverty community must somehow be protected from the imposition of outside values is as naive as it is destructive. Neighborhoods that have hemorrhaged for decades from the “up and out” migration of their best and brightest need far more than government grants, human services and urban ministries to restore their health. More than anything else, they need the return of the very kinds of home-owning, goal-driven, faith-motivated neighbors that once gave their community vitality. In a word, they need the gentry.

This leaves us in a bit of a quandary. The poor need the gentry in order to revive their deteriorated neighborhoods. But the gentry will inevitably displace the poor from these neighborhoods. The poor seem to get the short end of the stick either way.

If you’re interested in the ongoing evolution of Accordion City (or hey, your own city) and you want to do it without trampling over people in the process, this article is a worthwhile read.

4 replies on “Gentrification with Justice”

While I laud its goals, it has to be said that the byFaith article is almost entirely truisms and pablum — there is not one concrete suggestion for action. What exactly does “gentrification with justice” (or one of its more intelligent sub-headings — “Including the Poor in the Reclamation Process”) mean at the nuts-and-bolts level?

Don’t buy that $450K condo near High Park, nor that $350K house in the Junction? Buy the property but rent it below-cost to a poorer family? Sell all your junk, move to the Holy Land, and give the proceeds to a poor family who aspires to one day live in the Junction?

Is it not as if a couple of yuppies move in and suddenly all the social assistance centers in the neighborhood disappear. I’d be curious to know how the writer proposes to convince 1) some developers to resist the temptation to make a profit and just resign themselves to renting poorly-maintained properties to poor families; and 2) some yuppies to have to deal with poor neighbours, badly-maintained adjoining structures, and the maintenance hassles (weeds, vermin, etc) that ensue.

Sounds good on paper, but the nuts-and-bolts logistics is lacking.

Mr. Taylor asks important questions, and the answers do not come easily. Our family did two kind-of-halfway things to address these kinds of concerns: (1) Instead of moving to on-average richer Toronto (which we seriously considered) we move to on-average poorer Hamilton, and (2) Instead of moving into a poorer neighbourhood as gentry, we moved into a currently mixed-income neighbourhood as people who earn close to the average for the neighbourhood. Eventually we hope to participate in the overall development politics of our city in such a way that we can assist “gentrification with justice,” primarily by helping the next generation of Hamiltonians to grow up with the educational resources and entrepreneurial fortitude that is necessary for stepping out of poverty.

First let me say that including that calculus in your buying decision is fascinating. It is without question way outside the box for the average homeowner. I’ve been the poor guy in a gentrifying neighborhood and the rich guy in a poor neighborhood, so I can see some of the tension from both sides.

I do have a question about your strategy: if you aim at the median point then you really are not pulling up the neighborhood average, right? How does that aid improvement? Is that all predicated on future action you’ll take once you’re there? What am I missing from the picture here?

When a neighborhood is poor, sooner or later some developer will come along and say hey, let’s grab a bunch of these tenements, rip them down, and slap in some medium-price townhouses (or condos, what have you). Then the middle class buys these things and moves in. Then businesses and retail shops catering to the new residents start moving in, too. Then suddenly it’s not such a bad place to live anymore — but a lot of the original residents get priced out (or thrown out if the whole building gets sold and demolished for more development). If you’re looking to move in at the median level, then you’re going to end up in a place which is semi-gentrified already, not a real rathole that urgently needs reform.

If you take the Junction or Liberty Village, for instance… ten years ago they were really not that exciting. Heavily industrial areas with some really poorly-maintained residential areas. And practically none of the retail commerce that they have now. How, following the “gentrification with justice” model, how can a future Junction, Liberty Village or Cabbagetown end up with nice neighbours, safe streets and so on, without displacing some people? And what level of displacement is okay vs. not okay? Not every struggling family is going to be able to afford to live in a gentrfying area, so what’s the cutoff point… no hookers and dealers and 5% loss of low-income families? 10%?

I agree with the concept in principle, but how does it translate into the whole scheme of neighborhood development? Some hard thinking and actual economic surveys and studies have to go into this.

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