Gentrification

I have an admission. I find gentrification to be very offensive. Not however, for the reason most that use it do.

You see gentrification is most often used by people protesting a new business, a new apartment complex, a new development that happens in an older area. They will decry how it will “ruin” the character of the neighbourhood. They will protest how it will drive out existing residents. How it will impact the “character” and the “culture” of the area. Gentrification is always presented bad thing. How it’s hard on the poor. How it destroys the feel of these areas. To that I have but one thing to say:

Bullshit.

You see the whole argument about this is based on a fallacy. Its based on the idea that neighbourhoods stay the same forever. That’s simply absurd. No collection of humans, be it a city, town, village, neighbourhood, or street corner is static. People come and go. Children grow up and move off. New families move in. Businesses are started, go for a while and then close. New businesses open in those same store fronts. Buildings go up, wear out, and are either remodelled or replaced. Needs and functions of the society change. Meanwhile the people living there may believe its always been the way they remember, but it simply isn’t the case. It’s just that they can’t see beyond their own small horizon. The short time they’ve lived there, even if it’s been their whole life is not long enough to see the changes. Harlem in New York has, over the years, gone from a primarily dutch area, to the jewish and eastern european part of town, to one populated by african americans. It has gone from a thriving area in the 1920’s and ’30’s where the top celebrities went to see the best shows, to a slum in the 1950’s and 60’s where only the most desperate struggled to survive, often waging war over turf, and now its on its way back up. A hundred years ago the Gateway District in Minneapolis was home to bars, flop houses, drunks, and misery. It was LITERALLY known as Skid Row. Now its filled with upscale eateries, condominiums, and young professionals who want to live within walking distance to their jobs downtown or at the University.

Neighbourhoods evolve. That cannot be stopped. It can only be guided.

Because change cannot be stopped, this means that an area can only go one of two ways. It can get better or it can get worse. Both will result in people relocating, businesses closing and opening. It is inevitable that the “character” of the neighbourhood will change. What’s more, if we do not work to make it better, then entropy takes over and it will get worse. Businesses will close, and unless someone wants to put some effort in, nothing will open to replace them. Buildings will wear out, and unless someone wants to invest, nothing will be built in their place. If we let an area sit with few thriving businesses, and worn out buildings, and marginal services, then the people that make an area thrive will move away. This is how slums are made.

One of the weakest arguments put forward by those protesting gentrification, is that it will push out the most vulnerable. The addicts, the poor, the handicapped, who will have nowhere else to go. This is a very offensive argument, first because I don’t remember protests about people being driven out when affluent areas decayed. But suddenly there’s all this whining about how important it is to preserve the neighbourhood. Now that its the poor part of town populated by poor minorities, now they want to preserve its “historic charactor”.

I remember all the talk about “white flight” when the centres of US cities were allowed to decay in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Most of those people would rather have not moved but the lack of support from the local, city, or state governments made it untenable. When the schools are allowed to rot, families with children will move. When transit is allowed to falter, working people will go somewhere else where they can catch a bus or subway. Without thriving neighbourhoods, businesses look elsewhere to invest. Without adequate policing and attention from the city, crime, vandalism, and decay will spread and take over. It is a vicious cycle.

More importantly, the idea that this is the only place for “those people” at risk, is inhuman on the face of it, and often overtly racist. I know of no other epithet to use when a bunch of white kids from the suburbs are protesting to “protect” an area populated by poor minorities. Protect it, and them, from what? Becoming affluent? Receiving basic services? The opportunity to get as job? A good standard of living? The chance not to live in a dilapidated slum? If an area improves than the services in that area also get better. Believe me, drug abuse treatment is much more available in affluent areas than it is in the poor neighbourhoods. Job training and availability is much better in areas with higher standards of living. By preserving these decayed neighbourhoods, all these “activists” are doing is to keep the walls of economic apartheid up. They are acting like they are anthropologists and these people are some primitive culture that needs to be preserved. That’s racist and offensive.

Poverty, addiction, and misery are not a lifestyle.

One time when I was a kid, we were at a park on the Oregon coast. The people in the car next to us were an older couple from the UK who were travelling the world. We chatted with them about their travels, what they had seen. They had been everywhere it seemed. At one point the subject of India came up. We commented about the terrible poverty there, the misery, the disease, the starvation. They replied that “It is awful yes, but of course you know they like it that way. Something in the Indian mind doesn’t want to live like you or I.” Even as a kid I found this patronizing colonial attitude horrible. I was reminded of this a couple of years ago when there were protests in West Vancouver. An upscale restaurant was trying to open and there were pickets and protests about this “Gentrification” and how people needed to stand up and prevent the destruction of the neighbourhood. I was sickened. I was sickened by the colonial double standard. An attitude that “Yes West Van is miserable, and drugs are rampant, and people are literally dying in alleys, but that’s their culture, they like it that way, and its wrong to try to change it.” Sickened by the attitude that a functional upscale business would be the worst thing that could happen. That someone wanting to invest in a neighbourhood and maybe make it better for all concerned was doing something wrong.

No, giving someone, or a group, or an area, a hand when they need it isn’t gentrification, it’s basic decency. In this case it wasn’t even giving them a hand. It was one person who wanted to open a business and maybe it would be a seed of improving things for everyone. Yet he was treated like absolute scum, his property was vandalized, pickets blocked his customers, and I believe he was finally forced to close. Well done, you hypocrite assholes managed to keep the area miserable for another year. I hope the protesters were proud of themselves as they drove OUT of West Van and back to their homes in affluent neighbourhoods and suburbs. I hope they opened a nice $100 bottle of wine and raised a glass to a job well done, as they sat down to their dinner. I hope they were satisfied sitting in their warm home while another homeless junkie died of exposure in a cold West Van alley.

And that is my impression of the whole idea of protesting about “gentrification”. Hypocritical bullshit by pampered, spoiled suburban kids that never had to worry about their next meal. So if you tell me this or that project is bad because it is Gentrification, don’t be surprised if I walk away in disgust at YOUR attitude.

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