Thursday, December 10, 2015
Without a doubt, one of the key issues facing my new-again home of Hamilton, Ontario, is gentrification. I still have a lot to learn about how that's playing out, and I'm sure it's a topic I'll return to, but I have some initial impressions that I want to share -- particularly about the different positions people take on the issue, and the stark limitations that our neoliberal political context has put on our ability to imagine ways to respond.
Hamilton is an industrial city that is slowly de-industrializing at the same time that it is being bound ever more tightly into the world-city orbit of Toronto. The combination of historic and increasing poverty with the right levels of proximity and affordability to attract both (a) residents and (b) capital that wants to profit from said residents, from our neighbour up the Queen Elizabeth Way, means that the city I've moved back to looks and feels rather different from the one I left over a decade ago, particularly in parts of the downtown and to the north and east of the downtown. The only way I've been able to come up with to describe this difference is that Hamilton now feels shinier, and not in a good way. For me, the defining difference between Hamilton and Toronto used to be that the public feel of Hamilton included a certain open gritty recognition of the fact that a significant proportion of its residents have had to show some pretty major resilience in making ends meet, overcoming marginalization, and otherwise thriving. Toronto also has plenty of poverty and racism, and resilience in the face of them, but rather than the sense of gritty reality historically present in much public space in Hamilton, Toronto has had a sort of chrome veneer overtop. That veneer has never really hid the grinding poverty and exploitation underneath from anyone who was paying even a little bit of attention, but it provides an out for folks with money who don't want to see, who can believe in the shininess with all their hearts as if that makes it true, and who therefore can treat any manifestations of those who don't fit the shininess as intrusions (often, of course, when it is just people going about their lives in their own neighbourhods). Which is icky. In the last decade, Hamilton certainly hasn't lost its grit, but it has developed considerably more of this sort of shiny veneer.
There do seem to be some distinctive things about how gentrification is happening here, which I think have to do with both the size of the city and with the ways in which Canadian vs. US cities have formed historically. My most immediate point of comparison is Sudbury, the small city in Ontario's near north where I most recently lived. There are forces within Sudbury that are desperately trying to get gentrification to happen there, and have driven it far enough to make things more difficult for poor and working-class people in the downtown but not yet to create the kind of boom that I suspect they're hoping for. I wrote an article about it last year, and my sense is that in Sudbury it is a process that is being driven by downtown small business owners, the cops, and the obliviously wielded aesthetic and cultural preferences of downtown-proximal middle-class folk with urban sensibilities, as well as a broader layer of actual or aspiring middle-class people who are doing various things to make ends meet that also end up incrementally transforming neighbourhoods to the detriment of their poor and working-class neighbours. On the other end of the scale, you have places like Toronto and New York and San Francisco, where my sense is that gentrification is driven by big capital, which can generate massive profits by transforming urban space radically and in large chunks.
Hamilton, it looks to me, is somewhere between these two. There has not been the same sort of whole-scale transformation of large bits of space that Toronto or New York has seen, but there is also considerably more capitalist clout behind the changes than in Sudbury. You won't see things like, say, a dozen contiguous blocks utterly transformed in the space of a couple of years like big-city gentrification at its worst. But there are, for instance, plenty of scattered apartment buildings from which poor residents are being turfed in one way or another to make way for upgrades that will welcome higher income tenants -- I haven't seen numbers, but I know I live a couple of blocks from two, we actually looked at a unit in another that's a bit farther away, there are a couple at least in the Riverside neighbourhood in the east of the city, and there are ongoing public fights between landlords and tenants in at least two more that are north and west of us. Given that there's no reliable way to hear about these kinds of things, odds are its happening in way more buildings than have come to my attention. Which means that while it isn't full-scale Brooklyn block-busting, the loss of residential space for poor and working-class people is neither incidental nor trivial. And there are definitely neighbourhoods where the character of other aspects of public space has significantly changed -- the bulk of the folks living near James Street North ten years ago, for example, would probably not feel super welcome in most of the commercial establishments that line much of the street now. And Locke Street South was pretty middle-class before, but it has become even more resolutely chichi. And other areas have demonstrated similar, if lesser, changes.
The other specificity that's worth noting, compared to how this often plays out in US cities, is that it is not racialized in quite the same way. That is, it's racialized in the sense that poverty is racialized in Canada -- so, definitely and increasingly -- but historically that has not been expressed in terms of how urban space has formed in quite as dramatic a way as in many US cities, so the racial dynamics of gentrification are not as stark either. I could be mistaken, but my sense is that gentrification in Hamilton is probably displacing a disproportionate number of racialized people, but that the clear absolute majority of poor and working-class people being displaced are white. Which in some ways is neither here nor there, but it may change the political dynamics a bit.
In talking with people in Hamilton about this issue, and observing both social and mainstream media, there seem to be three basic positions that people take. There's lots of variation within those three, and reducing it like this means that there is an element of caricature in what I describe, but I think it at least sets out the overall shape of the discursive ground where these debates are taking place.
One group has no problem with gentrification at all. They might have no idea it exists, they might enthusiastically endorse it, or they might acknowledge that it's a phenomenon but use various devices to discount the fact that it amounts to harm inflicted on poor and working-class people and communities. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that folks in this camp constitute the majority of Hamiltonians outside of directly affected communities, though I don't know that for sure. Responding to this group involves demonstrating that gentrification exists, that it causes harm, and that we should all care about and work against that harm. However, I'm not interested in engaging with these folks in this post.
A second pole in this debate is what I would describe as the "some" group. This group is definitely conscious of the harms that urban redevelopment can have on poor and working-class people and communities, but also welcomes certain aspects, certain forms, certain degrees of urban redevelopment as positive and good. I've heard this articulated in various ways. It often includes a recognition that existing residents of these communities have a mix of opinions, and at least some residents see value in some kinds of resources and some kinds of changes being brought to their communities, even if there are down sides as well. Sometimes it's framed in terms of balance, and working to make sure that the harms caused don't outweigh the benefits, though there isn't necessarily much attention paid to the fact that who feels the benefits and who feels the harms are often different people. Others in this group think it's important to treat the harms and benefits are separable, which leads to advocating for policies that they say will minimize or even prevent the harms while maximizing the benefits, though the impact of such policies is often overstated. Though folks situated in a variety of ways take a position that falls into this camp, it is often found among urban middle-class or better-off working-class people who are likely to more directly experience the benefits, and not be as touched by the harms, though it's unfair to reduce the position to that.
And the final pole is the "none" group, which opposes any and all manifestations of change that might fit the description as a symptom of gentrification. Whatever they have to say about the desperate need for resources in many of the neighbourhoods which are targeted for gentrification, they are resolute in opposing any tradeoff involving an acceptance of some harms of gentrification in exchange for some of those resources. They point to how even the more ostensibly non-coercive changes to neighbourhoods can end up crowding out existing residents, and generally they see little possibility for meaningfully separating whatever positive changes that gentrification might bring -- which they would argue are mostly either superficial or oriented towards folks with cash anyway -- from the underlying damage done to working-class and poor communities. Again, though it is unfair to reduce this position to the negative stereotype propagated by those who oppose it, it can sometimes deteriorate into strident posing on social media or other performative lifestyle or micro-level politics that are pretty detached from the actual lives and struggles of folks in the impacted communities.
I wrote in a book review back in October about my dislike of unhelpful polarization within the left or within movements, so even though this is far from the most polarized issue I could name, it still gets my hackles up a bit. That said, I'm definitely closer to the "none" side, though with nuance, with skepticism about radical purity politics, and with a recognition that there is value in some articulations of the "some" position as well. I think an approach that combines radical vision with a practical emphasis on grassroots mobilization to build community power and reduce harms is probably the best way to focus struggles responding to gentrification, though it's obviously not up to me.
What I think is most interesting, though, is not so much the "some" versus "none" binary and the different combinations of politics around markets and states, compromise and purity, benefits and harms, that various positions within that polarization represent. Rather, I'm struck by a conviction that the very fact that this polarization between "some" and "none" exists in this way is because, in our neoliberal age, massive redistribution of resources into poor and working-class communities by mechanisms not oriented around profiting from them is so far from political agendas. Not that folks in and between those camps wouldn't support such redistribution -- in different ways and through different mechanisms, many in both would. It's more that such redistribution is so far from genuinely imaginable today that while it may or may not be present as a piece of rhetoric in responses to gentrification, the actual substance of the two poles boils down to two different sets of answers to the question of what to do in the absence of any way to allocate resources other than the market. Do we cajole and flatter and tease and even regulatorily prod the market to get some (ostensibly) good stuff along with the bad it inevitably brings, or do we just say no and no and no?
There's no easy solution to the problem of getting redistribution back onto the agenda in a more credible way, and therefore to shifting the context for discussion away from options for how to react when capital puts a poor neighbourhood in its sights, and towards something where poor and marginalized people can seize the initiative for driving change in their own communities. There's some tenant organizing happening in the city that is new and seems promising, and I'm keen to learn more about it. Which is great. But the scale of what would be needed remains far beyond what we can imagine at this moment, let alone what we can achieve.
Posted by Scott Neigh at Thursday, December 10, 2015