Gentrification signifiers: A story of one neighbourhood

When two grandmothers stopped on my street recently to tell me their adult children had bought a nearby house, I didn’t tell them why the young family who lived there was moving out. They had moved in with high hopes to this same freshly-painted and pot-lighted house, ignoring the “as is” in the stipulations. The house had undergone a quick flip from a man who bought it after a house fire burned out the tenants who lived there. The house attached to them had also suffered fire damage, but those tenants, renting rooms, stayed on in a more deteriorated house.

And then last summer, it got bad. A man with a violent criminal history moved in — and took over. We neighbours sat on our porches and watched the drug deals and solicitation. It had happened before on the street. The normal knock-and-run behaviour of drug buyers played out along the sidewalks where kids pedaled past on their bikes, part of the ballet that Jane Jacobs described. But this time, it was scarier.

Physical fights became the norm, and the local men became protective, taking to long smokes at the ends of their porches. The police raided the house almost weekly through those hot months. By-law officers arrived and spent three days carting refuse away. The landlord, a former neighbour, was rumoured to be incapacitated, unable to intervene or maintain control. Then, too late, a woman died there of an overdose. The house was padlocked and put up for sale.

I couldn’t tell all this to the cheery women I met. But I recognized their story — their children had got “such a good deal!” But I did recognize this stage of gentrification – the grown children had moved eastward, having rented in Kensington Market – and had  been not able to afford a home closer to the downtown core.

When neighbourhoods shift from working class neighbourhoods to higher income ones, several signs and stages are notable.

Neighbourhood Market

Neighbourhood Market (Photo credit: omegaforest)

First arrivals were people like me, my partner and our new baby. We had some family connections to the community, but while comfortable here in the neighbourhood, we were no longer working class. Higher education had boosted our personal prospects. So, our arrival acted as a signal, that the neighbourhood was “safe.”

Others like us soon came, and the occupations of my neighbours switched from taxi drivers, factory workers, and train conductors, to book editors, teachers, and non-profit workers. Single women thronged to the neighbourhood’s small houses, and young families used the low housing prices as a launching pad until they could afford a larger place. Homes which had housed multiple children (and sometimes a couple of families) were converted to single households. Population density dropped, and racial diversity paled. As housing prices rose, residents told each other this neighbourhood was “arriving.” (One elderly neighbour, disbelieving the rising house prices, chortled to me, “Diane, we’re quarter millionaires,” as housing prices rose over $200,000 for a 12.5 feet wide lots.)

Next, come the speculators. Housing flips are common in the neighbourhood now. Another couple, lured by granite counter tops and a street-front entrance, all at the price of a condo, has moved in across from us, but lawsuits have ensued as the rotted timber covered by the new drywall had been discovered. Our neighbourhood had become a bit of a destination point.

As a critical mass of newcomers builds, another sign emerges: residents’ associations. Their focus is often on remnant parts of the neighbourhood: ‘common’ concerns such as traffic flow, garbage, run-down properties (like the ones up above), and most often the desire to “clean up” the neighbourhood. Every couple of years, these small citizen efforts have emerged. GECO (eerily echoing Michael “Greed is Good” Douglas’ character in Wall Street) is the most recent incarnation, springing out of some of the sentiments expressed in the comments section of BlogTO’s recent article, What ails Little India?.

One of GECO’s members explained to me she thought it was important to have “more diversity” in the neighbourhood commercial strip, that there are “too many sari shops.” Toronto Life described this more diplomatically as “new businesses…revitalizing a dreary stretch of empty storefronts, noodle houses, laundro­mats and hair salons.” Others explain they hope for a Starbucks or “nice” set of restaurants like nearby (upper-income) neighbourhoods have. After all, they say to me, they have paid a lot of money for their homes and they want the neighbourhood to look good. A neighbourhood blog cooed “A few more cool shops on gerrard (sic) and even the Queen Street hipsters will allow us Northerners to be part of Leslieville.” Academics have described this as commercial gentrification. In fact, some have described how Toronto’s “ethnic neighbourhoods” can act as a branding mechanism, in the same way artists do, attracting others and driving up housing prices. It’s a familiar process to those who know Little Italy or Greektown, where many of the original ethnic stores are closing and residents have moved on.

But tolerance for social difference is limited. Another long-time resident, one of the original working-class residents who’d watched these changes with more good humour than I, reported one of new neighbours were discomfited to learn a gay (!) couple lived next door. So he explained to the new couple that good people lived up and down our street.

But the revanchist sentiment has grown.

The final stage of gentrification is when the higher income folk arrive, when the place has been sanctioned as “clean” and “safe.” Cleanliness is defined by such amenities as granite rocks and Japanese maples in the front garden and new windows adorning the home. Safety is not the definition of old, of neighbours knowing when a new neighbourhood child has gotten a tooth or who can be depended upon to hold a spare key for nearby neighbours. Safety is more about beaming spotlights and alarm codes. This final stage concentrates wealth to the point that some researchers call it super-gentrification.

More and more of the neighbourhoods in the old City of Toronto are undergoing this transition. Affordable housing stock is disappearing. The latest move by Toronto Community Housing to sell off single family units means the touted ideal of mixed-income neighbourhoods will be further away. New developments aggravate the problem, filled with homes all in the same high price range, inclusive zoning not yet a practice.

As income inequality is carved into our housing structures, our neighbourhoods suffer. Those who work in neighbourhood shops, filling our coffee orders, or the education assistants in our children’s grade school, won’t live in our neighbourhood, won’t be our neighbours. Our children won’t know difference. This is not Toronto, our motto “Diversity, our strength.”

Driven by individual choice, we are losing a common good.

Can Gentrification Work for Everyone?, Salon, December 2011

Neighbourhood Change

Ethnic Identity, Place Marketing and Gentrification (PDF)

Five reasons why mixed income neighbourhoods are important

Are there limits to gentrification? Evidence from Vancouver

Mixed picture on mixed income: Moving in on poor neighbourhoods

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9 Responses to “Gentrification signifiers: A story of one neighbourhood”

  1. Hoping for a starbucks? You’ve got to be kidding me!!

    Like

  2. Hi Diane;

    I’m half of the couple you mention in your post, and I was inspired to write my own account of moving on to the street. http://jeswatson.tumblr.com/post/21521455599/coming-home. Thought you might like to read it.

    Cheers;

    Jes

    Like

  3. Your description and comments ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to understand gentrification. I’ve passed it on to my readers.

    Christopher Leo, Ph.D.

    Research-based blog: http://christopherleo.wordpress.com
    Twitter: @PassingScene

    Like

    • Thanks Chris. This is a topic I have fretted about for a long-time, but it felt scary to write about it because people might see it only as an critique of “perfectly-nice” individuals rather than as an examination of the wider socioeconomic processes which are aggravating the growing inequality around us.

      Like

  4. I lived in the largest cities in the US and Canada. NEVER AGAIN will I live in a city. A large town yes.

    Like

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