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Which city will lead the way in finding the tools to manage gentrification and global-capital effects?

May 26th, 2014 · 102 Comments


So I’m back in the city and not a moment too soon, I see. (Lord of the Flies in the blog commenting, which I did not moderate for the last three weeks.)

While I was gone, the debate erupted again, with somewhat more force, over how Vancouver is being shaped or not by the forces of global capitalism. On the one hand, Bob Rennie in his UDI speech  in mid-May made the case that 1. The affordability problem is not as bad as everyone thinks 2. The foreign investment and students are actually helping us out, with the money coming to pay for our universities and community amenities through their tuition fees and contributions through developer fees 3. Much more, which I will enumerate in point form in the next post, as I have the text of the whole speech.

On the other hand, the New Yorker  last week ignited a new round of uproar because Jamie Surowiecki’s column validated all of the current fears about the way this city is changing and why: global capital is being parked here as a hedge in this nice, safe-investment city. (Sadly, in a kind of “Oh my gosh, New York people noticed us and, if they say it’s true, it must be true” kind of way.)

Interestingly, I was following all of this while I was in Naples, a city where gentrification is not currently a major issue. In fact, Naples seems to be almost frozen in time around the 1950s, a time when good middle-class people fled to the suburbs while the poor huddled in cramped rooms in the central city. It was startling to be in a central city that is still so unreconstructed.

Yes, there were definitely tourist-oriented streets in part of the centro storico, where you couldn’t turn around without hitting a papier-mache creche or fridge magnet of the Pope. But outside the couple of area of dense tourist activity, this was unmistakably still a place where a lot of low-income people were living in tiny rooms.

As we got lost various times, we ended up on streets that were so narrow that the sun never shone, where laundry was hanging in five and six tiers, where you could see through the half-doors open to the street that whole families were living in apartments that were essentially one common room (the one facing the street) along with a couple of bedrooms. They weren’t crummy. They’d been fixed up, had modern cupboards and shiny furniture, but they were still small and clearly not where any person with a reasonable middle-class income would choose to stay. And you could tell by the businesses in the area who was living there — outside the small tourist zone, it was vegetable shops and dollar-type stores selling a lot of plastic junk, cheapo underwear stores, and car-repair places.

That was in the central area. A little way east of the centre, under the freeway (where we got lost again), it was even more ungentrified. In fact, it looked in places like the site of a post-war documentary about extreme urban poverty.

In contrast, if you took the funicular just a little way up the hills, you emerged into a very different city: clean and orderly, free of desperate guys trying to pretend you had to pay them to park on the street or attempting to sell you lighters and socks.

The question for a lot of cities around the world, looking at Naples and Vancouver, is how to find something in between, how to prevent the worst excesses of global gentrification without creating slums that have such a strong centre of gravity that they become unlivable to anyone not completely desperate. (That used to be what protected the Downtown Eastside — it was SO bad, so scary even to hipsters, that its housing was safe from incursions. And it seems that, in Naples, the current forces keeping the central city affordable are still pretty strong, as you can see from one article I found about a couple attempting to gentrify an apartment in the very low-rent Quartieri Spagnolo.)

Vancouver is likely, at some point, to be one of the cities that experiments boldly with solutions. The cities feeling the most extreme pressures are the ones the most motivated to try something, anything new. That’s what prompted Vancouver to be a pioneer with its supervised-injection site. It wasn’t that we were so liberal. It’s that we had such a terrible problem being a port city with huge access to drug-market pipelines.

That same kind of desperation is likely to push us, at some point, to look for ways to moderate the impacts of big money (whether foreign or local) on people with a whole lot less who are also trying to live in the city.

It’s going to take some kind of political intervention, because it’s not going to happen just through social or moral pressure. One of the parts of the phenomenon of this unaffordable city that seems to be escaping the notice of many critics is that, for every critic of gentrification or heritage-home destruction, there is at least one person pretty happy to sell out at the high prices being offered. There’s a lot of concern and upset about heritage homes being demolished for much bigger and more lavish new homes, or about already lavish homes being bought and left empty, but those situations involve two parties: A buyer. And a seller.

I had a student at UBC who tried to find someone willing to sell their house at a lower price in order to ensure that it was preserved and not torn down. In spite of considerable efforts, he couldn’t find one.

So solutions are going to have to come at the political level, by a party or group that feels like it has enough goodwill and public momentum to push it into action. I’m sort of doubting that will be Vision, at least in the Robertson regnum. No party in its third term, when the critics have piled on, is likely to tackle something as difficult as telling individual property owners that they can’t demolish, can’t sell to certain kinds of buyers, can’t leave their housing empty, or will have to pay some kind of extreme penalty for doing any of the above.


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