If you're somebody who lives in a major city, you might be familiar with the term gentrification. And if you're not familiar with it, you've likely seen it. And if you haven't yet, you will soon.
Gentrification has many facades. It can appear in a neighbourhood as a new Starbucks on the corner. It can be the noisy construction of a new high rise. It can be your usual barber shop closing down. It can be a fancy restaurant showing its face. It can be your rent going up significantly. It can even just as simply be a general feeling that things are starting to change.
Usually, it begins in a low income neighbourhood, maybe one that has a somewhat seedy reputation and the city's intention turns to fix that. However, despite having an unattractive appearance to the ordinary person passing by, the residents might feel differently. Some of them might have lived there their whole lives and consider their home to be a relatively amicable place.
Then comes the first wave of la bohème. While rent in this neighbourhood is cheap and the people, buildings, and general ambiance depict an authentic sense of character, this might be an ideal setting for the brimming creative.
Perhaps this will poke at the curiosity of the gentry. And it attracts them. Within a matter of months, the neighbourhood might wear a new suit - a rebranding of sorts as the new demographic pools in.
I've always had a fairly one-sided, ignorant look on gentrification, before I really comprehended what it entailed. I've never been caught in the middle of it, and only ever witnessed it from a very removed place. I hate the look of construction but I get excited when hip new cafes and shops open. So, my instinctual comment when walking through a visibly gentrifying neighbourhood would be "wow, this neighbourhood is getting cool". But I would say this as a passerby, unaware of the consequences occurring. The obvious changes are worn on the facade of the neighbourhood, how a building changes shape, how a consignment shop turns into a fast-food franchise. The profound changes are invisible to the outsider, but felt dramatically by the residents who might no longer feel at home at a place they've lived their whole lives. Rent goes up, local businesses shut down, people are evicted, socio-economic shifts arise, and the community dynamic becomes upset.
I'm trying to look at gentrification from all sides now, so, with some time to kill between lectures, I ventured out to Queen East/Moss Park. This area fits the bill for being the stereotype of downtrodden and dangerous. It is occupied by many low-income families, homeless shelters, discount commercial activity, and some questionable activity from time to time. Overall, there is little "wow-factor" to draw a visitor to visit it, and perhaps would even encourage one to stay away.
But I was on a mission. Yes, I got followed briefly by a man speaking gibberish and witnessed a curious cash exchange, but I accepted it! I was there as a guest to their community so who was I to judge? I kept going in my endeavour to research Moss Park and get to know it a little better.
I stumbled upon a few points of interest - the Moss Park Market, where fruits and vegetables are sold at a reasonable cost from within a shipping container, the infamous Kim's Convenience Store, Acadia Book Store - until I finally ended at Redline Coffee and Espresso. I was greeted by the kindest, most accommodating staff members and sat for a while and worked and observed. Every once in a while locals stopped by to say hello, homeless people came in for a hot drink, professionals sitting near me were on their lunch break or conducting interviews. This kind of place truly felt like its door was open to all. Everyone was greeted as an equal and drank their coffee like one too.
Arguably, gentrification has its pros and cons. It can improve the sense-appeal in a neighbourhood, boost its economy, and even make it stand out as a tourist destination. But the thing that gets overlooked is that while gentrification happens, yes, the city is putting new things in, but what is it they are taking out?
So what do we do? How can we improve the neighbourhood without changing its identity, an identity that relies heavily on the people?
To quote Jane Jacobs:
"Just like all cities, creative cities are about people. This means that they cannot be planned from scratch. Creative places in the city are just like living beings: they are born, grow, decay, and can rise again. In my view, the streets are the vital organs of the creative city."
And while on this Jane Jacobs drift, her focus on the city as a living organism and the people is where our attention should go. A neighbourhood's outfit only depicts what's on the surface, but it is the people who work as actors in creating its core.