Sunday, April 14, 2013

Deconstructing Gentrification Justifications : "Anything is better than what's there now!"

Hunger striker entering his 3rd week of hunger.  Read more here.
I've been slacking off a bit on this gentrification blog series, even as the debate on gentrification in my neighbourhood has heated up with the Pidgin Restaurant Picket and the Hunger Strike by Formerly-Homeless Dave, so I'm going to try to get back in gear and complete it.

First, if you haven't already done so, read my introductory post on gentrification here.

I'm in the middle of trying to deconstruct some of the common justifications for gentrification.  The first is done, and we're on to the second.

1. Increasing the diversity of the neighbourhood (social mix) is good.
2. We need to do something about this neighbourhood!  Anything is better than what's there now.
3. Gentrification is inevitable, so at least be happy you get some benefits!
4. We have the right to live here, and you don't.

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"We need to do something about the Downtown Eastside."

Imagine hearing someone say this.  In your imagination, whose voice is speaking?  How are they saying this?  Are they frustrated?  Hopeful?  Empathetic?

When I hear it in my imagination, I primarily hear the voices of people who live in other neighbourhoods.  Privileged people.  They might drive by Main and Hastings on their way to work.  Some of them work in the DTES.  Some of them come and eat in the new restaurants opening up in the DTES.  Some of them just read about the DTES in the paper.  Some of them really care about the people in the DTES.

I hear this phrase in my own privileged voice, as someone who is desperate to fix broken things.  But it makes me ask, why are we privileged people interested in "doing something" about the DTES?

If I'm honest with myself, it's not primarily to help all the people living in the DTES.  It's actually to help myself.  Because I'm uncomfortable with, or embarrassed about, or ashamed of the DTES.  I'm ashamed at how money has been wasted.  I'm embarrassed it hasn't done much good.  I'm uncomfortable with the suffering I see.

Christena Cleveland's blog does a good job of unpacking this.  She writes, "Solving oppressed people’s problems rids privileged people of their own discomfort... I periodically ask myself, whose discomfort is motivating me to act – my own or the oppressed person’s? Oftentimes, I must admit that my own discomfort with oppressed people’s suffering primarily motivates me to advocate for oppressed people. I feel better when they are no longer suffering and I no longer have to stand with them in their suffering or think about their suffering. When this occurs, their feelings and needs are secondary to my own.  And once again the situation revolves around me, the privileged person. Mission not accomplished."

I don't think the middle and upper class of Vancouver are entirely evil and greedy and just want to take over the DTES.  I don't think they're all just eager to sweep addicts and poor people out of sight.  I think there are a lot of Vancouverites who really and sincerely believe that gentrification will help the people of the DTES.  The problem with this is that they haven't asked the people of the DTES whether they want their neighbourhood to be gentrified, or how they want to be helped.**
 
This whole idea of "asking the residents" may sound strange if you see people in the DTES as dependents who are unable to think for or beyond themselves.  Now it is true that some people in the DTES are in such deep life crisis, or are so mentally ill that thinking big-picture and long-term about the neighbourhood would be very difficult.  When "survival" is at the top of your priority list, contributing to the future of your neighbourhood is, frankly, pretty low on your list.  It's also true that some people are just happy to leech off the system and not contribute anything to the health of the DTES (though it would be interesting to explore how they got that way... that's a topic for another blog post!).  But people in such limiting situations exist in every neighbourhood - they're just not always as visible as they are in the DTES.  And there are plenty of current DTES residents who are eager to dream about what their neighbourhood could look like.

The approach I've grown to admire is often called an asset-based approach, or a strengths-based approach.  It's based on the idea that people are experts on their own lives.  It privileges the wealth of lived experience they possess.  The residents start by identifying the strengths or assets of their community.  Can't think of any strengths in the DTES?  Did you know that DTES residents contribute more volunteer hours to their community than any other neighbourhood in Vancouver?  The DTES also has a higher concentration of artists than any other neighbourhood in Vancouver.  And many people, including myself, find an unparalleled sense of community, empathy and acceptance in the DTES.

After identifying strengths, the residents identify their community's weaknesses, ask what they can contribute to solve their own problems, and in what specific areas they want to request help from outside sources. 

A good example of a strengths-based and community-led approach would be the CCAP Vision for the DTES, summarized in their "Assets to Action" report.  Hundreds of DTES residents contributed to this beautiful vision for their neighbourhood.  It is definitely worth a read.

It's simply not true that "anything would be better than what is in the DTES now."  "Anything" implies experimentation regardless of the consequences, and "anything" will likely fail to protect the most vulnerable people in the neighbourhood, and fail to observe or preserve the strengths of the community.  No matter how compassionate and eager to help privileged people may be, if we proceed without listening and letting oppressed people lead the way, if we treat DTES residents like children to be parented or savages to be tamed, and if we rush into fixing problems primarily to rid ourselves of discomfort, we will certainly fail.  (Just ask the average third-world citizen how well it's gone over when NGOs have done this kind of thing in their countries.)  Simply "trying something new," and treating the DTES like a laboratory for city planning,a zoning, and policing is unethical and unjust.  We need to free the residents of the DTES to dictate what "would be better" for themselves, to determine their own future goals, and to decide how to get there, for the sake of their children and grandchildren.

 "We need to do something about the DTES."  I can't wait for the day when the majority of people empowered to dream and act and speak this phrase are the residents of the DTES, and when the rest of us have the patience and the trust to let them do so.

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**In a way, the people of the DTES are currently being asked how they want to be helped.  I am serving as one of the low-income representatives on the Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) for the DTES.  This city-funded process was a concession prize to the neighbourhood after we lost a fight against a big condo project in Chinatown.  It took a year to set the terms of reference for the LAPP, and our thirty-person committee, made up of low-income people, business people, and service providers, has now been meeting for over a year.  We're supposed to have a plan for the neighbourhood by November.  But the process has been incredibly frustrating for almost everyone involved.  I spoke up at the last meeting to point out that our time is almost entirely consumed by listening to reports and dealing with governance and process issues, leaving us almost zero time to brainstorm, to discuss controversial issues and to attempt to find points of consensus.  I have low expectations that the plan will reflect the wishes of most DTES residents, and even lower expectations that the City will follow the plan.  So I'm not sure yet whether this counts as "asking the neighbourhood how it wants to be helped."  I'll keep you posted.

5 comments:

sharz1o1 said...

So well said, as usual. I love that you talk in a way that people of all different social locations would understand. And strengths-based. Dang. You sound like a social worker. (in a good way :)

Michael Bennett said...

Very well stated. I do like your writing style and your honesty.
I believe that if one can accept and welcome the new business and the more affluent population into the DTES as inevitable change (we do live in a capitalist society after all ) then perhaps they could be included in the conversation.
Perhaps a 'welcome wagon' approach would be more effective in bringing people together to find a solution than publishing a 'Zones of exclusion' list which only pits new against old and rich against poor.
Your church group could visit new business's that you find are most harmful and let them know your concerns; how they can help, where they can donate or how they can raise money or awareness. Don't just write about community spirit. Be it!
I think you have your heart in the right place but I think your energy is misguided.
When you spoke of outsiders coming in and telling residents how to live I couldn't help but think of the work missionaries have been doing for centuries abroad; no wonder you are conflicted.
Your idea for a diverse DTES group to study and decide what the future should be in this neighbourhood is brilliant. But accept that it's ok for residents (old or new) to not want litter on the streets, public urination, drug dealing and open use of needles. It's ok to want heritage buildings to be saved, to have order in the streets and to feel safe. Its ok for DTES residents to not live in a ghetto. To dream, to hope, to aspire.
Begin with that and the community will flourish.
'Outsiders' who move to or open business's in this area do so primarily because of the community spirit down here. I moved from a Yaletown condo where I didn't know any of my neighbours (so your low income friend in the Woodwards building should'nt feel special....I think condo towers are just impersonal, period). 'New' DTES residents are regular people who are trying to do good; just like you. To exclude them and make them the bad guy is counter productive.
Being raised Christian I understand and appreciate the work you do as a pastor....but as community activist I believe you are still 'finding you voice'.

Beth said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for engaging with this topic (though, like your other comment, it seems you haven't actually read what I've written here, since there is nothing about publishing a "zones of exclusion" list.)

You're anticipating the final post I'm planning, which has to do with our response to gentrification. I do believe there is merit to ideas like "welcome wagons," alongside some other approaches. Hopefully we can continue that dialogue when I write that post.

I believe some of your priorities for change in the neighbourhood are shared by lower-income residents. For example, the folks at VANDU lobbied successfully for more 24-hour public washrooms in the neighbourhood so there would be less public urination and public drug use by people who don't have homes to urinate and use drugs in.

You're very right that there are links to missionaries and to colonialism in general - I'm also planning to write about that. It's my learning about residential schools and other injustices church people have committed toward marginalized groups that leads me to want to prevent the same kind of thing from happening in the present day in the DTES.

I love that outsiders move in for the community spirit. That's one of the things I love about the neighbourhood. But I think it's our responsibility as outsiders to seriously examine what our presence is doing to that community spirit. Are we contributing to it, or are we displacing and pushing out the very community we love?

I hope we can continue this conversation as I write more posts - I've been delayed by some life circumstances, but hope to take up this topic again soon!

Michael Bennett said...

Thanks Beth...sorry for the confusion again. I did indeed read your blog and enjoyed the points you raised.
I believe my comments about the 'zones of exclusion' are relevant because you co-authored it. Even if you don't directly talk about it in your blog I believe it's an integral part of your 'Chinatown gentrification' discussion. Are you saying that you were not a part of writing and organizing the 'zones of exclusion' list?
If you weren't, I sincerely apologize. Your name is attached to the site so I assumed that you stood behind what was written however misguided.
I love your second to last paragraph. I will be doing a lot of thinking about that. I suppose having the store has given me a unique perspective. Perhaps I can share that with you one day.
(and I have a ton of questions about ZOE so let me know when/where it's appropriate to address those.
Hope you are enjoying the sunshine!

Beth said...

Hey Michael,

Sorry - I accidentally deleted your similar comment on the other post when I was trying to hit "publish" - but I'll address the zones of exclusion thing here.

In my initial learning about gentrification, I offered my services as a photographer for that zones of exclusion campaign - I likely took the picture of the Peking Lounge. It didn't really fit my personal style of protesting, but it did teach me a lot about the extent and effects of gentrification in the DTES. At that stage, it was more about documenting the number of businesses targeting higher-income clientele than it was about directing residents to actively boycott or oppose them. I wasn't comfortable with the intensification of this campaign (for example, the "gentriFUCKation" spread in the DT East newspaper), but I am still friends with a lot of people who take this approach.

As I'll discuss in my final post, there are a variety of responses to gentrification, including boycotts, protests, "welcome wagons," education campaigns, and more, and different approaches might be appropriate for different times. I'll talk about the Zones of Exclusion style of response there. Hoping to get to that in the next couple of months!