2014/09 Inhabiting Gentrification

Originally published in Centretown Buzz
by Sarah Gelbard
September 12, 2014

When we think of urban renewal, we tend to think of one of two images. Either the decay of a neglected neighbourhood, or the sparkle of one freshly cleaned up. We imagine the old heritage buildings to be (or have been) restored, local economies to be (or have been) reinvigorated, culture to be (or have been) reinfused.

We tend to think in before and after photos like a TV makeover show, as though there is a finished product, a goal line to cross. But the reality is that cities and neighbourhoods rarely exist in a steady state. They are constantly transforming and adapting. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes in decline. Sometimes change is just change.

Whatever we choose to call it — urban renewal, revitalization, gentrification — it is a process. More important to remember, is it is a process that impacts people, their lives, their livelihoods, and their relations.

At its best, urban renewal aims to reverse trends of decay and neglect, and reestablishes a sense of pride and ownership to a community. At its worst, it displaces vulnerable communities and shifts the problem elsewhere.

The neighbourhood I recently moved to in Montreal, like many core urban areas in North America, is undergoing a conscious process of transition. It is gentrifying and, I fear, leaning towards the latter result of displacement.

Condo/shopping cart juxtaposition. Photo by Sarah Gelbard.

Derelict but low-rent apartments are demolished and replaced by high-priced luxury condos. But ironically, during the process, the entryways of the newly constructed but not yet moved into condos are inhabited by the homeless with their mattresses and shopping carts.

The new high-end street furniture is a trendy place to meet a friend for lunch. This use is only slightly more common than its employment as a place to sleep by the homeless or those who never make it home from the bar.

Yet, we rarely see images of or acknowledge these kinds of juxtapositions and transitions.

It is not surprising that there is often conflict between the established and incoming residents. They often find themselves forced to share space with the unfamiliar and don’t immediately know how to interact with one another—sometimes with irreconcilable results.

But under certain circumstances, after a period of adjustment and negotiation, the old and new can learn not only how to live together but how to optimize the benefits afforded by new neighbours and development, who in turn have benefited from the established but transformed character and identity.

A common first wave contribution to many gentrifying neighbourhoods is the arts scene. Artists are often, like many of the existing residents, low-income and attracted to the area by affordable rents. Eventually they begin to attract the more affluent consumers and patrons of the arts.

This influx of money and business can help neighbourhoods and their residents reinvest in themselves and gradually raise the standard of living. However, if not managed properly or if it happens too quickly, it has a tendency to price the existing residents out of their neighbourhood.

Managing and planning for change is a complex issue. There are no clear solutions for balancing the needs of a growing population while respecting the heritage, identity, and culture of existing communities.

We should never think of the urban project as being either beyond repair or complete. We should be critical and conscious of change without preventing it.

As part of Ottawa Architecture Week (Sept 29 to Oct 5), yowLAB is partnering with ByTowne Cinema to launch the fall edition of the yowLAB Film Festival with a screening of Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel.

This Hot Docs official selection follows the revitalization of Toronto’s century-old Gladstone Hotel from flophouse to arts and music hotspot.

The film will be followed by “Inhabiting Gentrification,” a panel discussion on urban revitalization, social housing, and the arts scene in Ottawa and their impact on the existing character (and characters) of neglected heritage neighbourhoods.

Advance tickets are available at the ByTowne and online.

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