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How Much Do Young People Care About Gentrification?

We interrupted some millennials' £3.50 coffee to ask if they think about displacing the poor.

by Zac Thompson
31 July 2016, 5:00am

Millennials: we have to live, work and buy coffee somewhere. Photo via the author

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada

Like most young people, I'm perpetually broke. Thanks to a crushing mountain of debt, I moved to a cheaper neighbourhood. In the short time I've been here the area has become "hipper" and the condo developers have taken notice.

It's now at a point where beautiful and expensive micro-lofts are built in the shittiest parts of town. My weird little corner of the city is not-so-subtly gentrifying, and I can't help but feel partially responsible for its transformation.

I figure not everyone feels this way. It seems much of my generation would rather patronize swanky restaurants in gentrified neighbourhoods without thinking about the people we are displacing in the process. So I asked some other millennials living and working in fast-changing neighbourhoods to see if young people actually care.

'Nobody wants to identify as a gentrifier.' Photo via Facebook

Joel, Vancouver

VICE: What's it like to be a business owner in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside?
Joel: I've worked in social housing in the Downtown Eastside for 11 years prior to opening Black Medicine Tattoo. I love this area even though it's not without its problems. There is a huge struggle related to poverty and mental health. There is a community of small business owners that is absolutely incredible. However we're currently in the middle of a tidal wave of development.

Has anything changed about the neighbourhood since you opened for business?
The most recent set of condos finished construction and they started building several more including two within spitting distance from the shop. Less people smoke crack on our street at night. High end restaurants, Starbucks, bars for the party crowd have all been recent arrivals. It's still rough, but things are changing.

Vancouver's 'tidal wave of development.' Photo via the author

Do you personally identify as a gentrifier?
Nobody want's to identify as a gentrifier. Nobody is the bad guy in their own head. I believe we cater to a younger artistic crowd as a shop. Young artistic types are the tip of the spear when it comes to gentrification. We move where we can afford to live and slowly increase its desirability until we and the historic residents of the area can no longer afford to live there. However young people have mobility in their living situation whereas the poorer residents of an area may not. We can uproot and move to another city or area if we have to. That isn't the case for many people in the Downtown Eastside.

What's the weirdest thing you've seen on the street?
I'm not going to try to impress with some fucked up tale at the heart of which is the suffering of a human being stuck in a shitty situation. It's not entertainment. However there are some weirdly beautiful things like finding parts of my girlfriend's art project built into a shelter on the side of the street. You see a lot of the raw humanity in the Downtown Eastside that people in other parts of the city manage to hide.

What is your experience with the people being displaced by gentrification in Vancouver?
Working for the Portland Hotel Society founded by Liz Evans and Mark Townsend was eye opening. Those people fought to make a home for the residents of the Downtown Eastside by transforming many of the buildings from being dirty and dangerous to safe and stable. They helped empower more people to take up that fight as well. Monied interests will find the potential to make more money wherever it exists. Right now there is potential in the Downtown Eastside. Vancouver's housing market has become insane and the increased pressure from that is being felt very deeply. What I wonder is if there is more we can create in our cities and societies to protect those who are vulnerable to gentrification.

Montreal's Little Italy: 'not totally gentrified.' Photo via Flickr user Axel Drainville

Kate, Montreal

VICE: What neighbourhood do you live in? What's it like?
Kate: Right now, I live in Little Italy. It's a really vibrant neighbourhood. I would describe it as at an in-between stage: there are really cool African grocers, some grittier areas, old, storied Italian spots, but also a bunch of new brunch spots and coffee shops opening up. It's not totally gentrified, but it's become hipper. So many cute little shops, restaurants and art galleries. Little Italy has the Jean Talon market, which is one of the gems of the city.

What do you know about gentrification in Montreal? Do you care about it?
Mile End. It's arguably the hippest neighbourhood in Montreal: it was home to Arcade Fire, Grimes, etc. It's where I lived when I moved to Montreal. I almost definitely couldn't afford to live there now, though. It used to be a cool artist community—now it's mostly yuppies. I care about it in selfish ways—I want to live where my friends are living and I don't want to eventually get pushed out because of higher rental prices—but I also care about it from a social perspective. I see a lot of people on rental Facebook groups looking for cheapish housing for entire families and be nearly totally out of luck. There's also been a downswing in community housing and on a societal level, that bothers me.

El Kartel in Vancouver's Chinatown. Photo via the author

Pablo, Vancouver

VICE: How do you feel about your role in Vancouver's Chinatown? Do you ever think you might be a gentrifier?
Pablo: I feel running El Kartel in Chinatown is only a positive thing, I don't identify myself/business as a gentrifier. The building we are in, a 1903 Heritage Building belongs to the Chinese Benevolent Society and is probably one of the nicest in Chinatown, in order for us to to come in as tenants we had to be interviewed many times and be accepted by the society. The most important thing for them was to have a business that could contribute to the revitalization of Chinatown by bringing more people to the area. They loved the idea that we always have been involved with the community and throwing cultural events.

Providing a space for local artists seems paramount to El Kartel's mission, why is that important to you?
Putting on art shows means so much to me. We've been doing them since 2003. I grew up loving art and music and ever since I had a space to showcase artist I haven't stopped. I treat the store like my house. We always have nice art on the walls and some special music playing. Supporting new talent and bringing people together makes me very happy. About every five to six weeks we change the art and we love to celebrate. Our openings are very special, we invite local DJ's, musicians, dancers and all sorts of performers and the vibes are always amazing.

Have you ever felt judged by customers for opening a business in a historically low-income community?
Not really. A few people have come into the shop with intentions to do so but they just end up dancing, looking at the artwork on the walls, and leaving with a smile on their face. When I think about it, it would be better to have more business like mine than empty spots covered in bad graffiti and full of drug dealers and crackheads outside. The community has actually been very welcoming, we have become mutual friends and customers.

Blame 'desire for the coolest, trendiest shit.' Photo via the author

Sean, Toronto

VICE: What neighbourhood do you live in? What's it like?
Sean: I live in Parkdale, which is the south west corner of downtown, specifically King St W & Dufferin. It's an area that has seen a lot of changes over the last 10-15 years. It used to be a rougher neighbourhood from what I understand. I first moved to the area in 2010 and a lot my neighbours told me that the area used to be a really poor/underdeveloped area of the city but never really explained why.

What do you know about gentrification in Toronto?
If you ask anyone that lives downtown, more than likely they can agree that Regent Park is a good example. Regent Park was well known for being a poor/low income area around the Queen/Dundas area just east of Jarvis that had housing projects. The entire area ended up getting demolished and there were plans for condos to be made within the next two years or something. I ended up moving from Toronto for a couple years and then moved back in 2014 and just recently saw the newly finished condos of the old Regent Park area and it doesn't look a single thing like the old Regent Park.

Do you think young people are driving change?
Young people may have a part in the gentrification process because of consumerism and desire for the coolest, trendiest shit. Liberty Village is a good example because of its long history of being a commercial/industrial manufacturing area in downtown Toronto, housing massive brick lofts and businesses that varied from building ammunition and bombs during both the wars to the Toronto Carpet Factory.

All of those businesses and manufacturing facilities ended up getting shut down for whatever economic reason but these beautiful spaces remained and eventually were snagged by artists and creatives. There has been a major change now though, where developers have taken over and built a shit ton of condos and jacked the price of rent up so that unless you're a rich kid, or a successful couple renting a one bedroom, it's a bit out of reach for most people.

Ah, Mount Pleasant.

Tom and Vicky, Vancouver

VICE: What makes you spend $5 on a cup of coffee instead of going to place like Tim Hortons?
Vicky: It's a taste thing. A coffee culture thing. After learning to be a barista, I've come to see things differently. Coffee is just way better at a smaller place than what you get at Tim Hortons. Vancouver is just so full of good coffee shops that you don't have to go out of your way.

Tom: There's no reason not to head to a smaller better coffee shop.

With making the choice to patronize a small coffee shop do you identify as gentrifiers?
Vicky: It crosses my mind. I work in the arts and feel like it's a huge part of the problem. But a lot of the time artists go to certain areas because of low income. That's where a lot of interesting people come together to share in interesting creative practises and more people follow suit. The retailers ride on that and push people out making it unaffordable for people like us. And it's not just here.

Tom: It's definitely happening everywhere.

Do you think you can do anything to avoid gentrification?
Vicky: It's part of a capitalist system. It's unavoidable but I do think there needs to be more regulation on when big companies come into an area that they need to be held accountable for investing in the community. There needs to be more community involvement. There needs to be more support for people who grew up in the area, or are from the area.

Tom: It's normally white privileged demographics that push these people out and these are usually people who are there out of necessity. It's got to be weird to have businesses coming in and ruining everything for some some sense of identity.

Vicky: I don't know if it's avoidable. As much as we like to critique it I don't know what we can do to stop it.

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