Commentary

Accidental Gentrification

We need to be attentive that we do not overwrite or undermine each other's stories as we try to write our own.

By Adrienne Havercroft
Published October 23, 2013

I am happy to call Hamilton, Ontario home. I wasn't born here. I didn't even grow up here. But over the past seven years, I have come to adopt this place as home. Or maybe it adopted me.

How do I account for this? There are many varied reasons, but the one that underpins all the others is a sense that this is a place that is full of possibility and creative potential.

This is a place where the world seems open rather than closed. This is a place where it still feels like we get to decide for ourselves how we want to live. It is a place full of hope. Let me try to explain.

Hamilton is a city of about half a million situated on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, about halfway between Toronto and Niagara falls. A post-industrial city, Hamilton was, and still is known as a "Steeltown".

Up until the 1980s, the two big steel manufacturers, Stelco and Dofasco, were the city's two biggest economic heavyweights and largest employers. Much has changed since then. It's a familiar story: globalization, outsourcing, urban sprawl and so on, which left the downtown run down and economically depressed.

More recently, things have begun to change. This, too, is a familiar story: a story often named gentrification. I studied gentrification pretty extensively while completing my master's degree at McMaster, so it is a story I know quite well, at least in theory. In simple terms, gentrification is the gradual increase in urban property values as urban neighbourhoods are bought up and taken over by the middle class.

While the story of gentrification can take on a variety of forms, it is often associated with "hipster" culture, generally occurring as a result of (usually) young creative types moving into inexpensive parts of the city.

As they establish communities, property values begin to rise as these neighbourhoods become more and more desirable places for people to live. Essentially, gentrification occurs as cultural capital is transformed into real capital through rising property values.

The whole thing is a complicated and contradictory process, both economically and politically, and I definitely won't attempt to try to do it justice here. Politicians and economists love it for obvious reasons, while academics and activists tend to have their reservations.

One of the most common critiques of gentrification is the way it has a tendency to displace poorer populations. Personally, I found it an interesting topic to write about because I was drawn to this complexity. I like studying things I feel slightly ambivalent about, because I think it's more fun that way.

I will say this, though: I chose to study gentrification because I thought it was interesting, not because I thought it described my own experiences. Turns out that joke is on me.

I distinctly remember my own 'a-ha' moment when I realized I was one of the gentrifiers I had spent a year studying (and often deriding). I argued in my thesis that gentrification occurs as a result of a white, middle class romanticization of "otherness". That was one of my "big money" statements.

It was during one of my placements at teachers college (the year following my MA year), and I found myself at one of Hamilton's inner city schools. I had gone, along with a few classmates and teachers, to this divey neighbourhood bar after school one Friday afternoon. When we arrived at around three, the place was pretty empty, but over the next few hours it gradually started to fill up with locals, who appeared to be regulars coming for a pint after work.

As I passed through the mostly male crowd laughing and drinking in well-worn work clothes I distinctly remember thinking, "this place is awesome".

I don't think I realized it right away, but when I thought through my reaction to this place over the next day or so, I realized I had revealed that I was one of them - one of those gentrifiers about which I had crafted so many careful big ideas.

While I was sincere in my positive assessment of this place, I was doing so from a position of privileged, ironic detachment; I was ascribing value to this bar and its patrons as an "other" in this space. I thought it was awesome because of its working-class authenticity, something I romanticized but was in no way connected to my own experience (unless you count watching The Wire).

What that moment also revealed to me is that these things are even more complicated than I had originally realized. My own intention in moving to the city was not about appropriating its working class identity and exploiting it for my own ends (at least not consciously).

While I grew up a generic, privileged, middle class white kid from the suburbs, I was inexplicably drawn to this place that looked nothing like where I came from. There are a variety of reasons for this and these are things I hope to be able to continue to explore.

But I will admit that it at least in part, it was this otherness that drew me in. In hindsight, I think what I found appealing about Hamilton was that it offered an alternative narrative that was unavailable to me if I had decided to stay in the suburbs.

Remaining there would have meant resigning myself to a kind of replica existence. Like I would just be unconsciously and uncritically perpetuating the exact same life I had been brought up in.

And while moving to the city was not an overt act of rebellion, I think it was a rejection of a certain kind of suburban lifestyle and the values that came with it. It was a rejection of the insular, solipsistic, apolitical, "keeping up with the Joneses" attitude that is often so prevalent in suburbia.

It was like, if the suburbs represent the winners of global capitalism - the middle and upper middle classes who had the privilege of being advantaged by its processes - then Hamilton, on some level, symbolically represents its losers. Who better to stand in as the detritus of neoliberal capitalism than our decaying post-industrial cities, its workers displaced and forgotten, its buildings abandoned?

And it kind of felt like here in Hamilton, in the decay, in the symbolic rubble of globalization, was a chance to write a different story.

Although it's still early days, I do feel like we are writing a new story here - though that "we" is a complicated pronoun. I would say that there are many people who, like me, have moved (and are moving) here to re-imagine a life for themselves that looks different than from where they came from. Like me, they were drawn to this city's otherness in both sincere and potentially problematic ways.

The setting of the story we are telling is not without its own context and "we" are not the only ones implicated and invested the narratives and physical spaces that are being reclaimed here.

The city and its history is not a monolith or an object upon which to project our personal needs and desires (even if that story is sometimes an easier one to tell). We need to be attentive that we do not overwrite or undermine each other's stories as we try to write our own. I would like to think that there is still time for all of this.

Despite these complications, my hope of re-imagining what life might look like for myself and for others begins in the physical spaces of this city. I have been watching them change for years now, and I am encouraged by the determination and tenacity of those who have implicitly understood that if the communities, the political structures and the physical spaces you want to live and operate within don't already exist, you must create them.

I am able to believe that change is possible because I have seen it happen right before my eyes in the city that surround me.

So thanks Hamilton, I owe a lot of my optimism and hope for the future to you.

First published on Adrienne's website.

Adrienne Havercroft is a Ward 2 resident, HWDSB teacher, licensed Realtor, wife, and mother to two cats, taking time out of her busy schedule to be an actively engaged citizen.

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By brendan (registered) | Posted October 23, 2013 at 15:36:58

It seems crazy to me that Hamilton's chief virtue right now seems to be it's "authenticity". If you don't believe me, just watch Ec-Dev's recent "Ambitious City" video. It's pretty thick with blue-collar romance.

Don't get me wrong, I love that we have a deep architectural and cultural history here, and I'm happy that people want to move in. The weird part to me is why anyone thinks Hamilton (and specific "dives" within) are more "authentic" than any other place, and why that sentiment is worth money to people. I worry that our current popularity is nothing more than a response to some societal malaise, and that it will all dry up when the winds of fad change. Hopefully we can use the interim support to build some lasting value.

Thanks for the article!

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted October 23, 2013 at 15:51:32

I enjoyed the article and can relate to it - thanks. I've also been here seven years and am proud to call Hamilton my home. To me however, the term authentic relates it this city's people, not its locations... maybe they're inseparable. It is something I didn't feel in the suburbs or in other cities.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted October 23, 2013 at 18:05:39

From a fellow accidental gentrificationist I can relate.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 11:17:12

Jonathan Raban writing about late-1960s London in "Soft City" (1974):

... We may imagine that they grew up in rather grand houses with gravel drives, comfortably distant from the steamy life of their nearest working class neighbours. As adults, they turned guiltily on the boldly bourgeois ethos of their parents. Not for them the vulgar exhibition of wealth, or unthinking defensive conservativism which their income and capital might have led them unthinkingly towards, a generation or two ago. Their professions are vaguely, entrepreneurially "cultural": academics, journalists of a literary turn, television directors and producers, actors, copywriters, publishers, agents, with a few lawyers, accountants, and business executives. For them the purchase of a house has become an act of conscience;and they have left the old strongholds of their class behind (believing their education and judiciously left politics have declassed them anyway), and searched out "unspoiled" areas in the city, where they can live conspicuously cheek-by-jowl with the polyglot poor. They have rejected the suburbs, and found parts near the centre of the city which had been rendered invisible to the bourgeois eye by a century of railway engineering, immigration, and progressive dilapidation. In the blackened, small-windowed brick terraces (built for better-off artisans and the shabbier members of the lower middle class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century), they have seen an honest unpretension which fits very well their conception of themselves.

Comment edited by RobF on 2013-10-24 11:24:49

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By Adrienne (anonymous) | Posted October 28, 2013 at 16:40:24 in reply to Comment 93644

Love this!

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 14:01:03

I distinctly remember my own 'a-ha' moment when I realized I was one of the gentrifiers I had spent a year studying (and often deriding). I argued in my thesis that gentrification occurs as a result of a white, middle class romanticization of "otherness". That was one of my "big money" statements.

Why blame gentrification on white, middle-class romanticization when it can be more accurately described as white, middle-class capital-activation? Gentrifiers (like you, me, us--no loaded value statement here) may feel or say that a place or people draw them to Hamilton, but more powerful (in this era) is the very capitalist urge to buy property at low prices, repair it or live in it, and bank the capital gains.

Is that not the process that's we're currently witnessing? It's what's changing downtown, and some people see elements as problematic, but on the whole it's mostly positive. Regardless, no one has an inherent right to stasis, so three cheers for the gentrifiers (accidental or otherwise)!

Interesting thoughts; thanks for the read, Adrienne.

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By lesigh (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 16:31:16

I really hate it when people use the adjective-verb "decay" when describing Hamilton or any other socio-economically depressed areas. Decay implies it is a natural process whereas it is actually the result of conscious political-economic policy, which the authour seem to be somewhat aware of. Also, It should be pointed out that Hamilton does indeed have suburbs and it was the process of suburbanization beginning in the 50s that began the economic decline of Hamilton's downtown. It's an easy and widely accepted narrative that globalization is to blame or the outsourcing of heavy industry but local political policies emanating from city hall are as much to blame of the plight of DT Hamilton. This dichotomy between "generic white suburbs" and "Hamilton" that the author presents without much thought is pretty ignorant. Hamilton is not simply the downtown area, east of king and north of main, it is also historically affluent areas such as the Durand, Aberdeen, Westdale. Hamilton's downtown needs to be properly historicized.

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By Shempatolla (registered) - website | Posted October 30, 2013 at 19:11:00

I'm waiting for some of the same people who have been pissing and moaning for YEARS about the stagnation of downtown, how dirty it is, how dangerous it is, how it's driving their suburban property values down and on and on, ...... to very soon start complaining about how those of us who have committed our money, time, sweat, energy, future to making downtown a better place are making it too trendy, too expensive, too artsy, too busy, too uppity, too ambitious, too self righteous.... and on and on.

To that I say, GFYS!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted October 30, 2013 at 22:05:13 in reply to Comment 94006

Believe me. It's already started.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 31, 2013 at 06:51:07 in reply to Comment 94011

The whole anti-gentrification debate flared up in 2010, but I haven't detected a lot of overt conflict lately.

As for the issue itself, notwithstanding the baroque critical theory rhetoric of some academics, the evidence suggests that gentrification actually has something of an anchoring effect on vulnerable populations rather than the displacement we hear so much about. As Columbia University professor Lance Freeman put it, "If the neighbourhood is on the upswing, people want to stay."

Imagine two poor families living in different but roughly equivalent neighbourhoods. The only difference is that neighbourhood A is gentrifying and neighbourhood B is not. For various reasons, both families decide to move out. In neighbourhood B, another poor family moves in, but in neighbourhood A, a bohemian family moves in.

It looks like the bohemian family has forced out the poor family, and the overall makeup of neighbourhood A starts to change over time as more affluent families move in - but that's not what's really going on.

The most legitimate argument of anti-gentrification activists is that gentrification doesn't actually help lift poor people out of poverty - which is a much different argument than the claim that gentrification displaces poor people.

There is definitely some truth to this claim, but a couple of countervailing facts put it into perspective:

  • The absence of gentrification also does not help lift poor people out of poverty; and

  • The evidence suggests gentrification does reduce churn for poor people, which is a net benefit.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted October 31, 2013 at 10:43:56 in reply to Comment 94021

The whole anti-gentrification debate flared up in 2010, but I haven't detected a lot of overt conflict lately.

Not anti-gentrification sentiment specifically, but the complaints that the downtown is too expensive, too uppity, too self-righteous, etc. etc, yes. Warming up for the election...

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 31, 2013 at 09:46:34 in reply to Comment 94021

Well, the people who have the most trouble with gentrification are working-poor home-owners. They have to pay property tax. Which, imho, is more of an argument against the regressive property-tax system instead of an argument against gentrification.

At the bare minimum, it brings in a bunch of service-industry jobs. Bohemian neighborhoods freaking love their coffee shops.

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