Summer reading

August 18, 2008 § 2 Comments

Being suddenly conscious of how little summer is left, I’ve taken to reading on the balcony in the afternoons. There is just enough room on the small plastic table for a hardcover book, my cigarette case, an ashtray, and a cup of coffee; in other words, all the accoutrements of a good, long read.

Lately, I have been devouring books on the early stages of gentrification, which began in earnest in the 1960s and which, remarkably, is still transforming neighbourhoods and cities the world over. While the gentrification of Chelsea is old news, the process is only just beginning in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where the addicted and homeless are being given one-way tickets out of the city to make way for the coming Olympics.

Worse, a recent communiqué by the British military describes the revival of the southern Iraqi city of Basra in the same terms that real estate agents use to promote up-and-coming neighbourhoods: “House prices have doubled in a matter of months. Restaurants are opening alongside the waterside corniche. Oil-rich Kuwaitis are beginning to move in, and trade at the port is booming.” Seemingly, victory will be declared when the Shia militias that still roam the streets are able to plan their attacks at Starbucks.

Meanwhile, last week’s riot in Montreal North reveals that the urban poor have not simply vanished, but that, as in France, they have been relegated to the periphery of our revitalized cities, far from the lofts and yoga boutiques that displaced them. In the nine years that I have now lived in Montreal, I have never once set foot in Montreal North. I imagine that most of you haven’t either.

Of course, reading about such things can be an exercise in frustration, since books have little effect on the political and economic forces that determine how cities evolve. Even so, it is good to be reminded of the fact that the process is neither natural nor innocent, and that the stakes are as every bit as high as I believe them to be.

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§ 2 Responses to Summer reading

  • Strikingly, I believe the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is gentrified and completely rough all at once. An amazing balancing act to be witness to. Only in Canada, one suspects…

  • Vila H. says:

    Well, not quite, eh? A similar “balance” was found in the 1980s on the Lower East Side, and in the 1990s in Harlem. What you’ve observed is the moment before the tipping point, which, according to my sources, is fast approaching on the Downtown Eastside.

    After years of allowing the neighbourhood to be the repository for the city’s poorest residents, the Olympics have prompted a new policy of dispersal by the Vancouver government, which is evidenced by the tactic of giving social services recipients one-way bus tickets out of the city, as mentioned above. Ironically, some of them arrived in Vancouver in precisely the same way, having been given one-way tickets out of Alberta by the provincial government of Ralph Klein. Seriously.

    As it happens, a similar approach is being taken to homeless people here in Montreal, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. This Hour piece describes the situation fairly succinctly, and is definitely worth reading.

    Um, I’ll stop for questions now… :)

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