Can Better Be Bad?

BY Graham Crawford

Can better be bad? I think the short answer is yes, but of course it depends on how you define better and on how you define bad.

I think the longer answer is, not always.

Depending on whom you ask, the word gentrification seems to get used to describe both good and bad. As is often the case with most extremes, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Let’s get the relevant personal bias stuff out of the way. I own one unit of a 5-unit heritage building on James Street North. When I bought it in 2006, it had been the home of a Chinese bakery that specialized in wedding cakes. It had gone out of business, so the retail space was abandoned. The upper apartment was vacant. For seven years, I operated Hamilton HIStory + HERitage, a free, store-front museum. Now, I just own the building. There’s a shop at street level, and an apartment above. My building sits on one of Hamilton’s oldest urban streets that has always had a mix of both retail and residential. Stores at grade. Apartments above. In the case of my building, erected in 1882, originally the retailers below lived in the apartments above.

These original retailers, just like their clientele, changed over the years as different waves of immigrants came to Hamilton, most of them disembarking at the northern tip of James Street, whether by boat, or later by train, and settling on and around James North. First English, Scots and Irish. Then Italians. Then Portuguese, many of whom have chosen to stay in the neighbourhood. Now, there is a mix of residents who call the neighbourhood home. Were any of these groups gentrifiers? Or were the changes less to do with gentrification and more to do with changes in ethnicity, culture, and language? Certainly, the stores changed both owners and offerings. And it continues to change.

Down town Hamilton Ontario
Image sourceDean McCoy

I don’t have answers to the complex issues related to gentrification, but I do have a number of questions.

1. Does a change in use equal gentrification?

What if an old shoe store on James North became a butcher shop, would it be gentrification? Or would it depend on whether or not it became a fancy butcher shop? Would it depend on whether or not the butcher bought the building, or was just renting the space from the same landlord?

2. Does a change in condition equal gentrification?

Would someone who bought an old coffee shop on Locke Street and decided to keep running it as a coffee shop but decided to redecorate it, inside and outside, and add some new tables and chairs be gentrification? Or would it depend on whether or not the price of a cup of coffee stayed the same, or went up? Would it depend on if the clientele changed?

3. Does a change in market value equal gentrification?

If someone buys an old building on Ottawa Street with a shop on the ground floor and two apartments above the shop, and then asks both the retail and the residential tenants to leave while the building is renovated, does the building increase in value? Obviously, the new owner hopes so, since it takes money acquire and to renovate. But, to realize the building’s increase in market value, someone else has to be willing to pay the new, higher price. If a buyer can’t be found, is the building still worth what the new owner is asking for it? Is it worth even as much as that owner spent to acquire and to renovate it?Regardless of a change in market value, the building would be in better condition. Or would it depend on whether or not the previous tenants could afford to move back in?

4. Is there a hierarchy of retail gentrification?

Take food shopping, for example. Is Fortino’s a gentrifier? Is it more of a gentrifier than say the Mustard Seed Food Co-op? Is the Mustard Seed more of a gentrifier than the Lighthouse Portuguese food shop on James North? Is the Lighthouse more of a gentrifier than an individual Hamilton Farmers’ Market stall operator? Is a Farmers’ Market stall owner selling roasted coffees more of a gentrifier than a stall owner selling local apples? Is it a matter of scale? A matter of product? Price? Clientele? Are any of these examples bad? Are any of them good? Who decides?

5. What about unwanted displacement?

They’re all examples of change, which can be a good thing. But, what they’re not examples of are unwanted displacement, which I think complicates the discussion about gentrification.

Retail displacement can happen because the building owner renovated a shop and the new rents make it hard for long-term retailers to continue to make the kind of profit they were used to making. We’ve all seen retailers choose to retire (several along James North), or to set up shop in a new location after being displaced (from Locke Street to Ottawa Street).

What about residential displacement? If you don’t have much money, and paying the rent is already a bit of a challenge, how can you pay more after the building you call home is renovated? If you can’t afford to move back in, where do you go? Out of the neighbourhood to a cheaper neighbourhood? One that may not be on a transit line? One that may be quite a distance away from the place that’s been your neighbourhood? On the other hand, are the rents high enough for the building owner to afford to do upgrades to the building so that it’s a good place to live, and a good building to own?

Fundamentally, retail displacement is always about commerce – profit margins for both the retailer and for the building owner. Residential displacement is usually about profit margins for the building owner, and about where you call home for the resident.

I don’t view these two types of gentrification, retail and residential, as presenting the same challenges. The complicating factor, however, is that for most of the old urban thoroughfares such as James North, both are intertwined because almost all of the buildings that have retail at grade, also have residential above. But even many of those residential units have changed.

Apartments on James North that might now be homes to individual tenants, whether artists, students, or anyone else, were once the residences of entire families. Over time, many of the apartments were divided and made smaller so more rents could be charged that, together, likely added up to more than the total rent from the family who had lived there before. Was creating more apartments better? Was generating more revenue for the landlord better?

I know, more questions than answers. But that’s precisely why we need to keep talking about gentrification from all perspectives so better isn’t bad.


Want more? Continue reading The Gentrification Issue


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