BY Tanya Day Ritchie and Tim Ritchie.
Gentrification is a difficult subject. When we discuss it, we seem to be fighting about what it is, whether it’s happening, and whether it?s a bad thing. Where Hamilton is concerned, there is one thing that is indisputable: it used to be cheaper to live here. Five to ten years ago, it was commonplace to see houses for sale, especially in the north end of the city, for under $100,000 – even under $50,000. Rents were available for as little as $300 for a bachelor apartment, and incrementally more for larger places. Costs – rents and taxes and so forth – as a general rule, increased as one moved south and west.
But things have changed. To take just three examples – Locke Street, James Street North, Ottawa Street – these are exciting strips in the downtown, and their surrounding neighbourhoods are becoming more and more exclusive. There are articles in the national and international media referring to them as trendy and talking about how hot the local scene is.
We are resistant to change, especially when it seems to come quickly.
People are moving to Hamilton and, with higher demand, prices have risen. There is a knee-jerk reaction among those of us who have lived here for a while – often all our lives – to close the borders and deny all these interlopers entry. We are resistant to change, especially when it seems to come quickly. But is this change necessarily gentrification? If someone buys a property that has been neglected and cleans it up, gives it a coat of paint, puts in a garden and makes it attractive, is that gentrification – or is that just taking care of the city? What if that happens to every building on a street? Is it only gentrification if a developer knocks down the whole swathe and puts in condo towers and boutiques? Is it something that happens with a bang, or can it happen by increments? Imagine a run-down and empty storefront on one of Hamilton’s busy arterial roads. No tenant stays there for more than a few months at most, because there?s no foot traffic, there’s no appeal. Its future looks bleak, because there are no rents coming in and therefore no money to spend on maintenance. Then someone takes it over – a buyer or a renter – and they put in some elbow grease to clean it up. They put up curtains rather than the boards, bags or newspapers that had previously covered the windows. They pull the weeds, pick up the scattered junk mail. The place becomes well maintained and well lit, occupied by people who care about it and take care of it. Is that gentrification? How many similar stories in the same area would it take for an area to become gentrified?
Perhaps gentrification is only a difficulty when it displaces people. When it reaches a critical mass that affects areas nearby, when it attracts developers who don?t care for the original residents of an area, and then the people who live and work in a neighbourhood can no longer afford to do so. We must face up to issues of class, and race, and poverty. We have to look at the people who are being displaced. And at this point we have to go back and look at what?s undeniable. Prices are rising, and not just at the rate of inflation. Whether or not we call it gentrification, and whether or not we count each little improvement as an aspect of gentrification, almost becomes besides the point, an exercise in semantics. The point is not to stop people from putting up those curtains and applying that coat of paint; it?s to stop those positive actions from having far-reaching negative reactions. Rather than arguing about whether or not gentrification is happening, and exactly what it is, and whether it even exists, our efforts would be far better spent if we focus on preventing the fall-out. Whether this happens through community groups, activism, government intervention, a mix of these things or other things entirely, there are essential things that must be addressed. Housing stability is at the top of that list.
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