A white resident’s dilemma: gentrification or segregation?

A Twitter friend, @JessieNYC, a smart and progressive woman who lives in New York City, worried recently about the selection of her new home. She had two choices: to live on the Upper East Side, a high income and mainly white neighbourhood, or to move to another apartment in East Harlem. Her choice was essentially to remain, isolated, in a white enclave or to become a gentrifier.

Gentrification is an issue about which I think a lot, but have hesitated to write about specifically because this is so personally about my neighbourhood. However another Twitter user I follow recently posted a link to Life, Inc., a searing analysis of gentrification and racial politics in Brooklyn, New York. So I have decided to take the plunge; these are things that have to be debated.

For the past fifteen years, my neighbourhood has been changing.

Renters have been displaced as homes are converted to single family dwellings. Front-yard vegetable gardens are being replaced by granite rock and Japanese maples. Median income is rising. The occupational classes of my neighbours have been changing. Where I used to live next to taxi drivers, railway conductors, sales clerks, hotel maids and medical secretaries, I now live among a range of fashion, acting, film and visual artists and writers, and professionals such as social workers, librarians, teachers, and museum curators.

And the neighbourhood is now less racially diverse. Where my (mixed-race) children could see their Chinese heritage reflected around them, where they learned to greet older adults as Po-po or Gong-gong, many of these families have moved away, almost always to be replaced by a young, white couple and a large dog, pleased to be able to afford to enter the housing market on their two incomes. One of the kindergarten teachers at the school where my kids, now in high school, attended, was surprised to realize this year that every child in her morning class is white. When my children were young, she had less than a handful of student who were white.

When I whined about these demographic shifts, a Facebook friend called me out. “Tough living where others want to live, isn’t it?” he said.

Even Jane Jacobs defended gentrification, saying this “unslumming” showed the desirability of a neighbourhood and improved the neighbourhood.

Others have admonished: Change happens!

So I have struggled to articulate my discomfort with these changes.

They are threefold:

  1. The economic drivers of the change
  2. The racial impacts of gentrification
  3. The homogenization of the neighbourhood

1. The neighbourhood change is as a result of economic forces. CUNY Professor Neil Smith provides some insight into the dynamics of these shifts (See the blog Racialicious for more). The forces underlying these moves and improvements to the the neighbourhood are economic – nay, capitalistic, rather than a reflection of social forces or personal decisions.

Smith elaborates, denying “our goal is some rigidly conceived `even development’. This would make little sense. Rather, the goal is to create socially determined patterns of differentiation and equalisation which are driven not by the logic of capital but genuine social choice.

People will maximize their return, so if that means selling out while prices are high, so they will move.  At the neighbourhood level, this plays out as high residential mobility, as prices continue to rise, and people’s price point is reached. (I remember when the first house on our street sold for over $250,000. My older neighbour crowed to me, “Diane, we’re quarter-millionaires!”). When my neighbours move away, they are having their rental housing sold from under them, or, as owners, are cashing in and moving further away, often outside the city.

These individual actions have a cumulative impact.

2. These neighbourhood changes play out racially, as well. In a city as diverse as Toronto, what plays out economically plays out racially. And because income and race are correlated here, upwardly mobile neighbourhoods are becoming whiter. Professor David Hulchanski’s work is bearing this out (see my previous post on racial divisions tracking income polarization).

The racial composition of my neighbourhood has shifted, and whites are becoming the dominant racial group here, the very opposite dynamic of what is happening demographically in the city.

3. Perhaps the most telling symptom of gentrification, is that this demographic shift is unidirectional.

Gentrification happens, in stages. And, as working class has shifted to artistic class, the upper class (and higher housing prices) cannot be far behind. The downtown city core of Toronto has become a destination.

Some of neighbours are just fine with that. Often, these same some, upon their arrival here, find the rough granularity of the neighbourhood disturbing. Often, they moved here thinking they have purchased a good bargain, just at the edge of one of the high-income neighbourhoods around us, and they mistake this neighbourhood for that one. It’s not long before they are disappointed and organizing a petition.

Or, sometimes, they thought the “colour” would be nice. And, yet, their singular arrival usually displaces an East Asian family. (Stats Can data shows one in five ethnic-Chinese people left the neighbourhood between 2001 and 2006.)The only in-migration to the neighbourhood, besides whites, are some South Asians and Urdu-speakers because the mosque and commercial district is in walking distance (Their numbers doubled, so that now they comprise 5% of the local population).

The answer to these three problems, the economic, the racial, the homogenization, is to purposefully plan for mixed neighbourhoods. Left to wider economic forces, the poor (and, by corollary, people of colour), are continually displaced.

So what to do, after all this awfulizing? Mixed neighbourhoods!

Sometimes, as discussions of mixed income neighbourhoods erupt, wealthier neighbourhoods often object to the idea of affordable housing being built in the neighbourhood. However, the response from one wise woman was, where do you want the woman who cares for your child at the daycare or serves you coffee in the morning to live? Is she a part of our community, or not?

Gentrification happens because of income inequality, an issue which is continuing to grow.  While these are issues, created at an entirely different levels, they are played out locally, within and between our neighbourhoods.

So my reply to my Twitter friend’s dilemma was, whether she stayed within the white enclave where she lives, or moves to a more diverse neighbourhood, I knew she would work to build an inclusive place. It’s the only fair thing to be done.


Income polarization tracking racial divisions

“Are there limits to gentrification? Evidence from Vancouver”

Mixed picture on mixed income: Moving in on poor neighbourhoods


7 Responses to “A white resident’s dilemma: gentrification or segregation?”

  1. Fabulous post! I’m so glad my random Twitter-musings prompted this long, thoughtful analysis. There’s more, if I may, about my particular dilemma that agrees with and expands on your assessment here. More when I’ve had a chance to sleep on it.


  2. Great article. Has really got me to thinking about this very interesting issue for the city. I have been “house” shopping in Leslieville….perfect example of what is being spoken about here. I’m going to pass this article along to my daughter who is studying Public Admin/Policy & Development up at Guelph. Lots of food for thought. Thank you for writing it.



  3. There are lots of things you can do to reduce the property value of your neighborhood. Report noise disturbances to the police everyday. Report violent crimes all the time. Write graffiti on the walls.

    If your neighbors had a sense of solidarity, you could organize a rent strike when property values increase. These are all tactics which have been successful in cities in the past. But over time, sadly, exploitation of the working class and domination through propaganda has resulted in much less organization.


  4. Good discussion here – sorry it took me so long to get back to it. Part of what I wanted to add is that my partner and I are a white lesbian couple, which adds a layer of complexity to the whole dilemma for me and for us. Our status as outsiders because of sexuality / relationship status, puts us at odds in both the current (all-white, uber-rich) neighborhood and in the prospective racially-mixed neighborhood we’re considering in E. Harlem. The typical “gay ghettos” in NYC — the W.Village and Chelsea — are predominantly white, male and even more expensive than the Upper East Side (where we currently live). My thinking these days is that whether we stay here or relocate, I’ll be conflicted about it in one way or another. And, you’re absolutely right on when you say that wherever we end up, the point is to continue to work to make inclusion a reality.


  5. Gentrification is bad for renters, but fantastic for immigrant (and other) homeowners who cash out. Often they are longtime homeowners who bought whatever they could afford 20-30 or more years ago, and are thrilled at the return on their investment. And why are these gentrifying neighbourhoods predominantly white? Because it’s mostly white people who fetishize the Victorian semi with tiny rooms and street parking. Middle- and upper-middle-class immigrants and children of immigrants tend to prefer the suburbs. Bad urban planning, sure, but you can’t say there’s no demand.



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