Posts tagged ‘Yuppies’

March 29, 2014

Gentrification: Spike Lee kills it

A provocative look at neighbourhood change and gentrification in New York City: How newcomers are received

For transcript, see: New York magazine

April 20, 2012

Gentrification signifiers: A story of one neighbourhood

When two grandmothers stopped on my street recently to tell me their adult children had bought a nearby house, I didn’t tell them why the young family who lived there was moving out. They had moved in with high hopes to this same freshly-painted and pot-lighted house, ignoring the “as is” in the stipulations. The house had undergone a quick flip from a man who bought it after a house fire burned out the tenants who lived there. The house attached to them had also suffered fire damage, but those tenants, renting rooms, stayed on in a more deteriorated house.

And then last summer, it got bad. A man with a violent criminal history moved in — and took over. We neighbours sat on our porches and watched the drug deals and solicitation. It had happened before on the street. The normal knock-and-run behaviour of drug buyers played out along the sidewalks where kids pedaled past on their bikes, part of the ballet that Jane Jacobs described. But this time, it was scarier.

Physical fights became the norm, and the local men became protective, taking to long smokes at the ends of their porches. The police raided the house almost weekly through those hot months. By-law officers arrived and spent three days carting refuse away. The landlord, a former neighbour, was rumoured to be incapacitated, unable to intervene or maintain control. Then, too late, a woman died there of an overdose. The house was padlocked and put up for sale.

I couldn’t tell all this to the cheery women I met. But I recognized their story — their children had got “such a good deal!” But I did recognize this stage of gentrification – the grown children had moved eastward, having rented in Kensington Market – and had  been not able to afford a home closer to the downtown core.

When neighbourhoods shift from working class neighbourhoods to higher income ones, several signs and stages are notable.

Neighbourhood Market

Neighbourhood Market (Photo credit: omegaforest)

First arrivals were people like me, my partner and our new baby. We had some family connections to the community, but while comfortable here in the neighbourhood, we were no longer working class. Higher education had boosted our personal prospects. So, our arrival acted as a signal, that the neighbourhood was “safe.”

Others like us soon came, and the occupations of my neighbours switched from taxi drivers, factory workers, and train conductors, to book editors, teachers, and non-profit workers. Single women thronged to the neighbourhood’s small houses, and young families used the low housing prices as a launching pad until they could afford a larger place. Homes which had housed multiple children (and sometimes a couple of families) were converted to single households. Population density dropped, and racial diversity paled. As housing prices rose, residents told each other this neighbourhood was “arriving.” (One elderly neighbour, disbelieving the rising house prices, chortled to me, “Diane, we’re quarter millionaires,” as housing prices rose over $200,000 for a 12.5 feet wide lots.)

Next, come the speculators. Housing flips are common in the neighbourhood now. Another couple, lured by granite counter tops and a street-front entrance, all at the price of a condo, has moved in across from us, but lawsuits have ensued as the rotted timber covered by the new drywall had been discovered. Our neighbourhood had become a bit of a destination point.

As a critical mass of newcomers builds, another sign emerges: residents’ associations. Their focus is often on remnant parts of the neighbourhood: ‘common’ concerns such as traffic flow, garbage, run-down properties (like the ones up above), and most often the desire to “clean up” the neighbourhood. Every couple of years, these small citizen efforts have emerged. GECO (eerily echoing Michael “Greed is Good” Douglas’ character in Wall Street) is the most recent incarnation, springing out of some of the sentiments expressed in the comments section of BlogTO’s recent article, What ails Little India?.

One of GECO’s members explained to me she thought it was important to have “more diversity” in the neighbourhood commercial strip, that there are “too many sari shops.” Toronto Life described this more diplomatically as “new businesses…revitalizing a dreary stretch of empty storefronts, noodle houses, laundro­mats and hair salons.” Others explain they hope for a Starbucks or “nice” set of restaurants like nearby (upper-income) neighbourhoods have. After all, they say to me, they have paid a lot of money for their homes and they want the neighbourhood to look good. A neighbourhood blog cooed “A few more cool shops on gerrard (sic) and even the Queen Street hipsters will allow us Northerners to be part of Leslieville.” Academics have described this as commercial gentrification. In fact, some have described how Toronto’s “ethnic neighbourhoods” can act as a branding mechanism, in the same way artists do, attracting others and driving up housing prices. It’s a familiar process to those who know Little Italy or Greektown, where many of the original ethnic stores are closing and residents have moved on.

But tolerance for social difference is limited. Another long-time resident, one of the original working-class residents who’d watched these changes with more good humour than I, reported one of new neighbours were discomfited to learn a gay (!) couple lived next door. So he explained to the new couple that good people lived up and down our street.

But the revanchist sentiment has grown.

The final stage of gentrification is when the higher income folk arrive, when the place has been sanctioned as “clean” and “safe.” Cleanliness is defined by such amenities as granite rocks and Japanese maples in the front garden and new windows adorning the home. Safety is not the definition of old, of neighbours knowing when a new neighbourhood child has gotten a tooth or who can be depended upon to hold a spare key for nearby neighbours. Safety is more about beaming spotlights and alarm codes. This final stage concentrates wealth to the point that some researchers call it super-gentrification.

More and more of the neighbourhoods in the old City of Toronto are undergoing this transition. Affordable housing stock is disappearing. The latest move by Toronto Community Housing to sell off single family units means the touted ideal of mixed-income neighbourhoods will be further away. New developments aggravate the problem, filled with homes all in the same high price range, inclusive zoning not yet a practice.

As income inequality is carved into our housing structures, our neighbourhoods suffer. Those who work in neighbourhood shops, filling our coffee orders, or the education assistants in our children’s grade school, won’t live in our neighbourhood, won’t be our neighbours. Our children won’t know difference. This is not Toronto, our motto “Diversity, our strength.”

Driven by individual choice, we are losing a common good.

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July 27, 2011

The complex origins of vacant and abandoned homes in a neighbourhood

Recent lessons from the housing crash in the United States described families simply walking away from their homes, leaving their front doors unlocked, because they couldn’t afford to carry their mortgages anymore. Financial abandonment is one of the starkest reasons residences are left untended.

However, like most things, it’s always more complicated. Just how empty and derelict does a building have to be to be abandoned? The octogenarian who lives only in two rooms of her house, having sealed off the rest, still holds domain over it all. But what if she was hospitalized? And then sent to long-term care? And then failed to pay her taxes?

In my neighbourhood, I can think of eight homes that, depending on the definition used, are vacant or abandoned. None of them, that I know of, are haunted or marijuana grow-ops:

  • After a fire started by a basement tenant put one family out of their new and hard-earned home, their re-building was abandoned because of lack of funds and the complexity of (re-)building without a contractor.  That’s been about ten years now since they lost their dream.
  • Another house on the same street also suffered a fire. The house attached to it also suffered damage. Neither household had insurance to re-build. It took two or three years for the first home to be sold to a speculator, who hired cheaply, and then sold it with fresh paint and pot lights “as is.” The family moved out of the attached house, and the landlord rented to a poorer tenants less able to complain.
  • There are three other homes in the neighbourhood where elderly residents have moved to homes for the aged, none of them interested in selling. One of these homes has been empty for over twenty years, the other fledges various young family members every few years, and the third has rats for inhabitants.
  • Another family home in the neighbourhood was sold to the owner’s brother who had no interest in living in it nor in renting it out. It has sat, preserving the family capital, for a quarter century.
  • Another home was bought by a resident in the adjoining house, so as he could enjoy some peace, but the cost of re-zoning the properties to make them a single home is too prohibitive. So, officially, that home is empty.
  • A final house in my neighbourhood acts as a storage locker for a couple who live across the street from it. Vans are unloaded into and out of the house but no one lives there. Census-takers knock futilely every five years. (Another neighbour tells me of a similar house a few streets away which someone else uses to keep their cats and dogs housed – and yes, it smells.)
When this was a working-class neighbourhood, houses were cheap, and few took note of these alternate uses. This was long before housing prices climbed, when only affordable housing activists and a few academics saw such rough, unused gems as valuable housing stock.
In 2008, the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC), an activist group called Abandonment Issues and York University’s City Centre partnered to look at cycles of reinvestment and disinvestment in the Toronto area. They explored the housing cycles that happen as neighbourhoods are abandoned and then “discovered” again, creating a small building boon of condos and flow of capital. Some good pressure was raised over the issue but not much changed on the legislative front.
Nowadays neighbours are more likely to talk about the property values of these half million dollars homes left derelict or vacant.
In response to the idea of impact on local property values and the loss of additional housing stock as shortages grow, some other municipalities have adopted “Use it or Lose it” laws.
The City of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office may, too, be exploring the issues these vacant and abandoned homes create. That’s good news if it doesn’t just provide new fodder for housing speculators.

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September 23, 2010

The "right" to choose your neighbours becomes an election issue

Just as the Annual YIMBY (Yes In My BackYard) festival is being organized for October 16 at the Drake hotel, Nimbyism is being re-visited in the Beach municipal election. Both events seem to be about having policy-makers listen to residents, but the difference lies in the inclusive lense that is used. Debates about what occur in a community often spill over into who will live in a neighbourhood, whether they be students or those living with life challenges.

A friend in the Beach tells the story of a church building which moved through three different applications to convert to affordable housing, each time being denied because those living nearby raised concerns about the proposed new mothers, or seniors or other populations who were to be sited there. The current controversy, about a new building opening on Gerrard at Woodbine, has convinced me to attend tonight’s All Candidate meeting as a case study of the tension between service-providers, policy-makers and local residents.

The HomeComing Community Choice Coalition circulated the following letter:

Thursday evening, September 23, there is an all candidates meeting in Ward 32 (Beaches) and one candidate is calling on voters to come use their voices based on their “right to be angry about the location of supportive housing at 1908 Gerrard Street East”. (at Woodbine)

In November 2007, neighbours heard that a private developer intended to build an apartment building on the site – and planned to rent the apartments to people living with mental illness under an agreement with Houselink Community Homes.  The development was zoned for the intended use, so there was no need for public consultation.  A number of area residents spoke against the development at the Affordable Housing Committee meeting dealing with the funding for the development.  As a result, City staff were directed to host a public open house with the local community in consultation with the office of the local Councillor Sandra Bussin.

At the public open house a number of concerns were voiced, many of which were related to the approval process and lack of consultation.  Other concerns were related to the people intended to live in the development:

  • that the area was overly represented with social housing
  • the impact of the housing on the community in terms of safety and security
  • whether there would be sufficient support provided to the tenants
  • the perceived lack of support services in the area

Confronted by a number of angry residents, Councillor Bussin stood her ground and defended both the process and the right of people to live in communities of their choice.  At the subsequent Council meeting to approve funding for the project, Councillor Bussin expressed her shame at the behaviour of her constituents.  Almost all of the Councillors present also rose to speak in support of funding for the project and to denounce those who would exclude people from the community based on a disability.

Now almost three years later, the building is ready for occupancy.  Graffiti calling Councillor Bussin a traitor was painted on hoardings at the building a year ago and recently similar graffiti attacking Bussin has been painted on the building itself.

Finally, within the past few days, a leaflet has appeared apparently from Martin Gladstone, a candidate for City Councillor, calling the process flawed and accusing Councillor Bussin of working against her constituents and shutting them down (attached).

While HomeComing Community Choice Coalition does not endorse any candidate for public office, we are concerned that this Councillor is being targeted for standing up for the rights of people to live in communities of their choice.  We have often affirmed that people do not have to ask the permission of their neighbours to live in a community and the neighbours do not have a right to be informed or consulted before new housing is built, if the only issue is the disability of the people who live there.

We will be at the meeting Thursday evening and hope that others will be there as well to say thank you to Councillor Sandra Bussin for standing up in the face of angry residents to say to the new Houselink tenants: “Yes in My Back Yard!”

HomeComing Community Choice Coalition

“We promote the rights of people with mental
illness to live in the neighbourhood of their choice.”

Postscript: So when the issue came to the floor tonight, Sandra Bussin’s hecklers called out, “It’s the process! Process!”  They knew, at least, it would not have looked well to be seen as picking on people living with mental illness.

September 6, 2010

NIMBY – hear the middle-class roar

They came with their hairy dogs, determined looks on their faces and helmeted children scootering ahead of the adults holding picket signs. The people of the Beach and Birchcliffe had come to protect the Quarry.

A former dump, at one point, the Quarry is roughly 50 undeveloped acres southeast of the Main subway station. Environmentalists sing the praises of the wildlife. However, the area was zoned in the 1960s for highrise development, and the developers are exercising their legal rights. So, the community was out to defend it.

I happened on the protest by chance, with a friend. We had to stop. The banners said “Save our neighbourhood” and “1960s planning is bad planning.”

The proposed 7 twenty-story buildings would provide 1,455 units of housing, at a density 7 times what the surrounding area is now with its detached, single-family homes.

“Affordable housing!” I whooped. No one took up the call.

It’s hard to know what to think about these kind of events.

People were rising to the defense of the community, but against whom? The developer. Yes, probably. The newcomers (interlopers) – new renters or condo buyers.  Perhaps some of them.

It was easy to see what we were against, but what were we fighting for? About every person here probably has a different reason, my wiser friend explained.

It reminded me of other protests I’ve seen. The outrage against the possible arrival of big box store in South Riverdale pitched local residents against each other, often split along ethnic and income lines. The Salvation Army and Seaton House faced fierce community meetings when they moved to house homeless men in other neighbourhoods, even if only temporarily such as on Pape Avenue. (The Sally Ann, bless its soul, has a webpage on the topic of NIMBY-ism.)

These debates too often deteriorate into a debate about who is moving in, or they erupt, under a more politically correct guise, such as “Social services should not be concentrated here. We have our fair share already.”

Another recent example close to home was the call from near-by residents to have Felstead park’s playground equipment upgraded – something already on the schedule, but not soon enough for their liking. They too used the blind that as a mixed income neighbourhood, they had been ignored to the benefit of richer neighbourhoods near-by. However, as a gentrifying neighbourhood, the press was on.

Or more recently, neighbours to the south of here, feeling protective of their “own,” confronted members of a church congregation for bringing their faith to the streets, unfortunately by a fire hydrant where a gay couple live. This well-meaning crowd ended up as a “Was my face red…” front-page story in the Toronto Star.

Within the past year, another of my neighbours closed down his family restaurant when he heard an apartment building next door to him was being built to provide supportive housing to people with mental health problems. More plain in his prejudices, he refused to stay near “crazy” people.

Examples from other parts of the city include the conversion of the “Entertainment District” to a residential area and almost any neighbourhood where condos have been built close to a slaughterhouse or other industrial area. If the City of Toronto mapped out where building orders occur, they are in concentrated in the areas with higher and mixed-incomes – the gentrified and the gentrifying areas of the city.

What under lies all these is fear. People don’t want to lose what they have. When people (re-)act from a fearful place, any larger vision gets lost.

But the reality that the neighbourhoods with the highest complaints are not the places with the most problems, but rather places with the most privilege. These are the neighbourhoods where the “sharp elbows of the middle class” claim the resources seen to be due to them.

Flawed as the Priority Neighbourhood Areas were, what they did do effectively was to re-focus resources away from the noisiest, squeakiest parts of the city, to areas that hadn’t had any attention for a very long time. This leveling of the playing field probably led to some of the strongest critiques of the mayor, David Miller, that he had let things slide in the areas where, frankly, people are more likely to vote.

Instead, the Strong Neighbourhood strategy has evened some things out. The new Community Partnership Strategy is also building an evidence base so that neighbourhood comparisons can be done more accurately.

These strategies show we are a more generous city than these other NIMBY stories tell about us. When given a chance, we can dream of a common good.

But, until we Torontonians see our backyard as the entire city, inequality will continue to split neighbourhoods, into “good” and “bad’ places to live, into places where we fight each other.

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April 6, 2009

Ontario School Information Finder

In a bid to improve access to information and individual school accountability, the provincial Ministry of Education made a big misstep. This week, it introduced the Ontario School Information Finder which allows parents (and others so inclined) to comparison shop between shoes, er, schools.

Parents can find schools by name, or even more easily, by typing in their postal codes into the search engine. Then adding additional schools to their shopping cart, school bags, they can select three, hit the “Compare the Schools I selected” button and see how each school compares to the others in two domains: student achievement (as measured by provincial testing) and student demographics (including percentage of students from low income families, recent immigrant families, families with a university level-education and students receiving special education).

“What’s the objection to parents knowing this information?”, a reporter asked me today.

No objection. Parents already have access to this information. It is publicly available through the Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe, probably the most famously, but also through individual school profiles published by school boards, real estate agents, Toronto Life, and even a school board trustee.

However, the problem is the way the Ministry has packaged the data on student achievement and student demographics, as if it were a meaningful measure of a school. Learning the number of immigrants at a school, or the number of low-income kids, only tells you about the “input.” It doesn’t tell you how good the students are and it doesn’t tell you how good the school is, how much learning goes on there. However, it’s very likely that the Ministry website will be used to shop between schools.

When parents choose a school for their child, provincial test scores are probably one of the least reliable measures of a good school (and was part of the reason so many parents resisted the introduction of the EQAO). To be bald, provincial test scores correlate highly (although not absolutely) with student demographics, as the TDSB’s recent work on its Learning Opportunity Index attests. So, if parents choose a school by its test scores, they will likely be choosing a school where wealthier students attend rather than a school where great learning is happening.

Well, maybe peers are important. Higher income kids are three times more likely to go to university then kids in the bottom 10% of income (TDSB report). Isn’t that a good influence? It may be, but there are other considerations.

Social mix strengthens an important civic function of public education. We learn to get along with each other there. Students who attend more homogeneous schools learn alot less about others who are different from them – and, frankly, this is already a problem that occurs in many of Toronto’s schools, as Professor David Hulchanski’s work on the sorting of neighbourhoods by income has shown. A tool like this will accelerate this segregation. (And it is segregation; parents I spoke to in a focus group last year in one upper income neighbourhood worried that their kids only see people of colour at the local corner store and that their kids will not understand diversity in any real or granular sense when they move out of their enclave.)

Given the choice, parents acts for the benefit of their own child, as they should; so if “good” schools are defined, uncritically, as the ones with higher test scores, poor kids will be left further behind. Poor kids will be left further behind because they have fewer options, whether it’s bus fare to travel to “better” schools or parents who know how to hunt through the system. Left unfettered, two streams will emerge: elite schools and “bad” schools.

In a bid to give parents greater free choice, to ensure their own family’s gain, the Ministry has created a tool that gives free rein to individual license without considering our common good. What we will see is greater inequality, and it sounds all too familiar in these economic times.

The common good, the idea that a social mix strengthens us all, is even part of the calculation.

People for Education has been quick off the mark on this one, posting an open letter to the Premier, because the Ministry website undercuts the very foundation of a strong public education system. Parents and educators are signing up in droves to endorse the letter.

So, what should parents want to know when selecting a school?

  1. Is the principal an excellent educational leader?
  2. How well do teachers connect to the community? to each other? to the students?
  3. How happy are other parents with the school?
  4. Is the school a small enough size that people know each other and big enough to allow some diversity?
  5. How welcoming is the school culture?
  6. What additional supports are available to students?
  7. What sort of improvement do students make when they attend the school, i.e. what is the value-added?

School visits will give you that information.So what if you wanted to build a web tool which might work?

Rate My teacher is a website that lets students get at some of these issues, even if it is focused at individual teachers. Perhaps a more useful website would have been one that let parents connect with each other, to share their experience and learn from each other.

Suggestions like this are often met by fear (and anyone who has ever read the anonymous comments left on a newspaper website has some reason for this fear). However a moderated forum or a wiki format would achieve the same school-level accountability and transparency that the Ministry was trying to achieve and have provided more meaningful information for parents looking to learn more about their local schools.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, when Ontarians are polled about the performance of schools in OISE’s biannual survey, the happiest people in the system are usually those closest to the the school system, that is parents. And parents are most likely to be happy about their own school and although they may worried about other schools. A Wiki page for each school would allow parents to build a shared vision of the strength of their local school. A Web 2.0 approach would have been a much better model. We may get there.

February 8, 2009

A Night at the School Council

I wrote this a few years ago as a Facebook Note. It seemed an appropriate time to revive it:

My son’s school is considered a high-needs school according to the school board’s Learning Opportunity Index, at the top end of the range, just edging into the middle of the pack.

The neighbourhood is full of working class families, Canadian-born or from other lands, who grow vegetables rather than landscape rocks in their front yards. Nearby homes are, increasingly, filling up with young professionals, congratulating themselves on finding homes so cheap within easy commuting of downtown.

However it is also a school that stands out. The Toronto Star says that its EQAO scores are above what they “should” be given the student demographics. The school librarian picked up a book and taught herself cricket so that she could coach the group of young boys who asked for a school team. We have family dances and great community movie nights in the gym. And we still have itinerant music teachers. My son has learned cello and steel pan for the past couple of years. One of the Grade Six teachers organized a knitting club this year, and kids knit 750 dolls, which will be used as packing for medical equipment being sent overseas to hospitals which need it. (The dolls will then be distributed to kids in those places.)

So this is what I learned at this week’s school council meeting:

1) Rosedale Public School (a small K-6 school that serves one of the richest enclaves in the country) recently contacted our school principal. They wondered if they could borrow our steel pans this summer. Parents had raised $16,000 to send their junior students to Australia for a tour. (We’ve loaned them, because we know the importance of cooperation, in a place like this.)

2) My son’s graduation trip has been set. They are going to the well-treed park, five minutes north of the school, on the other side of the tracks, and bringing some Frisbees. The price is right, and the school council is going to buy everyone a Popsicle.


November 9, 2008

Class Warfare, they say….

broke out in Leslieville last week. Some of you may have seen the news reports.

Signs, looking much like the “No Big Box” posters which sprouted in front windows around the neighbourhood all summer long, were plastered to telephone poles and mail boxes, saying “No Yuppies in Leslieville.”  Official reaction was swift. The signs were scraped off wherever they were found because, although they reflected tension in the neighbourhood, they also, unfortunately, crossed the line of free speech with an incitement to violence, in the small print, invited readers to smash windows.

Almost all who saw the posters had a strong reaction to them – either positive or, in politer company, more negative. It was after all all evocative act, one which had also sprung up in graffitti on condo bill boards or in murmurs on street corners.

The neighbourhood is in flux. According to the the South Riverdale demographic profile on the City of Toronto website, from 1996 to 2001, median household incomes grew by nearly $11,000 and the number of people who fall below the low income cut-off fell by 29%. See The 2006 numbers are still being crunched but will no doubt show the trend continues.

It is, as the local city councillor Paula Fletcher, says, a mixed neighbourhood. But it is, more accurately a neighbourhood, in transition. And that is a time when tensions, rightly or wrongly will surface.

The Toronto Sun, former bastion of the working class, rose quickly to the defense of “Yuppies” and those who like “venti pumpkin-spiced lattes.” Ignored were the complaints of rising rents and new, too-expensive stores.

The Toronto Star obfuscated, explaining that because the process wasn’t complete, because the neighbourhood still had rough edges, this wasn’t gentrification – and so, presumably, no one should be up in arms about the neighbourhood newcomers who were driving up housing prices (and therefore realty taxes). People are arriving, we are told, because they like the grittiness of the neighbourhood; no worries about what happened similarly on Queen St. West.

Even Garth Turner, (yes former Conservative M.P.), describes a process of gentrification in Leslieville (or South Riverdale if you have lived there longer) where “Greedy developers are trying to turn it into a yuppie park, which will displace those who have lived there affordably.” Turner says that the neighbourhood will never switch to upper class enclave, though, like nearby Riverdale or the Beach. He explains, in his blog advising a woman to sell and move away, that Leslieville is “iffy” and “a dump” hemmed in by highways and hosting a “smelly” waste treatment plant.

Still, whether Leslieville/South Riverdale becomes so trendy that it reaches some magic gentrification tipping point, some people are feeling angry about the changes in their neighbourhood.

At a minimum, a space for community dialogue is needed.

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