Fighting Gentrification

30 Dec

By Mark A. Corbiere
This article by my friend was written for a local magazine that alas is not around i have taken the liberty to reprint this,

Gentrification: the process of renewal and rebuilding, accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. Regardless of what a city calls it “revitalize”, “redevelop”, or “rejuvenation”, the end result is an organized attack on the vital services and housing units that poor communities depend on. It seems funny to me that it is always a concentration of low-income people that comes under attack and never the wealthy neighbourhoods. This article explores the gentrification of downtown Kitchener (DTkitchener) focusing on Cedar Hill and the east end of Toronto focusing on Regent Park, from my personal experiences, and observations.

Over the past decade I have noticed businesses come and go from DTkitchener. I remember there being a movie theatre, SEARS, Zappers, and numerous bars. Then I started noticing coffee shops popping up. Then the Faculty of Social Work was on the scene. Then the influx of major condo developments into the downtown core began. Of course with the major demographic switch of people downtown from homeless to students and new condo owners. Police needed to be increased to “clean-up” the core and provide a safer downtown for the changing residents. The stigma from the greater population of Kitchener-Waterloo has you believing, “after sundown you don’t wanna be there”. So when there was a higher police presence the new comers to downtown felt safer, but they didn’t see the constant harassment and brutality suffered by the “other” residents of downtown at the hands of the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS). Two really good examples have recently caught local media attention, here in Waterloo region. The arrest of Jeffery Garland, a local lawyer, was arrested when he was walking thru downtown after work to buy laundry soap. Mr. Garland was followed by two armed officers for many blocks who made comments that “they had all night and were going to follow him all the way home”. Upon exiting the Shopper’s Drug Mart downtown he was shoved against a wall, handcuffed and placed under arrest, after the officers determined they had no legal grounds for arrest he was released from custody. He later sued the police and reached an out of court settlement of $5,000. Then, there was the brutal arrest of youth Matthew Probert. Again, walking to a store, Mr. Probert was followed by an armed officer who violently escalated their interaction. Mr. Probert suffered lacerations to his face, when dragged on the sidewalk; he was punched, kneed, and struck repeatedly by three officers. As if that wasn’t enough he was strip-searched at the police station and forced to walk half-naked thru the station. The Small Claims court awarded $9,000 in damages and deemed that the arrest was illegal. Both people were arrested because they refused to show ID to police officers that were unlawfully requesting it.

I also remember, almost a decade ago, walking around the Queen East area of Toronto, spending some time in Regent Park and the surrounding community. The media told me horror stories about how unsafe this area was. I agree there was a high concentration of cops in this area! Granted there was a general belief that there was a “high-level” of violence/crime in this neighbourhood, but what do you expect when 68% of this neighbourhood lived below the national poverty line and 41% of the population is under the age of 18. This negative image intensified considerably in the last few decades. By the 1990s, Canada’s largest housing project became virtually synonymous with socio-economic marginalization and behavioural depravity. In June 2002, a Toronto Star reporter characteristically referred to the housing development as a “poster child for poverty”. According to one observer in Toronto Life magazine, it had become “thoroughly ghettoized” and had “accumulated a sense of almost mythical ruin”. Indeed, the broader social identity of Regent Park has become the accumulation and escalation of the stigma of its residents.

Now one might wonder what could the possible parallels of a Toronto neighbourhood to one in DTkitchener but the social history and the pattern of gentrification are eerily similar. The model and implementation of Kitchener’s gentrification was to attract new businesses (i.e. coffee shops), Universities, a higher police presence, attacks on low-income affordable housing, an influx of condo developments, and the new Shoppers Drug Mart. This is almost the exact way I observed Queen east of Toronto being gentrified.

During the 1970’s Kitchener like many other cities jumped on board of the fad of brining mini-malls into the downtown core. The effects of this decision were drastic for DTkitchener, from which it is still recovering. Two malls were built in the core. One of them being Market Square, located at King/Frederick, where Kitchener’s original City Hall was located. The city opted to demolish the aging city hall and move it to where it is presently located at King/Gaukel, while attempting to preserve some of its heritage by saving the clock tower and relocating it to Victoria Park. The other mall was the King Centre, located at King/College, now converted into an office building for Manulife.

The area of “Cedar Hill” was a predominately working class neighbourhood, located near the downtown core and the factories that once populated it. The reason for the high concentration of low-cost housing is because of yet another failed city plan in the 1960’s. “Housing shortages were grave in most cities during the war and for several years afterwards. Veterans’ groups, unions, and other social groups pressured the state to provide low-income dwellings for their constituents. In addition to concern about increased class conflict, there was a wider opinion in policy circles in Canada, as in other Western countries, that the postwar economy would fall back into depression as it had in the 1930s. While the vast majority of Canadian government assistance in the housing field after the war was directed to homeowners, financial institutions, and developers, there was a constrained political space in the late 1940s through the 1960s in which limited state investment in low-income housing was considered a viable option. ” This very policy is still very much alive today. Instead of building low-income housing units and solving the issue, governments are subsidizing the private sector to build affordable housing.

In 2005 the City of Kitchener passed a bylaw that specifically targeted Cedar Hill, Kitchener’s “original” neighbourhood. This bylaw restricted any new dwellings built in the area to single family home; with the exception of Duplexes/Triplexes but only if the landlord lives in a unit, and banned any new group homes and other social services from setting up there. The City justified this bylaw citing a “crack epidemic” in the 90’s, almost ten years after complaints from Cedar Hill homeowners. The bylaw was enacted as a means of “social cleansing”. Cedar Hill is predominately low-income, working-class families; as such the area has a high concentration of low-cost housing. Anybody who is familiar with DTkitchener is aware that a lot of the social service agencies are centrally located. (i.e… ROOF, soup kitchen, Lutherwood, House of Friendship, The Working Centre, etc.) The bylaw specifically targeted already marginalized communities (fixed and low-income) and sought to “force” them into other areas of KW. The City had concluded that there was more social housing, poor people and poorly maintained properties than any other neighbourhood in Kitchener. This bylaw has found to have been in violation of Ontario Human Rights Code by the Ontario Municipal Board in 2010.

In the 1940’s a new project unfolded from the City of Toronto, born was TO’s first “social engineering” project known as Regent Park. Regent Park’s residential dwellings are entirely social housing, and cover all of the 69 acres which comprise the community. The Toronto neighbourhood then known as “Cabbagetown” was razed in the process of creating Regent Park. The nickname “Cabbagetown” came about because of the cabbage that was grown in front yards as a way to offset food costs, but it is now applied to the historical, upscale area north of the housing project. Regent Park before the 1940’s was a shanty town and was the centre of “Cabbagetown”.

“Since both sections of Regent Park were the result of slum clearance and redevelopment schemes, those on the top of the priority list for rehousing in the 1940s and 1950s were families of low and moderate income who were living in the “slum” areas at the time of clearance. The Housing Authority of Toronto estimated in 1948 that 80 per cent of residents in the area cleared for the northern section would apply for rehousing in the new project. By the time the project was fully constructed, however, more than half of the apartments and houses were occupied by families who had not lived in the area before. Only 23 per cent of the original 638 families in the southern section of the redevelopment area relocated in the project by completion date… From its inception, the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority also explicitly attempted to limit the number of families receiving public assistance to 20 per cent expressing “the desirability of developing a balanced community.” There was no formal policy in the Housing Authority of Toronto to curb families relying on social assistance, but officials told the Globe and Mail in 1965 that they attempted to keep them at 10 to 15 per cent…Despite claims to the contrary by housing officials, the archival records reveal clear personal, political, and moral considerations on the part of housing managers with regard to tenant selection.” What this shows is that when it is a poor neighbourhood that is being “redeveloped” it is the marginalized community that comes under attack. . When cities redevelop poor communities they don’t build more units of affordable housing it is either less or the same amount. The idea of a mixed-income housing strategy is unsustainable because it doesn’t deal with the core issues of poverty but attempts to hide the issue by dispersing the concentration of poverty into the broader community.

The only type of funding, that didn’t need to be advocated for, that saw any increase in the Regent Park neighbourhood was the police budget, which brought with it the racist attitudes of “some” members of the Toronto Police Services. These conditions created a powder keg, which exploded in 1995 with the “Riot in Regent Park”. Only through intense community organizing, were the tenant’s able to acquire fairer rents, address maintenance issues and introduce the concept of “tenant management”. The Regent Park community was close-knit and believed in members of the community beings the ones to make decisions that affected their community. One of the major tenant struggles was the fight to build the Regent Park Community Centre. The community first proposed the idea of a Community Centre run by and for residents in 1969. For 17 years, tenants signed up to pay a $2 monthly surcharge on their rent to raise money for the community centre, raising $17,000. By 1974, the advocacy work of the RPCIA (Regent Park Community Improvement Association) resulted in new ice rinks and the Jody Phillips Pool in North Regent. The recreation centre was built in 1986, but it took 17 years and countless volunteer hours and processes before the residents’ vision was realized. Only to eventually lose control of the projects to either Toronto Parks and Recreation or Toronto Community Housing Corporation.

Both Kitchener and Toronto have a diverse ethnic community and deteriorating industrial economy directly affecting both communities with most factories closing or moving facilities. In the 90s Toronto and Kitchener had active neo-Nazi, white supremacist groups that were openly organizing. In Regent Park you had the Heritage Front recruiting the white residents of Regent Park, after racial tensions had reached a critical peak when two white kids were stabbed by people of colour during an altercation at the baseball diamond. Prominent holocaust denier Ernst Zundel lived at Carlton/Parliament and used his house as organizing space for White supremacists in Toronto. It was burned down in the late 90s, those responsible were never found! Kitchener also had its own neo-Nazi group, The Tri-City Skinheads’ who had ties to the Heritage Front and the KKK, was actively organizing in DTkitchener. In response to the active white-power organizing both Toronto and Kitchener had very active Anti-Racist Action chapters that confronted and reclaimed the streets from this nazi scum!

In both Regent Park and Kitchener there is an immense amount of “community organizing” that happens. In the 90’s you heard a little about the ARA organizing against the neo-Nazi movement in both cities. What I am now going to focus on is the history of the Kitchener-Waterloo Youth Collective (KWYC). The KWYC started in the late 90’s as an organic response to the harassment street youth were facing from security guards at city hall. “Don’t Blame the Youth” was the first demonstration organized by the KWYC. They had taken over City Hall with couches and tents. Outta this action a callout for a 24 hour drop-in centre, by the street youth was issued. Ignored by City Hall, Mayor Zehr had stated “not in the cards”, the youth took it upon themselves to open their own space, a drop-in centre for street youth by street youth. On May 1st 2000 after a couple years of fundraising the doors to “The Spot” were opened. Located right in the heart of downtown at ???King Street, a stone’s throw from City Hall. “The Spot” was governed by weekly meetings of street youth who accessed the space. This method of organizing really emphasized a sense of responsibility and ownership of the space by the youth! All the “staff” were elected by the youth and could be recalled if the youth felt they weren’t living up to the standards outlined by the KWYC. Because “The Spot” was governed by the youth directly this also meant that the rules were set and enforced by the youth. In 2002 “The Spot” was given an award by Kitchener’s Crime Prevention Council for the outstanding work they were engaged in that helped improve community safety. Numerous programs were created and initiated by the KWYC through the years, after school peer tutor program, “each one, teach one” program, and in response to the increasing amounts of harassment/brutality faced by the street community at the hands of the WRPS a “Cop Watch” patrol. Numerous demonstrations were also organized outta “The Spot” focusing on combating the gentrification plan “Urban Evolution” of DTkitchener, Anti-Poverty protests and Anti-Police Brutality mobilizations. Due to the political nature of the KWYC police attempted infiltrate the group on a couple occasions and when that tactic didn’t work they began a campaign to arrest the “leaders” in an attempt to destabilize organizing efforts. One of the youth arrested had an officer tell them, as they were being loaded into a paddy wagon on their way to jail, that it was so and so’s fault. The youth replied “they weren’t the ones who put on the cuffs, pig”. “The Spot” was open till May 1st 2004 when it had to close its doors due to financial constraints, but the KWYC continues organizing!!!!

If there is anything that should be learned from the history of gentrification is that it is an attack on all aspects of an already marginalized community. They break apart poor communities to bring in a middle class to enhance the neighbourhood, not deal with the root causes of poverty. The role of the new middle-class is to be that shining example of what an “ideal“ tenant and a contributing member of society should look like.

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2 Responses to “Fighting Gentrification”

  1. seachranaidhe1 December 30, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    Reblogged this on seachranaidhe1.

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