Confessions of a Gentrification Double-Agent

Places that the author has lived in Montreal 1981-2011

Home, 1981-

Spacing Montreal contributor Adam Bemma recently interviewed me as part of  The Gentrification Project, a documentary film about how urban development effects low-income neighbourhoods in Montreal. Adam has done extensive interviews on the subject with academics, community organizations and citizens from Milton Park, Shaughnessy Village, Park Ex, Saint-Henri, Burgundy and  Griffintown. (Although my interview isn’t up yet, Adam assures me that it’ll be integrated into the finished documentary).

To be honest, I’m not sure how I got into that mix: Gentrification is a topic that I generally steer away from. It is a subject I have mixed up feelings about: a sense of loss, a dose of guilt, maybe even a hint of righteousness. In short, it’s complicated

When I was a kid, my mom had a knack discovering finding the neighbourhoods that were full of potential, yet still affordable to a young couple who were students and unemployed in turns. We lost three separate apartments in Saint-Henri before before I was out of diapers.  Later, the lease ran out on a sprawling 2-story apartment with hardwood floors in Little Burgundy. We even had to leave a granny flat in Beaconsfield which was slotted to be converted into an old-folks home.

By the early 1990s my parents had split up and my dad moved to Rue Fabre, above Avenue Mont Royal. He was working a day job and composing a novel; his roommate was an actor who hung his bicycle from hooks in the stairwell. On weekends, I joined these pioneers of gentrification, the artsy-types whose presence effaced some more authentic Plateau way of life. Later, my dad remarried and hunkered down in a Plateau 6-and-a-half to raise three more kids, as the rents skyrocketed on all sides.

Meanwhile, across town, my mom and I lay down roots in NDG: we hung on to a gorgeous apartment with basement and bay windows from the time I was in grade nine all the way until my second year in university. Then a zealous new landlord bought the duplex, evicted our upstairs neighbours (two ladies in their ’80s who’d lived there for 50 years), moved in with wife and baby, and set his eye on our groundfloor pad. He may have lost his case at the Régie du Logement, but that didn’t stop him from calling the police every time we guests, video-taping us from his balcony and drilling through the water main (to be fair, the last one was probably plain ineptitude). There are few things more exhausting than feeling persecuted in your own home: when he sent an eviction notice we let him get his way.

The gentrified becomes the gentrifier…

Skip ahead nearly ten years: I’ve got a university degree, I’m mostly employed and so far childless.  I cannot deny I like espresso, wifi, bike paths and fine cheese and, what’s worse, I’ve imposed these preferences on the traditionally working-class neighbourhood by moving to Petite Patrie.

Combattez la gentrification” someone has scrawled on the wall in my old ‘hood, Saint-Henri, as if the city were clearly divided into troupes of haves and have-nots; those with condos versus those with nothing but cans of spray-paint. On the ground, I have found that this battle is made up of tiny actions that are rarely black nor white:

Consider my landlord’s wife struggling to carry the baby stroller up the stairs; me shedding tears as I turned over the keys to my home, and the ladies upstairs whom, after half a century of rent-control, were inevitably the first to go.

Consider my brother and I building forts in the Plateau alleyway while my dad climbed the corporate ladder and wrote poems late at night. Pray tell, what side of the line were we on then?

Consider that, today, I buy almond croissants on my way to work and microbrews on the way home and have yet to set foot in la Belle Province, that cornerstone of local flavour.

Am I the only one who feels like a gentrification double-agent?

13 comments

  1. Great post. I have never experienced the other side of gentrification, but as somebody who is blessed with a comfortable enough income to have purchased a condo last year in Petite Italie, I’ve been pretty concerned about unwittingly participating in a gentrification process.

    I asked a friend who is an urban planner last year about whether gentrification always has to go hand-in-hand with the economic growth of a neighbourhood. Her clarification made a lot of sense to me: gentrification is not defined by increased wealth, nor the improvement of a neighbourhood. What defines gentrification is when a neighbourhood is occupied and changed to the exclusion and without the participation of existing residents.

    So Wi-Fi, bike paths and fine cheese cannot technically gentrify a neighbourhood, because those things aren’t exclusionary (in the sense that they are simply services that residents can use or not). Eliminating low-cost housing or rent control, however, can, because that forces out existing residents.

    Believe me though, I understand the malaise. I want to contribute to my neighbourhood and improve the quality of life for myself and my neighbours, but I sometimes wonder if the very act of purchasing the condo was just another force driving up housing prices. But what would be the alternative?

  2. Just by being an anglo in Montreal you can feel that way. I’ve lived in Villeray since 2005; along about 2007 I heard two people pass by outside chatting in English and suddenly found myself thinking “there goes the neighbourhood!”

  3. Inclusiveness, including a mix of income, is a good thing for a community. I believe their are vested, cynical, ulterior motives amongst those who claim to be acting in the collective good by preventing social and economic development in a given neighbourhood.

  4. The thing turns bad when you start getting new people imposing their values on the neighbourhood. The condo-owners who live above the park on Rachel and Saint-Laurent who complain about noise from the Fringe Festival are a prime example of this. The new legislation from the Borough Council shutting down terrasses early and being aggressive about noise complaints is another.

    It’s a tough line to walk, because it’s not like it happens deliberately (though developers and property owners who just want to cash in are certainly a big, conscious part of the problem). The loss of Vincent Sous-marin on Laurier was the death knell for that neighbourhood. I do think if you are never eating at La Belle Province, there is an issue there that you need to be thinking about.

  5. Intersting article. As a “gentrifier” myself, I always dwell on those kind of reflections. However, we have to remember that since society as a whole is getting richer (justly or not), some kind of gentrification is inevitable since no one wants to live in a shitty neighbourhood. That doesn’t always mean that the nasty capitalists will come to evict the poor people. As you illustrate, people get richer as they get older and they want to invest themselves in their community. Maybe a good share of the left long-standing fear of gentrification is actually antipathy toward growth.

    The second key point is location. “Prime” real restate is a positional good that cannot be shared so it goes to the hightest bidder. I bet that if the poors lived in some far-away suburbs (like in France), nobody would want to “gentrify” them.

  6. One of the problems of gentrification of downtown areas that it forces less affluent people away from areas that are walkable and have decent transit connections – while the ‘agents’ of gentrification increasingly are seeking a car-less life style and the same ares (essentially the opposite of urban flight).

    Thus people who don’t have cars, and can’t really afford cars, are getting pushed away to areas where one needs them, or where commute times become really long.

    One way to deal with it is to push for social housing in areas that are walkable.

    Another way is to rapidly expand the areas of Montreal that are walkable and have good transit connections – essentially increase the supply of walkable areas. Thus displacing less affluent people from downtown would not necessarily decrease their quality of live, associated with long commute times and living without car in un-walkable areas.

  7. If you did not purchase the building, you really don’t have to worry about it. Gentrifiers are owners. Besides, the city has bought loads of units for the poor already.

  8. Keep in mind that gentrification does not always mean displacing others.

    I, too, am a gentrifyer and a displacer in Rosemont-Petite Patrie: we replaced an empty commercial space and two apartments with one house, although in the process made our neighbours very pleased to see 3 gay men who like flowers instead of (according to them) drug dealers who stole stuff from their yards (and were dumb enough to throw it out in the alley once broken).

    Just down the street from us, however, is the Quartier54 by métro Rosemont so is highly walkable and convenient to transit (and if you look at their cute advertising at http://www.quartier54.com, you’ll see that they “forgot” to show the railroad tracks next door, although strangely enough the bike path gets in, as does the art gallery and the Pho restaurant and even the yoga studio). It’s all brand-new construction and the whole project follows Montréal’s “inclusion strategy” of combining private market-priced housing with co-ops and “affordably-priced” units and includes quite a few 3-, 4- and even 5-bedroom units for families. Gentrification? You bet. Displacement? Nope, the opposite.

    I just came back from Vancouver, where my housing experiences included dinner with a woman who lives in a huge beautifully renovated $1,800-a-month 2-floor 2-bedroom co-op on the west-side with a huge garden and chickens, my sister’s place which is a steal at $900 for a small 2-bedroom place in the east end with a great view but dirty carpets, and slept with a really cute guy who lives in a cramped (although described as spacious by the building management) $1,200-a-month 1-bedroom place in a tired 60’s high-rise in the West End with 2 people sleeping in separate beds in the bedroom and another guy staying “temporarily” for the last 3 months in the living room on a fold-out thing.

    It made me think that we’re really not doing that badly here in Montréal, despite what the graffiti would lead you to believe.

    For a fairly slow and boring peek into what was going on way back in the 70s: http://www.nfb.ca/film/montreal_neighborhood_revived — alas, dubbed into English.

  9. Great post Alanah: poignant an insightful.

    I certainly share your ambivalence about gentrification. However, I feel that there may be different varieties of this phenomenon. My sense is that Renters and owners of condo-ized plexes are locate in an area because they’re attracted to something in the neighbourhood or a particular housing stock. Newly-built condos – which typically appear at a later stage of gentrification once developers are sufficiently certain of the trend – I feel tend to attract a different type of crowd. Typically supplied with abundant underground parking, my completely unsubstantiated hypothesis is that these residents may drive more between their home and various destinations, and perhaps be less active in neighbourhood life, whether in the form of participation in local organizations or frequenting neighborhood shops. Whether or not this hypothesis holds water, this is a particularly timely issue given the ‘World-city-ification’ process underway in Montreal. I certainly look forward to seeing the film that Adam is working on,

  10. Je trouve qu’il est important de maintenir la mixité sociale; c’est l’une des bonnes choses des quartiers de Montréal. C’est un élément positif et dynamisant.

    Par contre, je vois d’un moins bon œil la création de quartiers exclusifs accessible qu’à une seule tranche. Par exemple dans Griffintown, le promoteur du Bassin semble vouloir se désister de sa promesse de créer 400 logements sociaux dans le projet.

  11. In this day and age, aren’t we all part of this system of gentrification? Especially the “middle class” who’s stuck making choices between the expensive coffee once every so often, and a mediocre apartment in the “ghetto”.

    Let’s face it, we like aesthetically pleasing, properly maintained neighborhoods, we like the trendy coffee shops and the plethora of overpriced byob restaurants. But for us to afford all of that, we move in the less eye-pleasing neighborhoods.  

    However, Montreal’s got a way of keeping the “ghetto” even within “gentrified” ‘hoods. It’s not like everyone’s gettin’ pushed away; just do your groceries on Mont Royal passed Papineau towards the east, it’s not necessarily what I have in mind when I think of a gentrified neighborhood (no judgement here). 

    There’s still a mix in demographics, and it’s here to stay. But let’s not waste our energy on fighting every new building project that brings a little bit of sunshine in neighborhoods that can sometimes be dark. 

    And it’s definitely a good thing for people to move around. Makes you see new things, enjoy new crowds, and learn from different life experiences!

    Pride and dignity is everyone’s rights.

  12. I think people worry too much about gentrification. While we need to be sensitive to the plight of low-income people in our society, what’s the alternative? Not buy a house because it may affect someone?

    Neighbourhoods have always had a boom-bust cycle. I would suspect that many of the neighbourhoods in our cities became low-income in part due to the lack of investment in them during the inter-war and suburban ages, when many poor people would not have lived right downtown. Part of what we’re seeing is a return to historic form.

  13. “remember that since society as a whole is getting richer (justly or not).

    A. Woooof ! Who told you such a thing?
    Figures and facts tell a whole different story. A minority of people got richer … and for how long?

    The vast majority got poorer. 25 per cent (of those who used to be part of the working class) are in shit.

    B. The figures published by the Regie du Logement show that around 300 000 residents of Montreal have been “socially cleansed” in 10 years (2000-2010).

    May be one third managed to rent elsewhere, or buy one of those condos – many of which will be completely run down and devalued in 20 years … if they are lucky -without suffering too much. They also form part of the group of gentrifying lemmings.

    What about the other tenants?
    The result for them is simply deadly.

    The Real Estate marketting brigade insist on how nicely the gentrification process is. This is never true.

    Real Estate investors have used the same tricks in all cities and the first tricks hase been : lying to city counsellors who were very happy to hear lies as if those lies were new : Real Estate investors promised a good percentage of social housing units which … have never been built.

    = More and more people in the street.
    Fires and paid arsonists. Bullying and harassment of tenants.

    No one – who pretends being psychologically and intellectually normal 0 should accept massive evictions of renters (invidividuals and families) who do not have the money to rent eslsewhere during a cycle of speculation.

    Cities should offer alternative housing spaces to any person or family evicted. If cities cannot : too bad for landlords !

    Citizens in their right mind should not accept that landlords are allowed who to throw tenants in the streets.

    Gentrification always happen during a RECESSION.

    This speculative period has been a tsunami.

    Because of this ambiguous political attitude of the small and bigger gentrifiers (who want to be “nice “gentrifiers and prefer to believe the nice little lies that municipalities tell them, landlords felt they had the power. And they used it.

    Gentrifiers who are not part of the real estate lobby want to hear lies : investment firms story tellers who work in the medias to sell “city rehab” know it – the “social mixing” alibi has been used in Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam and basically every city in the world. Which is not suprising : the big investor interests have a foot in each and every city, big and small, of the world.

    Awake, buddies !

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