By: Meera Eragoda, Arts & Culture Editor
As COVID-19 inequities have shown, gentrification has long been a hot topic in Vancouver and many other cities across Canada. It’s a word packed with a lot of meaning. Without oversimplifying it too much, I like thinking of it as a developer’s rebranding of a neighbourhood in order to make it more attractive to wealthier people in order to increase developer profits. Gentrification is something that is going to affect us all (if it hasn’t already) as we try and build our careers in an increasingly unaffordable city.
Experiencing gentrification firsthand, Lulu Wei, a Toronto-based filmmaker and cinematographer, filmed There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace to document her own and others’ experience in the Bloor/Bathurst neighbourhood of Toronto. While this film focuses on Toronto, the patterns of gentrification are applicable everywhere. The film was produced by Ali Weinstein, music composed by Laura Barrett, and editing done by Sarah Bachinski and Perry Walker. Currently, the documentary is playing virtually at Vancouver’s documentary festival, DOXA, and is coming off a win of the Rogers Audience Award at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
The film follows Vancouver developer, Westbank (known for such egregious eyesores as the Vancouver Torqued Chandelier), as it takes over the property that used to house the landmark, Honest Ed’s, for 75 years. The founder of Honest Ed’s, Ed Mirvish, also owned several buildings in the surrounding area which he rented out to artists and small, independent businesses, making the area very vibrant.
I was talking to a friend from Toronto about this film and they expressed how heartbroken they were when Honest Ed’s was torn down. This is a feeling that is echoed throughout the film. Honest Ed’s was a discount store that had historic value in the community for the low prices it offered, which made it affordable for many new immigrants to get their start in the city.
Ed Mirvish’s son, David Mirvish, comments on the legacy of Honest Ed’s saying, “New people coming to this country went there for their first clothes, their first frying pan, their first winter coat, and their first shoes, and their first everything. So my father was a port of entry for many, many families.”
The film doesn’t make any value judgments about David Mirvish, though he sold the property after Ed Mirvish and his wife passed away — which I think slightly overlooks one of the contributing factors of gentrification as he could have done many other things with it.
Despite this, There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace explores other important topics. This includes dissecting what Westbank’s definition of affordable is when they talk about making a certain number of units available at an “affordable” rate.
As Dr. Deborah Cowen from the University of Toronto explains in the film, “Another problem is affordability is being defined in relation to average market rents, not in relation to people’s incomes [ . . . ] Affordability, you’d think, would be ‘can someone afford it?’ not ‘is it cheaper than the average rent?’”
Because Westbank taking over meant an increase in rent, both residents and business owners who relied on actually affordable rent in order to survive had to move elsewhere. In addition, the very few “affordable” units came at no cost to Westbank as the City of Toronto ended up subsidizing them.
One of the businesses that faced displacement was a Black-owned bookstore and gathering space, A Different Booklist (now The People’s Residence). Itah Sadu, the owner, comments on how Black voices are often overlooked in conversations of development, even when their communities have deep roots in a neighbourhood, and how they have to demand that their voices be heard.
“When people of African descent came to Toronto, Bathurst Street was their meeting place [ . . . ] Were we in that narrative? Or did we have to get ourselves in there? Oftentimes there’s a prescription already in place for us to respond to. We’re not just responding to gentrification. What we want to do is to stay on Bathurst Street.”
Throughout the film, Westbank is shown as attempting to have community engagement in order to build something that retains the character of the neighborhood, without actually spending any of their money. However, the emptiness of this rhetoric is shown by the final result and their refusal to acknowledge the detrimental impact they have on independent businesses, as well as residents who rely on affordable rents along subway stations.
This film by Wei is such an important one and I highly encourage anyone wanting to learn more about gentrification, the insidiousness of Vancouver developers (or developers in general), or the history of Toronto to watch.
There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace is available at DOXA’s virtual festival until June 26 with the student admission price of $6.99.