By: Daniel Salcedo Rubio
Gentrification is a seemingly unstoppable phenomenon taking place in cities across the world, from North American cities like Vancouver or my home, Mexico City, to East Asian cities like Tokyo and Seoul. Gentrification is a complex sociocultural and economic process where “wealthy, college-educated individuals begin to move into poor or working-class communities, often originally occupied by communities of color.” In theory, investing in communities and neighbourhoods that have been historically neglected resource-wise sounds like a fantastic initiative. More often than not, it will actually cause displacement of marginalized groups, furthering their economic and social disenfranchisement. There is a complex interplay of issues at the heart of gentrification, where perhaps well-intentioned revitalization initiatives perpetuate inequality and cultural erasure.
In Mexico City, gentrification took an exponential rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote workers from all over the world, especially from the US, moved into the city — primarily into the neighbourhoods of La Condesa and La Roma Norte, looking for cheap rent and an affordable everyday life. Displacement quickly came to the city and for its citizens. Rents for apartments in these neighbourhoods rose to $1,500 USD ($2,051 CAD) a month, with a one-bedroom apartment averaging $632 USD ($872 CAD) throughout the entire city. This is in a city where the average monthly income is only $4,600 MXN ($346 CAD). Displacement is not just an outcome of unreasonably high rent, but also forceful evictions. The rental model that platforms like Airbnb offer has pushed renters out of their homes, as it’s far more profitable to rent a property to so-called digital nomads for $6,400 CAD than it is to keep renting it to its current residents for $750 CAD. Not only have locals been displaced, but Mexico City is now so culturally different to the point where last time I went to those neighbourhoods, the majority of people in restaurants were American customers.
Don’t misconstrue the sentiment of the locals when they tell someone to “go back to your country” — their sentiment does not arise from xenophobia, but from rage toward the loss of their spaces and erasure of their culture — from rage at gentrification. Unfortunately, gentrification hasn’t only impacted big cities. Smaller communities like Ixil and Kinchil in Yucatan are facing similar, if not worse, problems. Mayan communities have been battling land theft at the hands of real estate conglomerates looking to build luxury developments for outsiders, because stealing Indigenous lands apparently never went out of fashion for the ultra-wealthy.
In the US, historically Black neighbourhoods like The Central District, a “hub for Black culture for over 100 years,” have been deeply affected by gentrification. Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, described gentrification of historically Black communities as an “insidious onslaught.” Vine City, Atlanta, where American minister and civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived, has been wiped by sports stadium projects. The Bronx and Harlem in New York City — predominantly Black and Latinx neighbourhoods — are integral to history. Malcolm X addressed the Black communities of the world with his famous speech at the Harlem Freedom Rally in the 60s. The Apollo Theater in Harlem saw the debut of legendary Stevie Wonder and was a staple for icon Aretha Franklin. Who wouldn’t call gentrification an onslaught? When Black-owned businesses are under threat of displacement for the sake of “progress,” one can only ask — progress for whom? To whom is it beneficial that culturally significant neighbourhoods are systematically losing their identity, their culture, and most importantly, their people?
Here in Vancouver, gentrification is an ongoing threat for many cultures. Chinatown, a historically and culturally rich neighbourhood that has been a vital community for Chinese migrants, continues fighting the dangers of gentrification. The now-obscured Lao Tzu mural in the Lee Association Building has been replaced by an incredibly bland-looking condo complex. The proposed Beedie apartment complex on 105 Keefer is also a harmful proposal for the neighbourhood. The board approved the condo under the condition of giving it a “welcoming” façade fitting the emblematic neighbourhood, while actively ignoring the calls of protestors for low-income housing. This shows just how superficial the city’s concern for its citizens really is.
The displacement of Downtown Eastside residents is another well-known and documented case of gentrification in the city, where developers are actively trying to “upscale” a neighbourhood of predominantly low-income residents. The Waldorf Hotel, which was originally a working-class hangout, slowly became a centre for local artists and upscale restaurants offering a lifestyle beyond the reach of the neighbourhood’s residents. Even Kitsilano and the West End underwent gentrification in the 60s and 70s, with student and family housing being replaced by luxury condo buildings. The façade of progress and economic development are merely masking the city’s deeper issues, lacking the intent required for positive change.
Progress and development may be inevitable processes in society, yet gentrification isn’t. Policies and guidelines can be, and must be, put in place to avoid the displacement and erasure of entire communities. This involves actions like building affordable housing and allocating a portion of developments for low income individuals, as well as significantly considering community input in decision-making processes. Thankfully, several government agencies, Vancouver included, have heard the pleas of the people; platforms like Airbnb, which have been responsible for driving up housing costs, are now being regulated more heavily. It’s necessary to take into consideration the historical, cultural, economic, and, most importantly, human factors of progress. While we might be taking a step in the right direction to offset the rental crisis, gentrification is a multi-faceted issue and this is just one step with miles yet to traverse. Progress for the betterment of the few, who actively and purposefully exclude and marginalize, can’t be called progress at all.