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Tactics against towers, community against condos: toward a stronger anti-gentrification movement

Activists share wisdom on Vancouver's fight for housing and community-based decision making

by Tyson Leonard

The Woodward's building is home to 536 market-priced condos and a number of high-end retail stores. Only 30 per cent of the building is social housing. Karen Ward of CCAP sees the development as having started a chain reaction of gentrification in the last five years. Photo by Tyson Leonard.
The Woodward's building is home to 536 market-priced condos and a number of high-end retail stores. Only 30 per cent of the building is social housing. Karen Ward of CCAP sees the development as having started a chain reaction of gentrification in the last five years. Photo by Tyson Leonard.

Also posted by Tyson Leonard:

Before my internship with the Vancouver Media Co-op began, I had decided to work on a series focusing on a social issue affecting Vancouver. After a week of research I sat down with my editor and we brainstormed which issue would be best to tackle. It didn’t take long for us to agree that gentrification was at the top of the list.

In Kingston, where I’d been living up until a couple months ago, gentrification was a term usually used only in radical left circles. So when I came to Vancouver I was surprised that everyone seemed to know the term, even if they disagree about its meaning.

Some view gentrification as an opportunity to make money; for others, it’s something they know is bad, but are pretty sure means better restaurants; and for many, it means rising rent, hostile retail spaces, and ultimately displacement.

During my research I read all that I could about how gentrification works and how people resist it. Inevitably, this took me outside the boundaries of Vancouver. New York City and Los Angeles are both dealing with a housing crisis, and residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are being displaced at gunpoint under the pretext of the FIFA World Cup. Each city faces unique challenges but underneath it all it’s the same story.

In Vancouver, Bob Rennie is one of the key developers pushing gentrification, although it seems like there is a never-ending supply of other big time developers and small time slumlords that are willing to build new condos and raise rents.

The Downtown Eastside (DTES) has undoubtedly been hit the hardest in recent years. Only four years ago the massive Woodward’s building was rebuilt with only 30 per cent social housing, and only 15 per cent welfare-rate social housing.

The alternative to gentrification is relatively simple: build more and better affordable housing units, and support neighbourhoods’ autonomous decision making processes on issues that affect them. How to force these fixes from an unwilling government is where the work begins.

Over the course of my internship, I posed this question to several of Vancouver’s prominent anti-gentrification activists. Most anti-gentrification activists agree that gentrification will only be stopped by a movement of people being affected by gentrification, as well as their allies. In these interviews, a clear core of tactics to build an anti-gentrification movement emerged: first, a responsibility to reach out and incorporate all communities; second, a need for organizers to educate those who don’t understand gentrification, using the inherent strengths of communities to resist; and third, the importance of incorporating experiential knowledge into accountable decision making structures.

In Vancouver, many people see the trend of gentrification as beginning in the 50’s, with the transformation of Coal Harbour and then the Kitsilano neighborhood.

Richard Marquez, a long time anti-gentrification warrior and a Chicano who worked with the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC) in San Francisco, proposes that the history of gentrification started a long time before the changes in Kitsilano, with the colonization of North America.

“I think that’s where we have to ground our historical analysis... This is a historical fight that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. I think the Coast Salish people understand that, and can see the relationships between the past and the present and the future in terms of the fightback to gentrification,” said Marquez.

Marquez has lived in Vancouver for the last three years and currently works as a social worker in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). He sees the affects of gentrification every day, and is worried Vancouver is unprepared to fight back. In our interview, Marquez said the most pressing matter for Vancouver’s anti-gentrification movement is to expand to communities outside of the DTES. For him, because gentrification interrelates with other forms of oppression, the movement to resist it needs to be intersectional.

“A movement has to have relationships with other communities, with people of colour, low income people, even middle class renters and middle class homeowners as well. I think a diversity of relations has to be cultivated, and that’s not what I see happening here in Vancouver. I see the same cast of players, often just speaking to each other, and they are usually speaking to each other in English only,” said Marquez.

With more than half the population of Greater Vancouver being from a visible minority according to the 2011 census, and with a large variety of other cultural groups, it’s clear that for any kind of movement to succeed it needs to work within many different communities. White activists, in particular, need to make links and share their resources outside their own communities.

When Marquez was working with MAC, he noticed all of the organized anti-gentrification resistance was in the Mission District, where gentrification was hurting people the most. This isolation was a problem, though. Marquez noticed the need to remain autonomous while also reaching out for allies.

“We have to start bringing in so many different diverse political actors and start to bring in different approaches and methods to it. That is the only way we can both nurture [the movement] and sustain it,” said Marquez.

King-mong Chan is an organizer in Vancouver’s Chinese community for the Carnegie Community Action Plan (CCAP).  In our interview, Chan agreed that more work has to be done to mobilize minority communities.

“I think it can be such a powerful voice for the anti-gentrification battle if the low-income Chinese community mobilizes, and becomes vocal, and more visible. This goes for not just the Chinese community but for any other ethnic minority communities. All communities need to be engaged and fully supporting their own capacity and their own right to fight for issues that are affecting their community,” said Chan.

For Chan, educating those communities is the key to mobilizing them. He said a lack of understanding about how gentrification affects the neighbourhood is common among the Chinese community members he’s spoken to. Chan said this is in part due to a lack of resistance to issues like gentrification historically.

“Most of the people I’ve spoken to don’t have a solid understanding of gentrification. Some people I talk to have an understanding that, generally, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” said Chan.

Chinatown is facing its own Woodward’s sized gentrification catastrophe. Four years ago, the Vision Vancouver-led City Council approved a proposal that allows for taller buildings in Chinatown. In some areas, this means condos up to 15 stories high. Chan said this is the biggest issue Chinatown is facing right now in terms to gentrification.

Yet there are significant barriers to fighting back against the influx of market rate condos.

“Language is one of the main barriers for people. To overcome it you need more community organizers who are willing to be engaged and help the Chinese residents, particularly with information. That’s not just exclusive to people who can speak a Chinese dialect, because others can gather information and utilize those who can translate,” said Chan.

Besides language, there are other barriers when it comes to reaching out to communities working together though. Chan explains that although the Chinese community in Vancouver is incredibly diverse, low-income Chinese residents’ reactions to gentrification tend to be very different from other Vancouver’s other communities resisting gentrification, such as the DTES.

“Within the larger community I sense there is almost a cultural barrier, in that many Chinese residents are more accepting of gentrification. It’s something we need to acknowledge—this resignation in the face of gentrification,” said Chan.

Marquez said organizers will only be able to overcome cultural barriers by involving themselves in the neighbourhoods they are working within.

 “I think it’s driven by neighbourhood based organization. It’s going to temples, churches, schools, daycare programs, places of employment; it’s on the bus, on the Skytrain, and it’s at high schools. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and going to neighbourhoods where people are not accustomed to going,” said Marquez.

Karen Ward is a DTES resident at the Woodward’s building. She works with multiple DTES community groups, including Gallery Gachet, CCAP, and the low-income caucus of the Local Area Planning Process. During our interview at the CCAP office, Ward told me it’s important to highlight the communities facing the most severe repercussions of gentrification.

“People should just come down to the DTES. I’m proud of the fact that we’re different, I’m proud of the fact that we’ve made our own rules and that we’re a very open community. When people come down here they’ll begin to realize how much is at stake. Anybody who cares about the life and health of cities should be concerned about gentrification,” said Ward.

Ward experiences the effects of gentrification every day. She said it’s about more than just displacement; there are other more subtle, but still devastating effects.

“You can see the stretching tentacles of all these high-end businesses who explicitly don’t serve low end needs. There is a fancy dog shop, there’s a designer baby outlet, there’s Nester’s Market which is so expensive you can’t shop there. Very clearly, if you’re a low income person, you’re not wanted. You used to be able to get a breakfast for three bucks; now you can get one for $12,” said Ward.

When I asked Ward how to fight against more and more exclusionary retail spaces she jokingly said a boycott is out of the question. The traditional response has been picketing combined with postering and other information distribution, as in the case of Pidgin. But Ward said it’s going to take something much bigger.

“There needs to be a large campaign to resist gentrification. I’m looking forward to stretching out to allies across the city. I think that makes our case that much stronger. We do tend to be a little insular because we are running on all cylinders down here,” said Ward.

Not surprisingly, fatigue was a common theme among the anti-gentrification organizers I interviewed. Organizing forums and marches, writing community newsletters, meeting with tenants, lobbying city hall: it’s time consuming, difficult work.

Marquez suggested that this fatigue can be combated by incorporating different organizing tactics. Organizers, he said, should be using culture, art, music, and dance to bring people together.

“Those are the kinds of methods that inspire, more so than speeches and proclamations.”

Marquez compared his vision for the future of Vancouver’s anti-gentrification movement to the likes of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the movement to resist government atrocities surround the World Cup in Brazil right now. Both movements are known for their embrace of cultural forms of resistance.

Harold Lavender has been involved in many struggles for social justice over the last two decades. In recent years, he has focused on the anti-gentrification movement in the DTES. He is a member of the Social Housing Alliance and the Downtown East, as well as being involved with other groups in the DTES community.

In our interview, Lavender also noted the importance of community organizing within the anti-gentrification movement.

“A lot of the community organizing in the DTES is based on people’s experiential knowledge in the community, such as the experience of oppression. This is a community where people interact with each other, and have spaces and organizations, and shared experiences and values. So that actually provides a certain capacity to resist oppression. That’s what we’re trying to do, draw on the collective strength of the community,” said Lavender.

Lavender insisted that by tying the resistance to gentrification to the communities it affects, the organizations then remain accountable to the right people.

 “One of the slogans here in the DTES is ‘Nothing for us without us.’ That is a really important slogan, because what happens is that decisions about what happens to the use of urban space are being made by people who aren’t accountable to us. That includes large real-estate corporations who make the economic decisions, and city politicians who put on a show of consultation, but in reality are developer funded. So basically it’s a question of how communities get back that control, and the power to make decisions that affect their lives,” said Lavender.

For Lavender and the other activists I interviewed, the future of Vancouver’s anti-gentrification movement isn’t clear. To most of them, the gentrification of Vancouver’s vulnerable neighbourhoods seems almost inevitable. But what surprised me the most over the course of the interviews was that even though it seems the odds are against us, every interviewer confessed a hopeful optimism for the future. Their hopefulness seemed to stem from the fact that, for them, stopping gentrification in Vancouver isn’t an option--it’s a necessity. 

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A building should not run

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