Parkdale, Toronto

As I indicated in my previous post on the closure of the Honest Ed’s retail store in Toronto, gentrification has transformed many parts of the city over the last couple of decades. This has perhaps been most evident in the neighborhood known as Parkdale, in the southwestern part of the city along Queen Street West. Geographers have intensively studied gentrification from many angles and across dozens of case studies, with critical assessments dating back at least to the late Neil Smith’s 1979 article “Toward a Theory of Gentrification” in the Journal of the American Planning Association, and I have used Parkdale as an example to examine this process in my undergraduate courses many times. Typically for this I have assigned an older article by Tom Slater, whose broader work on gentrification in North America and the UK is excellent, titled “Municipally managed gentrification in South Parkdale, Toronto,” published in 2004 in the academic journal The Canadian Geographer. I like Slater’s work on gentrification because of how he defines and examines the process itself, making the point that it is impossible to identify and understand gentrification without locating it, and changes associated with it, in cycles of disinvestment, reinvestment, and displacement, which are also politically contested. Too much gentrification research, and the general discussion of gentrification among the public and policymakers, focuses on the ‘upside’ of the process – the ’emancipatory’ nature of revitalizing neighborhoods, replacing what many see as urban blight, decay, and entrenched crime and poverty with renovated or new housing, trendy spaces of consumption, and safer, more aesthetically appealing public areas. Slater and others who critically examine gentrification argue, however, that this view ignores the displacement of current neighborhood residents that must occur, and centers the perspectives and demands of a narrow set of middle class homeowners and consumers. This is not an argument for drugs, crime, broken windows, and poverty, but instead one that argues for a more inclusive view of the city and neighborhood change that does not fall into the trap of what Slater labels “false choice urbanism,” i.e., positing that cities must choose between gentrification and permanent disinvestment, the former being the supposedly correct choice for moral, political, and economic reasons, the latter giving in to all the worst aspects of urban development and basically giving up on a city or neighborhood.

If this sounds like academic jargon, I can put it more simply by asking two more direct questions: for whom does gentrification work?, and who should have a say in urban and neighborhood development? As Slater puts it in a more recent commentary (surprise! no paywall!), while the mainstream ‘common sense’ view suggests that gentrification and the displacement that comes with it are good and natural for cities, and that cities work best when they facilitate this process, there is still a lot of strong research that takes a more even-handed view of the process as a whole and its broader effects. As he states it, this “new wave of scholarship … understands gentrification as the neighbourhood expression of class inequality, and as structural violence visited upon working class people living in contexts boosted by some as ‘regenerating’ or ‘revitalising’.” To answer the first question posed above then, we could say that from this perspective, gentrification works for middle-class homeowners and city leaders, but not for the working poor and other less affluent urban residents. The second question is a normative and political one, and thus more difficult to answer, but if we are concerned with democratic participation and political equality, the answer to who should have a say would have to be much broader than more affluent newcomers, property developers, and certain segments of urban government.

Where and how does Parkdale fit into this? In brief, Parkdale has been undergoing intensive gentrification for at least two decades as the neighborhood has become a preferred locale for suburbanites moving back into the city, first-time homebuyers looking for relatively cheap housing, and property developers looking to build or renovate multi-story/multi-unit buildings into more lucrative condominiums. Before the current wave of new homeowners and developers, Parkdale attracted artists, new immigrants, the working poor, and, by the 1970s and 1980s, people with persistent mental health problems who had been deinstitutionalized with cuts to social services and health care. Parkdale provided residents who could afford few other places close to the city center with adequate space for growing families, usable workspace, and relatively low-cost rents. The nature of the built environment, as Slater explains in his article, contributed to this, as large older Victorian homes had been subdivided into multi-unit apartment buildings after a new highway had been built along the lakefront between Lake Ontario and the neighborhood, while plenty of buildings along Queen Street West provided lofts and open spaces for artists, who often form the ‘leading edge’ of gentrification, to work and operate small galleries. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, gentrification was well underway in Parkdale, with new buyers taking on and renovating the older homes and dramatically increasing their value, new small businesses like restaurants and specialty shops opening as the neighborhood gathered buzz as an ‘up-and-coming’ area, and poorer residents being priced out as rents and other daily costs crept upward. The city encouraged this development, and Parkdale became a locus of debate about “cleaning up the city,” with some casting poorer residents as the source of crime and other problems, while those residents resented this characterization and fought to maintain their homes and presence as vital components in the neighborhood they called home.

In presenting the example of Parkdale in my classes, it can be difficult to adequately characterize the neighborhood as a place in ways that might resonate with students who are not from Toronto, who have never been to Parkdale or a neighborhood like it, and who have little experience with gentrification. At my university, the vast majority of our students come from the local area, where gentrification and displacement of the sort ongoing in larger cities like Toronto, New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver is simply not present (though it is starting to appear in some forms in Detroit, just across the border). As I commute for work every week, I spend half of my time in Toronto, and live not far from Parkdale. It is a bustling and exciting neighborhood, with lots of small shops, cool restaurants and bars, and vintage stores. It is also still home to many people who struggle with mental health issues and addiction, and you might get asked for change from panhandlers along Queen Street. These are people for whom finding good work and affordable rents has become increasingly difficult as gentrification progresses and daily living costs in Toronto grow, though local health service providers and community groups are working to help solve these intertwined health, economic, and housing problems. Parkdale is also the center of a thriving network of immigrant communities, home, for example, to one of the largest populations of Tibetans outside of Tibet, almost 400 of whom work in the food processing industry and recently organized against precarious employment and poor treatment.

While gentrification has been at the core of neighborhood change and political debate and organization in Parkdale for many years, the area was most recently in the local news in Toronto for two reasons. The first is an article that appeared online in Toronto Life magazine at the end of May 2017, titled (without irony or self-awareness, it might seem) “We Bought a Crack House.” In it, the author recounts the long and winding tale of her and her husband’s purchase of a house in Parkdale and the subsequent difficulties they encountered in moving out the tenants who lived there already, renovating the building, and paying off the considerable debt they racked up along the way. The tone and disparaging descriptions of the neighborhood and its less affluent residents don’t really cast the narrator in the most sympathetic light, and it’s difficult to feel the pain of their renovation nightmare when she notes their ownership of two Toronto residential properties, nor when they are at last bailed out by a wealthy family member from abroad. I won’t run through the article here or pick it apart point by point (someone at VICE already did that well enough, though the title of that article also leaves much to be desired in terms of phrasing and nuance)

The author calculates that the house and renovations eventually cost them Cdn$1.12 million, a hefty sum in any neighborhood, especially when you consider that the home they purchased was, in fact, in serious disrepair at the time of the sale. As an aside, I would point out that in 2011 and 2012, when the author’s home reno story took place, the Canadian and American dollars were roughly at par, with the loonie even worth more than the US dollar at many points throughout that period. Three quotes will serve to punctuate how this story demonstrates the crisis of affordable housing in Toronto, and especially in Parkdale. First:

We took the sellers to small claims court and, since they had allowed the condition of the house to deteriorate before closing, won $5,000.

This seems a common occurrence as landlords seek to unload deteriorated and subpar housing in Parkdale into a very hot housing market, where people like the author are willing to pump half a million or more into renovations. So $5000 is a small amount of money in relation to the overall surge in home prices and renovation costs in the neighborhood, but imagine if the landlords had put that $5000 into some basic maintenance and renovations for the residents who had lived there before and just after the sale. Those poorer residents have little recourse even to small claims court to enforce their rights as tenants.

But a renovated semi down the street, once owned by the same couple who sold us our house, just went for $2.1 million.

This is a prime example of how gentrification prices poorer residents out of neighborhoods like Parkdale. Property values start to increase sharply, landlords look to cash out, and in the absence of good policy that ensures those who can’t afford million dollar homes and renovations still have access to affordable, subsidized, or rent-controlled housing, you get the makings of a housing crisis and gentrification as a process of mass displacement.

We love the house and it feels like home, though we still get reminders of its past life. Just the other day a ragged-looking guy knocked on the door asking if there were rooms available. Not at the moment, I said, though if the market tanks, I suppose that’s always an option.

This is how the article concludes, with a pithy comment on becoming landlord to “ragged-looking” tenants in the case of a market downturn, the very same kind of person from the house’s “past life” that the author sought to quickly evict. As I said, it’s not so easy to feel sympathetic with this tone, and it’s exactly why many view the gentrification at work here as a process of social cleansing that is unequal, unfair, and unacceptable.

Around the same time as this article came out, a major rent strike took place in Parkdale, as tenants in a dozen buildings managed by MetCap, a large national realty company that has sought to increase rents beyond the percentage allowed by Ontario law each year. This angered many tenants in MetCap’s high-rise buildings along Jameson Avenue, who complained that the company has not done nearly enough to address persistent maintenance and pet problems in buildings they manage. The company claims the rent hikes are needed to keep up with the increasing costs of maintenance and repairs. While some protested at the owner’s home in more posh Toronto neighborhood of Forest Hill, many also simply refused to pay their rents beginning in May and June, and face possible eviction as a result. Many of those living in these buildings are new immigrants to Canada, older residents reliant on disability or pension incomes, and students and the working poor, often stretching their monthly incomes with social assistance or by taking on student and credit card debt. As one of the MetCap tenants interviewed in this article on the rent strike argued:

Every year rent goes up, bills go up, but people aren’t getting raises every year. Everything goes up in Toronto except your fucking paycheque.

While there has been one hearing so far regarding MetCap’s application to increase rents above guideline, the process is long and it is doubtful that much will change in the meantime. Again though, this deterioration of affordable public housing is a form of disinvestment that is part of the process of gentrification. These high-rise apartment towers are over 30 years old, and sit along a busy street that connects to the Gardiner Expressway that runs between Parkdale and the lakefront. On the side streets around these towers, off of King and Queen Streets, are the kind of private homes, previously converted to small apartments and boarding houses, currently being bought and renovated as the next wave of gentrification takes hold in the neighborhood, as described above. In other neighborhoods in cities where similar processes have advanced a bit further along, such as New York, these are the kind of lower-rent apartment buildings that often get converted to (or torn down and replaced by) more expensive condominiums, unless urban policy works to blunt the edges of the process and ensure affordable housing, or residents organize to fight eviction, displacement, and gentrification. An excellent example of this is the Lower East Side of New York City, where squatters and the working poor successfully fought to maintain their place in and control over their housing and some aspects of neighborhood development beginning in the 1980s. This, however, was a long and difficult process of taking over abandoned buildings, renovating them on their own at low or no cost, organizing themselves socially and politically, and resisting both legal and physical efforts to remove them from the homes they had built for themselves. Given the kind of built environment in Parkdale — many potentially valuable single-family homes and apartment buildings in a very lucrative urban housing market, a gentrification process that is already well underway, and a relative lack of political mobilization in the face of urban policy that actively promotes and encourages gentrification (not to discount the work of many excellent advocates and activists in the neighborhood and Toronto, but their battle is surely steeply uphill) — it is doubtful that a squatters’ movement like this could be possible or successful. Lobbying city government and working to ensure access and subsidies for affordable housing is possible, but property developers, real estate companies, and homeowners’ associations are often reluctant partners in these endeavors. This all sounds quite pessimistic, and maybe it is, but as long as social, economical, and ethnic diversity remains a draw for the neighborhood, and political mobilization continues to push for housing and a living wage as inalienable rights and produces more extensive and active networks in the community, there are many possible futures open for Parkdale.

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