Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The downside of urban gentrification

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GENTRIFICATION, a term first coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, is the process in which a decaying neighbourhood is slowly revitalized. Usually occurring in older, inner-city areas, it's what happens when run-down buildings are fixed up, higher-income families move back in, crime decreases, and a general sense of pride and well-being returns to an area.

It's a process that's occurred in the Wolseley area over the last few decades, and it can be seen happening day by day in West Broadway.

Jim Silver, a community activist and professor in politics at the University of Winnipeg, wrote about it last year in an essay, Gentrification in West Broadway? Silver points out that, aside from the obvious physical evidence, a look at the area's rent figures shows gentrification at work.

In the city as a whole between 1996 and 2001, Silver notes that rent increased an average of only six per cent, and actually declined in some areas. But in West Broadway, it increased by an average of 30 per cent -- five times the figure for the rest of the city.

The price of houses has increased at an even higher rate, according to Peter Squire, spokesman for the Winnipeg Real Estate Board. For the entire downtown area, including West Broadway (as well as Spence, the West End, and others), Squire says that prices have nearly tripled -- from $21,000 to $60,000 -- in less than a decade.

The image of the area as crime-ridden has also improved. An informal survey of area residents indicates that, far from the "Murder's Half Acre" label once applied to the area, most residents feel relatively safe in West Broadway, even though crime is certainly still an issue. The lingering perception of it as a dangerous neighbourhood, though, seems to be held more by those who live outside the area.

Two weeks ago, for example, the front page of a local paper carried the headline: Broadway and Langside city's worst street corner. The entire article that followed, however, never mentioned this corner again, instead focusing on a gang-dominated stretch of Langside well across Portage Avenue and into the North End.

So what's causing this change? What forces are re-energizing an area that, until recently, was considered one of our city's poorest and most dangerous?

According to Tom Carter, a professor and researcher in the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, the changes are due to several factors, including intervention by government, grassroots community groups, and key individuals like Wanda Koop and Paul Chorney.

Koop, a longtime resident of West Broadway, is one of Canada's leading visual artists, and helped to found Art City, a pioneering community program that provides free art lessons for kids and adults. Chorney, head of the West Broadway Development Corporation, promoted business growth in the area, while community projects like Spirit Park and the Aboriginal Youth Head Start (Little Red Spirit) program, helped to foster a sense of neighbourhood pride.

Groups such as the Westminster Housing Society have also taken a ground-level approach. In the last 10 years, along with area residents, they've been renovating the neighbourhood one house at a time.

"It was a real grassroots coalition," Carter says of the forces that have turned the area around. "That's what actually helped to bring investment into the area. Governments don't usually invest unless there's already proven interest, and organization, at the community level."

But while there have been major gains, Jim Silver warns that the fate of the neighbourhood still hangs in the balance, and could go one of three ways:

* The process of gentrification will continue unchecked, resulting in the area's lower-income residents being displaced;

* Government and public groups could work together to help create a mixed neighbourhood, one that serves as a model for other communities. This would include subsidized housing for low income groups;

* The fragile gains could be lost, and the area could slip back into decline.

The most likely scenario, Silver suggests, is the first. Like many others, he worries that the revival of the neighbourhood will eventually displace all of its lower-income residents, many of whom helped to spur the changes that started the process in the first place.

For example, Silver refers to one developer who fixed up all of his rental buildings in the area, and then waged a long struggle to rid the buildings of gang members. It worked, but in the end, the developer stated that "many really good people" were displaced as well. This included several disabled people, whose government housing allowance of $271 a month was simply not enough to cover the increased rent.

So the process of gentrification, while it has undeniable positive effects, may in the end make West Broadway "a victim of its own success," Silver says.

According to Silver, government needs to create a certain amount of housing that exists outside the commercial rental or sales market -- de-commodified housing, as he calls it. Or they can simply raise social assistance levels.

Carter says it's now up to government to ensure West Broadway remains a diverse community: "It's great to rejuvenate a neighbourhood -- even (legendary urban theorist) Jane Jacobs says that a little gentrification is a good thing. But if you don't provide options for the people being displaced, then you're not building a mixed neighbourhood."

"If West Broadway is in fact a victim of its own success," Carter says, "then I think the victims will be the very low-income people who will get displaced."

Yet as Silver points out, the fate of West Broadway still hangs in the balance.

So the challenge facing this area now is whether it becomes just another cosy enclave for high-income groups, or whether there's still time to make it more than that -- a truly diverse, healthy neighbourhood, a place where the common thread is more than just income level?

Lorne Roberts is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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