Libraries and Gentrification

Oh gentrification. The inevitable machine, the mysterious monster, the impossible crawl. A lot of the time when powerful people talk about gentrification, it sounds the same. Repackaged spooky vagueness, either diminishing the issue or shifting the focus. Variations of “there are so many factors at play it’s impossible to pin down,” or “it’s an issue every city is dealing with and no one has the answers,” or “we’re working on some stuff.” Although everyone is talking about it, no one seems to care that much. People might say “gentrification” with a knowing nod or a obligatory sad smile as if showing compassion to the word will help their vulnerable neighbours. Sometimes people will play devils advocate: talking up the positive side effects of gentrification, effectively muffling the voices of anyone who is negatively affected.

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I saw the crawl of gentrification when I lived in the heart of Downtown Kitchener (population 242,000), and I’m seeing it again in my midtown St. Catharines (population 133,000) neighbourhood. It’s alarming. Partially because I know my presence in both neighbourhoods (even just as a renter) has contributed to gentrification. I loved the small, high-end shops that opened around the corner from me in Kitchener. But to get there I walked past people experiencing homelessness, displaced by all the new development. Shortly after I moved into my St. Catharines apartment, the unemployed couple downstairs moved out. Landlord renovated the unit, increased the price, and another young professional moved in. This happened all over my city in the last couple years. Where did the displaced renters go? Into a family member’s basement if they’re lucky. Affordable housing units if they’re REALLY lucky. And somewhere else if they’re not.

Gentrification is defined as “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.”

Conforming to middle-class taste. What does this look like in your neighbourhood? Well it might look like fancy donut shops and clothing boutiques replacing pawn shops and dive bars. An organic grocery store where a Chinese food market used to be. It might look like a street where half the houses are being fixed up by landlords, and the other half are struggling under rising property taxes. It might look like public murals, new bike paths, cool brew-pubs, home-owner associations, the disappearance of laundromats, sparkly new condos, niche boutiques.

All of that sounds pretty nice to middle class people like me, and the majority of my audience here. But there’s a dark side to all this shiny fun development. The obvious one is displacement. For every rental unit that is removed from the market, or upped in price, someone is forced out. This impact trickles down through the system, inevitably causing someone to either leave our city, to be forced into a poorer area of town, or to lose access to housing altogether.  Another dark side of gentrification is discrimination. A neighbourhood that was once a safe settling place for newcomers to Canada, is now full of pressures and barriers. Expensive cafes they can’t bring their families to. White ladies calling the cops on a “sketchy” looking teen. No one else in class who looks like them or speaks their language.

How do librarians fit in to this? As my fictional powerful person said at the beginning of this blog post, “it’s an issue every city is dealing with and no one has the answers.” I love fancy donuts and public art as much as anyone (maybe more…), and I personally celebrate new niche businesses all the time. I know I am contributing to gentrification, and that some parts of it are natural. But I also believe that community organizations should try to present an equal and opposite reaction for each instance of gentrification they inadvertently assist. Including libraries.

That means every organization needs to listening and respond equally to the voices of everyone they serve. Are librarians experts on city development and gentrification? No. But we should be experts on knowing and responding to our communities. That means being aware of issues like gentrification, and factoring that awareness into our programming, marketing, and advocacy.

It is frustratingly true that libraries can’t stop gentrification. No one organization can. However, if every organization made an effort to stop accelerating gentrification, it would help. Many librarians will read these tips and think that they are obvious. But they’re not for everyone. I hope that librarians and anyone working in a community organization will consider these ideas with an open mind, and work towards designing equal and opposite reactions against gentrification.

For the remainder of this post I will use the terms “middle class” and “vulnerable” to refer to the two main groups on either side of gentrification. Middle class generally benefits from gentrification, and vulnerable generally is negatively affected by it. I’m avoiding using the term “lower class” as it can be damaging. I know “vulnerable” could be seen as damaging as well, but it’s the best word I can find. If you know of a better term, please let me know. I acknowledge that separating the issue of gentrification into two main groups is an over-simplification, but for the purposes of clarity, that’s what I’ve done. I also disclaim that none of these comments pertain to any one certain library or organization, and acknowledge that I am writing from a position of privilege. 

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How can organizations ensure they are not harming their vulnerable community members by accelerating gentrification?

  • Do research on your community demographics.
    • You should know the statistical breakdown of the community you serve.
      • What is the range of income?
        • Often times if you serve a community with exceptionally wealthy members, there are ignored pockets living in poverty.
      • What languages are spoken at home?
      • What religions are practiced?
      • What percentage are families? Seniors? People living with disabilities? People without homes?
  • Be acutely aware of the barriers that exist to vulnerable members of your community.
    • Can people easily walk or bus to your location?
    • What languages are most commonly spoken at home?
    • Are there any reasons why certain demographics might not be able to access your services?
      • For example, if the majority of your public programming is based on Christian holidays, and you are serving a community full of non-religious or multicultural members, you are accelerating a middle-class vision for your area. You are providing a roadblock to diversity in your community.
      • Can libraries host Christmas or Santa themed programming? That’s up to you and your organization’s knowledge of your community. Should you exclusively offer Christian-adjacent programming? No.
  • Learn how to reach vulnerable members of your community.
    • Libraries are often called the “great equalizer” but unless we are reaching everyone, we’re lying to ourselves.
    • Look at usage of your organization. Is it all middle-class white people? If so, you should start expanding.
    • Ask for feedback all the time.
    • Conduct outreach that intentionally targets all demographics.
    • Find out which organizations vulnerable members are using, and partner with them.
    • Meet with experts in your community and ask how you could improve service to vulnerable members.
    • Learn how vulnerable members of your community prefer to receive information, and make that happen.

What might organizations be doing to inadvertently accelerate gentrification?

  • Holding outreach events exclusively in the “nice” parts of town
    • This signals to your community that the middle class and up is more valuable to your organization than the people who are lower income. If there are barriers to hosting outreach in other parts of town, you need to overcome those barriers.
  • Communicating using tactics that only reach middle class+ residents
    • Be aware that not everyone in your neighbourhood has a computer.
    • Not everyone can read English.
    • Not everyone can read.
  • Only hosting events that appeal to middle class+ residents
    • Certain hobbies and interests are inaccessible to all members of society. Some lectures require a university degree to understand. Some crafts are extremely expensive. Travel-based programs are obviously more appealing to people who can afford to vacation. Trivia based on pop culture is not great for newcomers.
    • I’m not saying that community organizations shouldn’t run events that are appealing to middle class+ residents – of course we should! Libraries are for everyone. However, we need to make sure that planning for the middle class doesn’t become the default.
  • Hosting events that directly accelerate gentrification
    • For example, a library might be criticized for running a workshop to teach people how to stage short term rental units. These units are controversial  because of how they negatively impact the housing market and the homelessness crisis.
  • Charging for programs, not to recover the cost, but to ensure attendance
    • A popular argument in favour of charging for programs is “If we don’t charge, they won’t actually show up.” What might seem like a menial charge to some of us, is a barrier to others. Especially low-income families with multiple children.
    • More accessible ways to make sure people who sign up show up:
      • Reminder calls
      • Give everyone who signs up a flyer about the program to hang on the fridge or tape to the cupboard
      • A public listing of all the daily events in a highly visible location (local radio, local tv channel, a large screen on the outside of the library)
    • If you do have budgetary restrictions and need to recover costs for every program, consider applying for local, provincial, or national grants to help cover the costs. Or seek sponsorship from local businesses or fundraising groups.

I was inspired to write this blog post after witnessing several conversations about gentrification. I’ve seen too many people wave it off as something too large to tackle. It is too large for one person, one blog post, one organization to tackle. But it becomes even larger every time we make excuses for our organizations’ harmful behaviours, or every time we shut down a conversation about it.

When it comes down to it: if you work for any type of non-profit or public organization, you have immense privilege and power. You do have a responsibility to properly serve and represent the entire community – not just the people who look/act/worship/speak/spend like you.

And finally, with a consciousness of vocational awe and white saviourism: No one should be winning awards for properly serving every member of their society. Do not pat yourself on the back for bringing outreach to the “bad” part of town or engaging vulnerable members of your community. It should be a given that everyone has meaningful access to your services. It should be a given that you value everyone equally.

How does your organization show their awareness of gentrification? How do you see gentrification affecting your community?

 

 

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