Thursday, November 27, 2008

Gentrification in Parkdale: A Symbolic Structuralist/Interactionist Perspective

The Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale is a historically devalued area, and has been the target of gentrification for quite a few years (Wahl, 2006). In the late nineteen-nineties and into the twenty-first century, the low rent and property values, and its proximity to already thriving cultural hub of avant guarde commodity consumption, attracted artists and galleries into the industrial and commercial spaces that were widely available at a very affordable rate. As time passed and the art culture matured, it has been appraised in much higher esteem by potential homeowners and businesses alike (Ley, 2003). Ute Lehrer (2006) defines three types of space: physical, social, and symbolic; crucial frames in which to evaluate space and its power structures. The encroaching uses of space are marginalizing community members of limited financial strength, such as the old, the poor, and newcomers. The changing landscape of Parkdale, and the uses of its spaces, amounts to what Bourdieu calls a symbolic violence.

Mele (2005), regarding the investment in poor working-class neighbourhoods, asserts:
“For investment in housing to profit, place entrepreneurs are compelled to create the most propitious neighbourhood social and cultural conditions to attract a new and higher status of residents. In short, they must reinvent place.”
Gentrification is in essence a new style of urban renewal, not at all haphazard. It is the swift, buy low sell high, re-entry of the gentry into the bustling city core. Back to the business district, back to Parkdale. Parkdale was once a borough, quite wealthy, quite the value having access to the lake away from industry. However, when rail tracks were constructed to bring raw materials in from the hinterland for manufacturing and quick distribution to New York and especially to London; these tracks would allow Toronto to compete with Montreal economically. The special division caused by the tracks, between the homes of Parkdale and the lake, devalued land tremendously. Also, the erection of the Asylum at 999 Queen Street West caused further drain of the affluent population. In recent history, the Conservatives who held the Provincial seat slashed social services, including the closing down of rooming houses that were the home of innumerable psychiatric out-patients. In short, Parkdale has been on a steady down slope for a good long time, it is no wonder the insanely low property values have enticed investors to flip Parkdale one hub at a time.

Zukin remarks on symbolic economy, she attributes the possibility of affluent interest in the development of devalued land to the ability of entrepreneurs in manipulating “symbolic languages of exclusion and entitlement” (Zukin, 2005). A relevant example is the redevelopment of the Drake and Gladstone Hotels. Both hotels thrived when Parkdale was in a good state, both fell on hard times when Parkdale fell into disrepair from disregard. Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel demonstrated an in intentional move by an investor to revitalise a space in such a fashion that was deliberately marketed towards the culture vultures who line up to feed off the “art scene” space, as one of the Zeidlers repeats over and over again (Graham & Roemer, 2007). Now not just an area replete this artists and small to large scale galleries, rather a repackaging, a commodification of the youth street essence of a neighbourhood (Ley, 2003). It however makes you wonder, as you watch residents of the Gladstone forced out of their homes, how long are artists going to be able to live in Parkdale before rents are too high?

Swartz explicates Bourdieu’s cultural capital, werein “culture becomes power… when cultural markets emerge where investors exchange currencies and strive for profits” (Swartz, 1997). Instantly as the art culture is repackaged as high culture, the gentry interested in harnessing that cultural capital, elevating themselves above the mundane middle-class existence of suburban life, the move to new culturally-revitalized downtown locations whose movement is congruent with the Municipal Government’s revanchist global city plan turning the city into a product marketable to foreign interests as a suitable place to visit and do business; all the underclass relegated, literally, to the margins. Symbolic violence “fulfill(s) a political function” (Swartz, 1997).

Symbolic capital is crucial to any member of society’s sense of their place on the scale of socio-economic class. The higher classes have the most power in symbol because the have the monetary capital to produced and reproduce their tastes making the awareness of their symbolic power well-known to the other classes. The middle classes strive to present the self as the higher classes in order to share some status, they stretch their finances to ‘pass’ as the higher classes, by taking up the symbols produced by the higher classes, such as condo dwelling downtown, leasing of luxury automobiles, and the donning of designer accoutrements (whether fake or real). The lower classes have no productive or representative means and thus cannot ‘buy what their selling’ thus forcing them into finding cheaper locations elsewhere, places where aggressive high-class symbols do not abound, locations where many small businesses thrive and await competing with future large entrepreneurial forces in their own determined wave of gentrification. The underclass, the subaltern, has no voice; their fate vis-à-vis the gentry is evident, neo-liberal politics have no interest in the aid of the poor, indigent, and homeless, rather intent on sweeping them away and out of sight. Neo-liberal policy in the global era has an eye towards presenting the city as a product, a symbol on its own, and so long as that image is untarnished the commodity has integrity.

There are bodies who speak for the subaltern who are firmly in place in devalued areas like Parkdale. These organisations, such as the Parkdale Residents’ Association (PRA), the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC), and St. Christopher House, strive for symbolic capital in a guilt economy (Betensky, 2000). Groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) have symbolically attacked the dominant forces by stealing Pope John Paul II’s thunder during his visit to Toronto, by using the temporarily bloated metropolitan population as an audience for a squat that occurred in a Parkdale wherein OCAP occupied a vacant building. This act was to rearticulate Locke’s property by determining a space public, when once it was locked as private, but had been aimlessly left astray, ownerless, ready to be swept up and flipped by the gentry (Lehrer, 2006). The pope squat rearticulated space across three dimensions: physical, social, and symbolic.

The physical space refers to the structural state of space, its form, and design; the pope squat suggested certain spaces are still relevant regardless of its use or abandon. Social space refers to the practices taking place in the spaces like coffee shops, theatres, shops, galleries; the sharing of space by bodies has strength on its own, and the squat made that known. Lastly, symbolic space is an imagined space created by practice and collective memory of people (Lehrer, 2006). Space plays a role in the symbolic ordering of the cultural and class habitus (Bridge, 2001). To maintain a presence and an audible articulation of that presence, the pope squat was a counter-discourse to the symbolic capital of the encroaching dominant forces of gentrification. Albeit, ultimately an ash in the sand, and a flash in the pan.

Ultimately, as Gibson (2005) reiterates Barthes regarding symbolic capital and consumption, “authorship… migrated from the producer to the audience, and the interpreter… thus became the true ‘producer’ of textual meanings.” In essence, if the intended market does not read symbols from entrepreneurs and developers of the cultural capital of the space as something congruent with their desires for upward social mobility, they would be reluctant to participate. Thus far the Parkdale neighbourhood has seen the emergence of the two aforementioned hotels, bars and clubs, restaurants, clothing stores, and from a market base perspective plenty of condominiums have been erected and townhouses laid to house the countless young urban professionals, including dual income households with no children (DINCs), who seek to enrobe themselves in this hotbed of cultural textuality and artistic authenticity, at least as long as it remains authentic which rarely an appropriation for commodification does.

One way this class capital affects marginal community members is it robs them of the places where they normally convene. The case of the old lady and the residents at the Gladstone comes to mind; I’m certain other locales of social engagement and dwellings, affordable enough to accommodate the financially stricken, have been cleared away in order to install these loci of symbolic violence and imposers of forced displacement, such as the Starbucks and like businesses, also Liberty Village and other condo-communities being constructed.

Another effect is the rise property values, and correspondingly the rise in property taxes. The former encourages the changing hands of property, most likely to more affluent purchasers who seek to capitalize on their new assets; such investment can come from entrepreneurs, private residents, and housing developers. The rise in property taxes is most insidious in its carnage. Imagine a pensioner, on fixed income, who had worked her entire life to pay off her Parkdale home. All of a sudden, the surrounding development causes her costs, through tax increases, to exceed her means, forcing her to sell her home and either purchase a smaller more affordable home in a more shanty part of town, or withering away her new found capital on an apartment. Small businesses surely also fail due to the rising cost of operation in gentrifying neighbourhoods.

Food scarcity becomes a concern for the marginal community members, as smaller food providers, such as grocers and butchers, disappear to be replaced by corporate entities, whose space and geographic logic favours heavily those who have the means to drive. It has already been seen in my own research that in South Riverdale such a transition has occurred, and the poor, ill, and old have grave difficulty reaching or paying for healthy good quality foods at reasonable rates within close proximity to their homes.

It is clear symbolic violence is no way hyperbolizing the obviously tangible results of gentrification that begins with the symbolic cultural claim to space. In order to abate the negative consequences of gentrification, two disparate class groups must learn to love living in unison, and articulate space capital for both and develop an inclusive discourse of modest and humane urbanity. When the marginal are themselves the capital, and the subaltern speaks.

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