Crying wolf over gentrification

University students learn big word, feel they have to use it

  • Bill Beso

It’s a coup de grâce. The West End is finally and veritably improving and much, but very importantly not all, of the positive changes stem from various recent University of Winnipeg expansions. After years of planning and anticipation these positive changes are becoming reality, from the new Furby/Langside Campus to the recently announced board approval of the redevelopment of the former United Army Surplus and Greyhound bus depot sites. Yet it is dishearteningly predictable that those who take the most ambiguous of stances on this issue are products of the university itself.

For instance, Owen Toews is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg who was interviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press on June 9. He has earned a Fulbright scholarship to City University in New York City for the great work he’s been doing studying housing trends in Winnipeg’s core area for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Toews, who is very concerned that the “gentrification of older housing is driving up the cost of homes” in the West End and who “designed his own major of urban planning and social justice,” is now headed off to the bright lights of New York City where the ravages of gentrification are all too evident.

Since the focus of his studies will be how to prevent gentrification, NYC seems an unlikely place for Toews to be. From art-house film festivals in TriBeCa to all night 20-something dance parties in Williamsburg to fusion cuisine and Thursday night poetry slams in Greenwich Village, Toews will have first hand exposure to the miasma of gentrification during his tenure at City University. I’m sure by the end of his time there he’ll be more than ready to come back to Winnipeg and take up residence in one of our many affordable un-gentrified neighbourhoods and will be even better equipped to, as he says, “address those issues” back at home and make sure those types of things never happen here.

Since the focus of his studies will be how to prevent gentrification, NYC seems an unlikely place for Toews to be.

Perhaps the new best breakfast joint in Winnipeg, located two blocks from the U of W, should have a sit down with urban planning students and discuss what can be done to mitigate all the gentrification pulsating dangerously outward in concentric circles into the neighbourhood from its interior. Open for shorter hours? Serve an average menu ensuring people from more affluent neighbourhoods won’t want to visit the West End? Take a heat gun to the new paint job? Apply fake bullet holes from a gag store on the window? We could create a GentriStat map, much like Winnipeg’s online CrimeStat map, with ominous red hot spots for every new successful corner store, local theatre, or home renovation which serves “only” to send house prices rocketing through the atmosphere unabated.

Neighbourhoods Alive! is the program created by the Manitoba government where Toews has been working. According to their website, the program’s mandate is to “provide community organizations in designated neighbourhoods with the support they need to rebuild these neighbourhoods.” How one can claim to be for rebuilding these neighbourhoods yet explicitly against the restoration and renovation of older housing is beyond reason.

I’ve lived as a renter in Winnipeg’s core area for seven years and have now owned, lived in, and worked out of my home in the West End for two years, along with my wife and baby daughter. Each and every year for the last nine years, tired cries of gentrification of the neighbourhoods surrounding the school come echoing from halls of the U of W. Students spend a few years attending the U of W and some live in the area for that duration, but very few stay to live in the area for decades. A true home for them lies elsewhere. All too often, their interest in the ultimate fate of the neighbourhood, rather than being vested, is dictatorial, speculative, and at the end of the day, academic.

Gareth du Plooy is a West End resident homeowner, father, husband, writer, IT consultant, and banjo destroyer.

Published in Volume 63, Number 29 of The Uniter (July 16, 2009)

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