Goodbye to the Vancouver we know?
The city has more than housing at stake. Inequality, segregation and displacement are destroying what makes Vancouver special.
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Dr. David Hulchanski of the University of Toronto visited Vancouver earlier this month to present images of an increasingly unhealthy body.
Hulchanksi is not a medical doctor; the images are not of a human body – they are census maps of Vancouver which show the city getting more exclusive over time. The city of Vancouver, known historically as a welcoming place for blue-collar workers and immigrants, is increasingly becoming a home for the rich.
From 1980 to 2015, wealthy residents settled in central neighbourhoods as poorer residents have been pushed to the city’s edges and into the suburbs beyond. Vancouver’s west side is the most populous enclave of high-income earners.
It’s a slow goodbye to diversity and inclusivity as segregation rises.
“Everything I showed you was done by humans. It wasn’t done by an earthquake or a flood,” said Hulchanski, a professor of housing and community development, during his Dec. 1 lecture at SFU Woodward’s. “This is public and private power doing these things to the city.”
Hulchanski is the principal investigator of the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, a group of Canadian academics studying inequality in the nation’s cities.
The partnership’s focus on local transformations shows how hard it is for people with fewer resources to compete with the rich for the opportunities a city has to offer.
“Money buys choice,” said Hulchanski. The wealthy have access to the highest-quality housing, the most desirable neighbourhoods and the best access to services.
Everyone else? They get what places are leftover, which can put them at further disadvantage.
Rich Vancouverites settling or spending money in lower-income neighbourhoods are causing displacement, something local activists and academics have sounded alarm on.
The Downtown Eastside and Chinatown are losing businesses catered to its low-income residents as high-end retailers and restaurants move in. Around Metrotown, condo developers are destroying rental housing that single-parents and newcomers have depended on for affordability and transit-access to get to work.
In addition to segregation of the rich and poor, Hulchanski’s analysis of census data shows how extreme Metro Vancouver’s divide is. There are more rich and poor neighbourhoods, but less middle-income neighbourhoods. (A middle-income neighbourhood is a census tract of about 5,000 people with an average individual income 20 per cent above or below the local average.)
In 1980, middle-income neighbourhoods made up two-thirds of the region. In 2015, they make up half the region.
Cultural institutions of the older, average and more diverse Vancouver are also disappearing.
Last night, Nick’s Spaghetti House served its last meatball after more than 60 years of pastas. Nearby on the Drive, Wonderbucks, with its affordable eclectic housewares, closed last year. Main Street’s Reno’s, a cheap greasy spoon, and Mui Garden, a longtime favourite of the Hong Kong diaspora, are also among the recently departed staples. It’s not easy for independent businesses to survive when there’s more money to be made catering to higher-end tastes.
While the idea of Vancouver’s working-class neighbourhoods still exists, it’s increasingly in the form of condo ads, businesses, products and neighbourhood rebranding efforts that commodify and glamourize their grittiness.
Blue-collar and immigrant East Vancouver has become a brand for those with money. There’s pricey East Van clothing, East Side soy candles and an East Van Foodie cookbook that highlights the swanky new restaurants that have moved in.
Andy Yan, the director of SFU’s City Program, worries about the looming possibility of a “homogenous, dull, hostile” Vancouver that’s only for the wealthy.
“We lose the richness of the city,” said Yan. “Cities are at their best when people are different. The Vancouver I grew up in had an ability to be welcoming and open.”
Globalization, tax cuts, overdependence on market housing and the labour market are all factors in reordering of a divided Vancouver, but Yan has a question for city-builders as they plan for an inclusive future.
“How do we hard-wire justice in how we build the city of Vancouver? It’s not just in physical mobility, but social and economic mobility. That’s what made these neighbourhoods wonderful places to grow up in and to settle.”