Sunday, January 20, 2008

The process of unslumming

This article appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2008

Walking down its streets today, it’s hard to imagine that Point Douglas, the neighborhood I call home, once faced the threat of demolition in the name of urban renewal.

In a 1959 story, the Winnipeg Tribune quoted a Mrs. Olga Fedink of Stephen St: “[P]eople don’t know whether their houses will be torn down for slum clearance next week or next year.’

“’Up until a few years ago people ‘round here took pride in their homes... then there was all this talk of being a slum, and this sort of thing happened.’”

What happened was owners stopped investing in their properties. When expropriation is likely just around the corner, every improvement--from painting the picket fence to modernizing the plumbing--is put on hold. As a result, decline increased at a greater pace as families fled the beleaguered neighborhood and negligent landlords bought up the properties for quick profits.

In 2006, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in their State of the Inner City report, warned of a new threat looming in Point Douglas. Gentrification--gentry classes moving in and changing a neighborhood’s socio-economic character--could begin pushing out poor inhabitants.

If people of certain income levels (or colour) continue to renovate houses, the report suggested, it could pose as great of a risk to the neighborhood’s well-being as slum landlords or drug dealers.

To imagine droves of yuppies (or fauxhemians, to borrow from a Sonic Youth song) moving in, is enough to induce fits of anger in a city that has become pretty good at despising wealth. But for Point Douglas, the reality is something quite different.

The changes happening in the neighborhood suggest that Point Douglas is not moving toward gentrification, but toward unslumming itself.

Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities that unslumming “hinges on whether a considerable number of the residents and businesses of a slum find it both desirable and practical to make and carry out their own plans right there, or whether they must... move elsewhere.”

Unslumming stems population decline and transiency. People take pride in where they live. Parks and streets are safer and tidier. Because of this, upwardly mobile residents may choose not to move out of the neighborhood the minute their personal financial situation allows, opting to renovate instead. Poorer residents may choose to stay for the increased safety and quality of life they and their children enjoy--even if it means paying more for rent, as Lance Freeman of Columbia University discovered in his book There Goes the ‘Hood.

This stability in turn attracts newcomers. In Point Douglas, occasionally billed as the city’s next cool neighborhood, some have been the young hipsterish types, coming from other parts of the city.

More recently, some of Winnipeg’s growing number of new immigrants are moving in, helping Point Douglas once again become one of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

Across the street from me, a large family from Africa is renting a house where a woman from the former Yugoslavia lived for many years. In another house, which in the 1880s was the residence of Premier John Norquay, and in recent decades a sordid rooming house, a family from the Ukraine has moved in, renting the renovated apartments to other newly arrived Ukrainians.

Some fear that unslumming is just a step toward total gentrification, but in traditionally working class neighborhoods in slow or moderately growing interior cities, this is almost unheard of. It would take an economic boom and the creation of thousands of high-tech jobs to send Point Douglas entirely upscale.

And while real estate values are indeed rising in Point Douglas, they are rising up from the depreciated values of the 1990s. As they do, community groups continue to put a priority on providing housing for low-income residents--an issue governments will have a harder time ignoring than they did when values were low, and private market slum landlords were in greater abundance.

The neighborhoods in Winnipeg’s inner city that are currently improving are not gentrifying, but simply reassuming the character they had before the years of abandonment and disinvestment. Wolseley, for example, is simply returning to what it was when Nellie McLung and J.S. Woodworth lived there 90 years ago: a tree-lined haven for the city’s progressive Anglo-Saxon middle class.

For Point Douglas, it is a resumption of urban health and diversity, free from the denigrating pall of slumdom.


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