If you live in or near downtown Hamilton, chances are high that your neighbourhood is or will be gentrifying. Gentrification happens when a more affluent population moves into a previously low-income community, displacing longer term residents who are often working class and/or people of colour. Displacement can be physical in terms of loss of housing and spaces, but also social and cultural in terms of loss of belonging and identity within the neighbourhood.
Since at least the 1970s, it’s been observed that queer and trans communities have had a complicated relationship with gentrification – at times complicit in encouraging gentrification and credited for being “urban trailblazers”, and at times victims of displacement ourselves. As queer and trans folks, we often find ourselves living in communities that are gentrifying and Hamilton is no exception. There are many reasons that we would be drawn to neighbourhoods that are prone to gentrification, including:
- Signs of queer life that tend to exist downtown (bars, clubs, organizing spaces and social services) and the feeling of safety in numbers
- Arts communities that tend to accumulate in downtown neighbourhoods, which attract and include many queer and trans folks
- The initial affordability of these neighbourhoods that draws in queer students, artists and other precariously employed folks (because employment discrimination is alive and well)
At a time when we have lost many queer spaces in the city and when gentrification is rapidly affecting Hamilton neighbourhoods, it’s important for us to consider how and where we take up space. Here, I’m offering up some suggestions on how queer and trans folks can avoid being complicit in gentrification and displacement affecting our neighbourhoods.
Support tenant rights. Whether or not it directly affects you, you can support tenant efforts through direct involvement with organizations like the Hamilton Tenant Solidarity Network, attending rallies/meetings on housing issues, providing financial support, advocating for housing policy reform like rent control and inclusionary zoning, or publicizing urgent local housing issues. Sometimes the simple act of witnessing and making public efforts to displace people can be very powerful – as seen in the recent example of public support for residents in downtown high-rises, where dozens of families were/are at risk of imminent displacement.
Know the history of your neighbourhood. It’s important to recognize the rich histories of the neighbourhoods we live in and acknowledge that people lived and thrived in these communities long before they were considered cool or marketable. Doing your own research is key, but getting to know your neighbours who are longer-term residents and listening to their concerns is equally crucial. This can also allow us to acknowledge prior uses of queer spaces (for example, will we see a new queer bar pop up in a building that used to house low-income folks or central community services?).
Recognize that people of colour are disproportionately affected by gentrification, due in part to the ways that poverty is racialized and concentrated in particular neighbourhoods. Because racialized folks are more likely to experience housing and employment insecurity and discrimination, they may be more easily priced out and pushed out of their neighbourhoods. While the causes of this are deeply systemic, one direct way to support POCs in the neighbourhood is to respond to housing issues that disproportionately affect racialized and newcomer communities. For example, if the recent Greenwin proposal moves forward, it would displace a large number of immigrant and refugee families.
Acknowledge the relationship to colonization. When I hear new residents, business owners or property managers talk about the untapped potential of “up and coming” neighbourhoods and the desire to buy out, gut, rebuild, and “rescue” buildings to “save” neighbourhoods for the “greater good” of the city, I’m reminded of colonial, paternalistic discourses of civilizing and conquering. There is often a white, middle-class saviour complex tied up in efforts to “revitalize” neighbourhoods that is deeply problematic.
Those of us who are settlers must also remember that the lands that we call our neighbourhoods are in fact the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg. This can be forgotten even in anti-gentrification efforts, which often focus on which residents came “first” or more recently. It’s important to consider how the effects and discourses of colonization play out in housing issues, especially given that urban indigenous populations are disproportionately affected by housing insecurity in Hamilton and elsewhere.
Support the efforts of queer and trans housing advocates, who are more likely to take an intersectional approach to housing issues. For example, Cole Gately’s work with Core Collaborative Learning includes a focus on trans inclusion for service providers working in homelessness.
Watch your language about spaces and people. Avoid referring to neighbourhoods as previously “dead” or “barren”. There have been people – largely working-class and racialized – living, working and playing in these urban neighbourhoods for years and it’s insulting to claim that they were vacant or without value before more affluent people moved in.
Also be careful of how you refer to previous or current residents in your neighbourhood, particularly people who are racialized, experiencing mental health issues, addiction or homelessness, or working in the sex trade. Crediting the “progress” of the neighbourhood to the removal of marginalized populations is very common and very problematic. As queer and trans folks, we should have an understanding of how this kind of othering can further marginalize.
Be wary of the branding/marketing of neighbourhoods, particularly if you are new to the neighbourhood. While it’s natural that queer and trans folks in particular would seek out the sense of belonging that comes from a strong neighbourhood identity, it’s wise to be cautious of blind consumerism. Ask yourself what the symbolic value is of purchasing or wearing neighbourhood-themed items – does it buy you street cred because the neighbourhood is now seen as hip or because it once was considered “gritty”?
Alternatively, direct your energy and financial support towards organizations and social services that support marginalized people prone to displacement. These organizations and services can be ignored or attacked by new residents, business or property managers in gentrifying neighbourhoods, fearing that they are “bad for business” or property values by attracting “undesirable” populations. Such services might include affordable housing, residential care homes or harm reduction facilities, which provide direct support for marginalized folks already living in the neighbourhoods. Support these services and don’t fall into a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) mentality.