As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
There’s a sign posted in my neighborhood that shouts GOOD PEOPLE ARE LEAVING. It’s part of an art exhibition about the downsides of gentrification in our city. It’s a mourning cry, matching the stamped graffiti branding GENTRIFIED on our sidewalks, calling our attention to the pain of those who are being pushed out of our residential streets.
Hamilton, Ont., a steel city with (until recently) a bad reputation, has gone through significant revitalization in the past couple of decades, and will continue to do so. It’s exciting to witness.
And yet, I’ve been struggling with the realities of being part of this gentrification since moving to here a few years ago, especially since buying a house in a neighborhood that is rapidly becoming hipper and hipper. The nearby main drag is becoming populated with craft breweries and artisan shops. Between mission services and shelters, fashion retailers and specialty coffee shops are popping up. As we watch developers erect fancy condos around us, we’ve drawn comfort from the fact that city planners have been intentional about creating spaces of subsidized housing and mixed-income buildings nearby. But is this enough?
As Christians what should our reaction to gentrification be? Should we celebrate that parks are cleaner, that creativity is blossoming, that local business is thriving? Or should we mourn that the most vulnerable members of our city are quietly being forced out of their homes as rents shoot up and homes become less and less affordable? Can we do both?
I posed some of these questions to a friend who works with a nonprofit outreach in a neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification. Eric O’Neil is the youth and children’s leader at an innovative restaurant/church plant in inner city Hamilton. Located blocks from the steel factory, 541 Eatery and Exchange has become a neighborhood hub for people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds—many of whom are street involved, struggle with addictions, or suffer from mental illness. The volunteer-driven café provides affordable meals; using donated buttons as currency, any guest can come in and order a drink or small meal at no cost.
541 is a physically beautiful restaurant. However, Eric acknowledges, “It can be really tricky because so often things like this make the neighborhood more appealing,” and as middle-class people are drawn to the neighborhood, prices increase.
For instance, a historic office building in 541’s neighborhood is being restored after 30 years of disuse. It’s exciting that business is moving into an underserviced area and that 541 will likely see an increase in its paying clientele, but it’s also a catalyst in the process of gentrification. People who work in the building might be drawn to purchase property in the area, other businesses might move in, and so the process begins as property taxes and rent increase, “which makes it that much harder for the folks in our neighborhood to stay here.”
Eric and his wife, Sarah (who also works at 541), live simply and intentionally. They live in a modest apartment, which they share with roommates, a block from the café. And yet Eric says, “I am, whether I like the idea or not, a gentrifier. [We] are at a point of asking ourselves, is [our being here] beneficial? Are we reaping a good thing?”
In my opinion, Eric and Sarah and their community are doing important ministry in this city. But I respect that they are wrestling with the complexities of their outreach.
There’s no easy answer to gentrification. People who move into underserviced areas with the intention of making a positive change hope to draw more services (libraries, grocery stores, medical centers, accessible neighborhood hubs) while keeping the local cost of living affordable. Unfortunately this seems like an impossible balance to strike.
Sarah points out, “I think Christians often make the mistake of believing that our presence in a neighborhood is automatically some kind of blessing to it, but in our most vulnerable neighborhoods we need to learn that the opposite might be true.” Eric points out that there’s nothing wrong with moving downtown, renovating a house, and selling it years later at a profit. But often people equate that with “incarnational ministry” (or living out the gospel through Christian presence in local culture). “If you’re saying you are being incarnational, but you’re not actually willing to endure any of the sufferings or inconveniences that your neighbors have to deal with—like bedbugs and cockroaches—I think you need to acknowledge you’re not doing incarnational ministry.” If Christians move to a new neighborhood, “Are they excited to be part of that neighborhood, not just that futuristic neighborhood they are imagining?”
Furthermore, are we willing to take on the struggles of those around us? “If your neighbors tell you their landlords are doing this and this unjust thing, are you willing to help them with that? Are you willing to go home and research legalities and options around what they can do?”
So often our approach to where we live is financially driven. It’s easy for us to use “stewardship” to justify taking for granted capitalist values. We think “it’s simply responsible to make as much money with what you have.”
Eric challenges that assumption. As Christians, he said, we need to “think through what we’re doing with what we have.” For instance, if you’ve got rental possibilities within your house, can you consider how you might provide that at a helpful rate for someone else—perhaps far below market value? If you’re starting a new business, are you setting price points at a level where people in the neighborhood can afford your product? If you’re putting your home on the market, would you consider a rent-to-own relationship with someone who couldn’t buy otherwise?
How we own homes and operate businesses and contribute to a neighbor should be like every aspect of following Jesus: “It’s being intentional about the decisions you’re making, thinking about how they affect others, . . . and when you’re making all those decisions, are you willing to honestly ask God if there is something else God would have you do?”