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‘What A City Is For’ brings Vancouver back to the people amongst the hip allure of ownership

Thursday 13th, October 2016 / 19:15
By Sadie Barker
Matt Hern looks at the epidemic that is gentrification and the scars it leaves on a community.

Matt Hern looks at the epidemic that is gentrification and the scars it leaves on a community.

VANCOUVER — When asked about the origins of his new book, What a City Is For, East Vancouver-based author and teacher Matt Hern refers back nearly ten years ago to trips to Portland with his graduate students. The days consisted of meetings with non-profit organizations and planners — faces of Portland’s innovative urbanization — all of whom, it was quickly noted, were white. In an effort to diversify, Hern sought connections with initiatives in Portland’s black and Latino communities. This proved challenging because, he says, “Portland is the whitest city ever.” But it wasn’t always, and tracing the development of Portland to its current reputation — a liberal-dwelling locale, ripe with craft beer and green space — narrates an upsetting history.

Portland’s development in the last 20 years is shadowed by racist constitution, discriminatory real-estate practice, and systemic displacement. Today Albina, once a predominately black neighborhood, is unrecognizable: white and upper-middle class, with exclusive housing prices. The story surrounding it — a shift from black community, to “classic ghetto,” to site of renewed investment — is ubiquitous. It dictates the social pathologies, like addiction, unemployment, and displacement that arise when a community is subject to racial gentrification. This includes the withdrawing of social services and housing condemnation, typically followed by renewed investment in the neighborhood by those who can afford it.

Hern, who has spearheaded many initiatives in his Commercial Drive community including Groundswell: Grassroots Economic Alternatives, is familiar with the problematic relationship between improvement and capital. This phenomenon is reflected in the skyrocketing real estate of his own neighborhood and the “For Sale” sign on his front door. Hern though, is hasty to differentiate between degrees of displacement, deeming his own inconsequential in comparison to Albina or the theft of Indigenous land.

Portland’s urban narrative is a common one and it’s pervasive in many cities, Vancouver included. Commodification of land is an often-presumed concept within Western property rights, but it’s also, Hern claims, the root of civic peril. Indeed, in a city like Vancouver, with a 50/50 split of renters and buyers, property ownership fosters oppositional politics — owners seeking high property value, renters seeking low-rent. But should land be commodified? Property ownership is entrenched in Western consciousness, but that that doesn’t make it right.

A reworking may be in order. Hern suggests investing in cooperative, non-market provisions of property, recognizing the importance of common and unfettered land, and looking towards Indigenous concepts of sovereignty. Because what is a city for? A city is for everyone.

Matt Hern discusses and launches his book, What a City Is For, at the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre on October 21.

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