Saturday, December 10, 2011
Memewar: "On Vandalism, A Memoir" - Erin Miller
The eleventh issue of Memewar has a Fun & Games theme, and because it is Canadian-based, many of the articles in this issue deal with the Olympic Games and the effects that they had on local character.
This piece of nonfiction explores the issue of gentrification. As a young student fresh out of college, she enjoyed an out-of-the-way neighborhood in Vancouver that had been dominated by immigrants since the end of WWII. She waxes poetic about the "urban village," the cultural diversity and ethnic intermingling--and there's a definite flavor of exoticism, of wanting to watch the funny little immigrant go about their lives without facing any of their struggles.
The reality, however, is that she is quite disconnected from the community to which she so desperately wants to belong. Artists that had made the area popular found themselves competing with well-off workers who could afford to pay higher prices. Two of these invaders were the writer and her husband, though she fails to realize until after the deed is signed that, "Oh no! We're those assholes!"
When vandals go on a spray-painting spree in the neighborhood, the people in the gentrified neighborhoods unite in their common fear and disapproval of potential ruffians--who, of course, seem to belong to the ethnic minorities that made the area so attractive in the first place. A divide developed--or, if you're a skeptic like me, simply deepened--between the relatively wealthy native Canadians and the relatively poor immigrants.
Miller says that "our vandal had turned me into the person he resented," but I think she gives herself too much credit. She describes working in a Starbucks and being intrigued by the weekly protests that inevitably resulted in a smashed front window--as if she was just watching animals playing in a zoo. Perhaps that's a bit harsh but, as I said before, her description of the neighborhood before it got too gentrified definitely exoticised the people who had already made the neighborhood their home.
Gentrification is a major problem in large cities in the US as well. Cities will pour money into run-down areas to fix them up, but the result is that the now-desirable property is too expensive for those who used to live there to afford. Some developments have programs that allow those struggling with finances to live in the new buildings, but it is unlikely that they would take up the offer or stay long after moving in. After all, nothing around them would be affordable, not even the groceries.
It's an interesting paradox that's been niggling at me a lot this year: when we try to support the things we love, those things often change, and sometimes those changes are mixed blessings. The Olympic games are an easy example because they often bring accelerated gentrification with them as the host city cleans up its rougher neighborhoods to put on a show for the visiting countries. What many people fail to realize is that the same process occurs in all major cities, just at a slower pace, and the impact can be just as devastating.