A Small Mountain Town Fights Gentrification

Robert William Sandford lives in a small town in the Rocky Mountains. Long-time residents of his town are being forced out of the community because wealthy people are buying houses and condos there, and it is becoming too expensive for local people to live in their own homes. Sandford was so distressed and angry at this threat to his small mountain community that he wrote a book called “The Weekender Effect – Hyperdevelopment in Mountain Towns.” (1) He dedicated the book, “To people everywhere who have sacrificed socially and economically for the places in which they live and to which their identity is inextricably tied.”

Many of the new wealthy people only live in the mountain town on weekends, or for part of the year. That’s why Sandford called his book “The Weekender Effect.” Because the process of gentrification happened so fast, and was so upsetting, he added the phrase “Hyperdevelopment in Mountain Towns.”

The Downtown Eastside is like a small town. Adrienne Clarkson saw that immediately when she visited our community while she was the Governor-General of Canada. We know what Robert Sandford meant when he said that the local residents of his town didn’t want to be “dispossessed by those who would buy us out and take away from us everything that has meaning in relation to where and how we live.” (Weekender Effect, p.23) Sandford has lots of advice in his book for communities fighting gentrification. I will focus on four points that he makes, and show how people in the Downtown Eastside have been thinking along similar lines.

(1) Remember your history. Remember the personal stories. Write down your story. Remember, also, the history of our community. We are part of the inspiring Downtown Eastside struggle for dignity and human rights by the many groups that have lived here. That’s one reason why the Downtown Eastside is the soul of Vancouver. Diane Wood has edited a small book of poems called “The Soul of Vancouver – Voices From The Downtown Eastside,” and Paul Taylor, editor of the important Carnegie Newsletter, has edited a powerful collection of Downtown Eastside writing called “The Heart of the Community – The Best of the Carnegie Newsletter.”

(2) Take the threat of corporate real estate development (gentrification) seriously. We do take it seriously in the Downtown Eastside. That threat has united many groups that fight for the human rights of low income residents. I have never seen so much unity in the Downtown Eastside as there is now. We know that not only homes are destroyed with gentrification. A circle of friends is destroyed, a neighbourhood, a small world in itself, a world that people who are dispossessed cannot rebuild, Citizens become refugees in their own land.

(3) Beware of collaboration with profit-driven corporate development. Of course, we must always try to start an honest dialogue, but Robert Sandford said that collaboration with the development industry was difficult because “collaboration processes employed in the planning and development of the town I (Sandford) live in paralyzed any hope of a tenable future for locals by killing any practical vision of the future that was not consistent with…the growth proposed by the largely outside development community.” (Weekender Effect, p.68)

Sadly, we know the truth of Sandford’s statement. James Lorimer alerted us to the danger of unrestrained corporate development as early as 1978. He wrote in his book, “The Developers,” that “Whenever there has been a choice to make between providing people with what they want and need on the one hand, and pursuing a strategy that would increase the short term and long term profits of the development corporations on the other, the developers have chosen to pursue their own interests…The consequences of this arrangement, however, is that the corporate city is designed not to provide a humane and liveable city, but rather to maximize the profits to be made from urban land and to capture as much control over the process of urban growth as possible for the development industry.” (2)

(4) You must put into words the vision you have for your community. Sandford saw the need for a language that would defend the community by articulating what is important about it, its way of life, its hope for the future, and the effect gentrification was having on it. He felt that his mountain town didn’t find that language until it was almost too late, and he thought that the local politicians were helpless because they, too, didn’t have the language to describe what was happening to the town with regard to hyperactive corporate development. Sandford’s book, “The Weekender Effect,” is an excellent contribution to finding language that will help small communities protect themselves from the monster of unrestrained gentrification.

In the Downtown Eastside we have been searching for a language, and an analysis, that will protect our small low income community from profit-driven developer interests. The Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) has been doing visioning workshops. The annual Heart of the City Festival shows Vancouver citizens the creative and vibrant culture of the Downtown Eastside. The citizens’ organizations in our community, such as the Carnegie Community Centre Asociation (CCCA), the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association (DERA), the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, PIVOT, WISH, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, the Aboriginal Front Door, the Carnegie Community Action Project, the City Wide Housing Coalition, and many others, all demonstrate the courage, endurance, caring and inclusiveness of the Downtown Eastside. Our local politicians, Jenny Kwan MLA, and Libby Davies MP, know the language that will defend our low income community. We need to take our vision to all the citizens of Vancouver, to all the citizens of Canada, and to all the citizens of the world.

In writing his book, Robert William Sandford was fighting back. He wants all the people who live in communities under the threat of gentrification to fight back, and to preserve what is meaningful about their way of life. Like Bruce Eriksen, Robert Sandford never, ever, gives up. Check out the library to see if his book is there. – Sandy Cameron

(1) The Weekender Effect – Hyperdevelopment in Mountain Towns, by Robert William Sandford, pub. by Rocky Mountain Books, 2008.
(2) The Developers, by James Lorimer, pub. by James Lorimer & Co., 1978, page 79.