The closing of non-productive businesses in the downtown area signals that Peterborough, just like every community, is changing. The question on the minds of many is what direction the community is currently going in. The emphasis on condo developments and promotion of businesses that are conducive to ethical consumption under capitalism should signal to us that this direction is to gentrify Peterborough’s downtown core. Whether this is the right direction remains to be seen.
Google broadly defines gentrification as the “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.” Urban Dictionary’s second most up-voted definition of gentrification identifies it as the process by which “a bunch of white people move to the ghetto and open up a bunch of cupcake shops.”
The concept of gentrification was originally formulated, although not outright, by a white dude named by Richard Florida in his magnum opus book The Rise of the Creative Class (2002). This book made the case that a city’s economic success was largely tied to the amount of young artists and knowledge workers (professors, engineers, etc…) it could attract into downtown cores.
At the time of writing this book, the data proved his thesis correct. Cities like New York that were bohemian were kicking the ass of cities like Pittsburgh in quality of life. They were a better environment for tech start-ups and were conducive to a vibrant civil society. In other words, the more hip a city was, the better its economic outlook. This reflected a huge shift from the previous paradigm that focused on manufacturing as being the central economic driver to a city’s success. According to Florida, no longer would vibrant cities be organized around factories, but instead would be organized around the hipsters.
This meant that condos, coffee shops, and charcuterie places became the best things that cities could encourage. Green space and bike paths that made downtown areas more fun to walk around in. Metrics like “foot traffic” became targets of downtown development. The strip mall became synonymous with suburban decay. The work of Richard Florida has been implemented everywhere from Paris to Peterborough.
The city of Peterborough is doing its best to encourage this type of development. The refurbishing of the old YMCA building into condominiums echo Toronto’s gentrification plan for Liberty Village, which oversaw overhauling of old factories into condos, studios, and office spaces for young professionals.
The Bethune Street Revitalization project plans to install bocce courts, condos and bike paths on the street. The project has been said by councillors to have the potential to be “Peterborough’s Highline,” a reference to New York’s highly-lauded project to turn old railways in the meatpacking district into an elevated walkway with plenty of greenspace.
Time will tell whether these Peterborough projects achieve their stated goals. However, the similarities between projects and Toronto and New York with those in Peterborough should highlight the homogenous nature of municipal policy when trying to develop urban areas.
The central criticism laid at the feet of gentrification and the world that Richard Florida wanted to build is its effect on the non-productive and marginalized parts of society. Municipal politicians love gentrification because when a neighborhood becomes more desirable the value of the property rises, which correlates with increases in property taxes. The increases in property taxes are felt by the non-land owning class who face increases in rent. Without increases in wages, this results in the non-land owning class becoming poorer in real terms, and are then forced out of their neighborhoods and into the periphery.
The fact that the closure of The Spill and the Pig’s Ear comes in the wake of store openings like Tiny Greens and Caffeina should come as no surprise. Both stores seek to attract young professionals who fashion themselves as ethical consumers. To be clear, neither Caffeina nor Tiny Greens are responsible for the closing of The Spill or Pig’s. Rather, they are part of a new downtown that wants to encourage a certain type of culture that unprofitable bars and venues are not part and parcel of.
The issue at hand is that city council is forgetting a central part of Richard Florida’s thesis: that a music scene goes hand in hand with attracting the type of young professionals that are more likely to bike to work, live in condos, and open cupcake shops. Lost in the shuffle of the special emphasis put on a special venue like The Spill is that the Pig’s Ear was also a music venue frequented by Peterborough-famous artists like B.A. Johnston.
Now it should be noted that the closure of Pig’s Ear and The Spill was in no way directly influenced by the city. The John Punter and Lylie Ryder, the owners of the Pig’s Ear, have gone on record multiple times stating that they were “tired of running a bar, and wanted a retirement fund,” and saw selling the building to developers as the best way to achieve that. Owner of The Spill David Tobey has stayed silent and off the record for his reasons for closing his doors, but there has never been a city council agenda titled “Hey, let’s close The Spill, because fuck poor people and stuff.”
Rather, it has been the inaction by council on these businesses closing that show a flawed implementation of gentrification by the city. Gentrification is not something that happens naturally; it is a process that needs to be carefully guided by municipal government in tandem with the creative class, the bohemian class (artists) as Richard Florida calls them, and private businesses.
There is nothing wrong with gentrification if it is implemented correctly. Except for the fact that according to Richard Florida, gentrification has led to the election of demagogues like Donald Trump and Rob Ford; staggering increases in income inequality; and the total cultural and spatial segregation of the have and have-nots wherever his policy has been implemented correctly.
His most recent book The New Urban Crisis is giant admission of guilt that the impact that his work has had on the world has had huge unforeseen consequences. In his new book he identifies that cities have indeed catered their policy towards encouraging artists and knowledge workers quite successfully. What he failed to recognize is that ignoring other sectors would exacerbate social erosion and displacement. This ignored sector is the service sector. When one combines both retail and food together it constitutes plurality (the largest sector that fails to reach a majority) of the jobs worked by Canadians.
Florida states that neglecting service workers in industries like retail and food has resulted in the poor becoming poorer. Richard Florida having an about face on his doctrine of development has drastic implications for Peterborough’s plan for its downtown core.
It should be remembered that when it comes to development, City Council has power to plan out what types of businesses are approved for permits. City Council has the power to say yes or no to gentrification.
If Richard Florida is to be believed, successfully implemented gentrification in Peterborough, will further segregate our community. Who knows what the consequences will be if it’s implemented wrongly. Peterborough should think about the direction is it heading in critically, and ask itself if we are leading ourselves off a cliff just because we want to be like the cool kids in Toronto and New York.