Last night my roommates and I had a housewarming party. We have lived in our new place in Strathcona for two months now. I have had some chance to reflect on this move, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts.
First, the back story: I have been thinking about living in the DTES (DownTown EastSide) for over a year now. Our church was planted with the principles of CCDA (the Christian Community Development Association) in mind, the first of which is Relocation. Jesus put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood, instead of commuting back and forth between heaven and earth, and from the beginning, Jodi and I wanted to follow that incarnational path by moving into the neighborhood where the majority of our congregation lived.
Jodi moved right from the start. It took me a little longer. When we started the church, I was living in a great place on Commercial Drive with some incredible roommates, and I didn't think they would want to accompany me to the DTES, since their friends and churches were closer to Commercial. I told them my reasons for wanting to move, and we all sat with the idea for a while. On the evening when we planned to meet and make a decision, I lay in fetal position on my bed, cowering. I was so afraid that I would be forced to choose: either follow God's call to relocate, or live with my best friends.
To my surprise, and by the grace of God, all three of them were willing to move with me! I couldn't believe it. We started searching for a place to rent in the DTES area (or perhaps between the DTES and Commercial Drive, as a compromise). For a month and a half, we followed the very few leads we found on Craigslist, but the spaces were either unlivable for four people, or had already been scooped up by the many other people looking for housing.
Then one day, we got an e-mail back from a guy who said we could come look at a duplex in Strathcona, a neighborhood in the eastern part of the DTES. We did a rushed, five-minute walk-through, and filled out an application. He called a few days later and said that even though he'd had 30 other applicants, he had a good feeling about us, and we reminded him of his own daughters, so he wanted to let us have it! The rent was exactly the same amount as we were paying on Commercial Drive. The location was great from the point of view of my church work - it's at the intersection of the two streets where all the social housing buildings for families are located. It seemed (and still seems) like a clear gift from God.
The night before we moved in, we drove over to take another look at the place, and we stood in awe. It was beautiful. It was built in 2002, had a dishwasher (life changing for our household!), black appliances, two bathrooms (we all shared one bathroom at our other place!), laminate flooring, a large open-plan living room and kitchen, and a little porch. The landlord had paid to have it all re-painted and re-finished before we moved. For the same price, it was much, much nicer than our old place. Heck, it even had a white picket fence.
I walked around the empty house with mixed feelings. I was definitely happy that I didn't have to worry about my roommates making huge sacrifices to continue to live with me - they were so excited about the house! But it was so nice. When I had thought about moving to the DTES, I had expected to live more sacrificially, to have to give up some comforts and privileges and live more like my friends in the neighborhood. Instead, I was moving somewhere more comfortable and polished than our Commercial Drive space. Our street didn't even feel like the DTES - it felt like a nice little oasis one step removed from the DTES. Admittedly, only 48% of Strathcona residents are low-income, unlike 60-80% in the other neighborhoods that form the DTES. Some people don't even include Strathcona in their definition of the DTES, even though the city does.
I know that some of my self-sacrificial desires were idealistic and unrealistic, tied up in pride and the social-justice-image I wanted to project, with my dreams of a "Mother Teresa"-style martyrdom, suffering alongside the poor. But I genuinely did want my friends from the neighborhood to feel comfortable in my house, to feel like equals, to know that I want to be counted among them, to understand their reality and to be "in it" with them. And even more than that, I desperately didn't want to be counted among the "gentrifyers" in the DTES.
I only learned the word "gentrification" a couple years ago, when I heard it was happening in the DTES. It's what happens in lots of cities when developers buy property that has been used to house low-income people, and build market-type housing instead (in Vancouver, this is usually condos). Lower-income people can't afford these new places, and are often displaced or left homeless, with richer people gradually replacing them in the neighborhood. The lower-income folks who remain in the neighborhood find themselves surrounded by more expensive stores and security guards, and less of the services they depend on (because these non-profit services can no longer afford to stay either, with the rising property taxes). This process is dressed up and even defended with fancy words like "revitalization," "balance," and "social mix," but at its core it really represents a power grab by the rich, and does nothing to improve the lives of the marginalized. (The best summary of gentrification I've found is in Appendix A of CCAP's report "Assets to Action," read to learn more!)
This is where the complexity comes in. It's one thing to relocate and live "incarnationally" in a low-income neighborhood that is undesirable to most people, a "waste place," abandoned by the rich. But it's a much more complicated thing to relocate to a neighborhood that every developer wants a piece of, because they're running out of space to build in downtown proper, a neighborhood where hundreds sleep in shelters already because even the cheapest housing isn't cheap or available enough. I am the rich. Despite how poor I feel sometimes, I have a grad degree, I'm white, I have a supportive community around me, and I'm (relatively!) stable and employable. Does a person like me choose a house built in 2002? Who knows what was torn down so it could be built ... in "heritage style," of course, because appearances matter. Do I contribute to this gentrifying force, in form if not in spirit? Or does a person like me seek out something more like the older, low-rent places where my friends live, and risk taking away one more unit of the only housing they can afford? And since this low-income housing is mostly available in single-room form, does that latter option mean giving up my supportive community of roommates, who really are family for me in Vancouver? There are risks and benefits inherent in both options, both for me as a minister, and for this neighborhood in crisis. The DTES is a complicated puzzle, and figuring out how to follow in others' footsteps and live out my calling here sometimes makes my head spin.
In the end, my roommates and I have taken the housing that God has seemed to provide, grateful for the gift of it. And although I have been watching myself for the dangerous tendency to defend a choice that has meant increased comfort for me, I must say that despite the complexities, I have seen some good ministry benefits of this relocation in the last two months. I have loved running into people from church and Jacob's Well on the street as I walk or bike between home and work, or in the park as I read my book. It feels so much more relationally balanced to interact in everyday-life-situations, shopping at the market or running through the spray park, instead of interacting only in a programmatic way during my "work hours" in the neighborhood. I have loved how free some of my friends now feel to drop in at our house and say hi, and I've loved having kids knock on the door and ask to hang out and play video games on our PS2. Even in a short two months, we have had several meals and parties and hosted all sorts of folks here, combinations of friends from various backgrounds, and there has been a richness in these times. We are accessible, and our friendships are deepening. Also, I've been able to join a group of Strathcona folks who are fighting some of the gentrifying rhetoric of the Strathcona Residents Association and the Strathcona Business Improvement Association. If I am among the privileged of this neighborhood, I hope at least that I can use that power and privilege to stand behind and give voice to those who lack the power and privilege.
So there you go. I'm a Strathcona-ite, I have a beautiful family of roommates around me, and I'm grateful. I pray for God's blessing over this neighborhood that I now call my own, and for wisdom to walk through the complex questions that no doubt will continue to present themselves. Nothing seems very straightforward in this work or this life... but God is good, and He is merciful.