Two Kinds of NIMBYism

The evolving modern definition of a good neighbour is no longer someone who is part of your life, someone you chat with over the fence, a reliable shoulder in good times and bad, but someone who doesn’t bother you, either in your enjoyment of your home or by threatening its property value.

–Brian Bethune, Maclean’s Magazine, August 8, 2014

I wrote a few days ago about how Tent City has been a surprising blessing for us. I want to make clear that its existence does make me somewhat uncomfortable, as it would many if not most people. But, if pressed as to why I think it should be shut down, I can’t think of why. I genuinely cannot come up with a reason for it to be shut down other than it not behaving like a city park. But the park has rarely behaved like a normal city park. When I first discovered the neighbourhood, I would sit on a friend’s porch and watch drug deals being made, sex trade workers getting picked up, fights, people passing out. It was mesmerizing in a weird way.

The park has changed in profound ways. People still loiter and sit around smoking pot, but other more serious crimes have really dissipated in the intervening years. What is strange is how some people choose to view the change in the neighbourhood.

I can think of two kinds of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard ism), but there may be more. One is the kind where citizens or homeowners protest outsiders who intrude for the sake of profit, such as when energy companies start fracking so far under the crust of the earth that it is legally not impeding on property but affects the geology to the point that it threatens value of the home. Other examples involve Donald Trump.

The second kind of NIMBYism is the one most prevalent here. It is, in a way, the exact opposite of the first kind. This NIMBY is the person who moves in and invests a lot of money in his or her property for the sake of a profit only to find that the return on investment is lower than anticipated or things don’t go exactly as they hoped. These also involve Donald Trump.

The other day, just after I posted my previous post on Tent City, I walked a couple blocks to pick up my daughter at her music school. One half-block west of Tent City, I saw this sign in a window of a renovated building:









I wasn’t sure what the sign meant at first. I could guess, but I wasn’t sure how responsible it would be to comment on it without asking the occupiers of the building (a design firm) what they meant by it. My guess was that it was an ironic comment on the city’s (Gregor Robertson is the mayor) inaction regarding Tent City. But who knows? The sign looked hastily made for a design firm. It’s possible I was misunderstanding the meaning.

A day or two later I was listening to the most recent This American Life podcast while running some errands and was inspired to speak truth to power. I thought I would, at the very least, knock on the door of the firm and ask what they meant by this sign. I’m not a confrontational person, normally, and was afraid I would chicken out. But I felt I needed to give them the benefit of the doubt before I commented on their lack of neighbourliness.

So I gave myself a pep-talk and walked down that same block in order to do some journalism for the first time. When I finally got to where that shoddy signage was, I saw this:







Am I a chicken for not knocking? Well, perhaps, but I feel like my question had been answered. As a scholar of ancient texts, I am a strong believer that “authorial intent” is the text itself. If the author intended something else, he or she would have written it differently. If they write it twice? I’ve also been influenced by some liberationist readings of ancient texts where one should interpret some texts from the perspective of the marginalized. When I saw this new and improved sign, the intent was clear enough and I was in no mood to give the authors the benefit of the doubt.

I got home and did whatever I could to find out a little bit more about this business and found this article. What interested me was the following bit:

The most striking reno is 368 Powell, where Lance Burger of Bon Designworks has brought new life to a century-old structure.

“It’s a complete rebuild,” said Burger. “The building was empty, in semi-collapsed condition. We’ve gutted it and rebuilt it, saved it from extinction.”

It was built for the Japanese Trust Company in 1913 and at some point a giant garage door had been installed in front. Burger brought back the original exterior, then turned the 3,000-sq.-ft main floor into a big open space for an ultracontemporary office.

“Because of the way it’s built, with the truss system and the ribs for the concrete, you (can) have a clear span,” he explains.

“There’s no interior walls that hold it up. But having said that they’re extremely expensive to fix and bring up to code. It’s a money pit.”

The building came cheap – Burger paid $250,000 in 2005 – but Burger says the renos have been “over three times what we paid to buy.”

Did you get that? The owner turned his $250,000 building into a $1million investment. But that’s not all. His investment in his building somehow gives him the right to say this:

A new Downtown Eastside Area Plan calls for 3,350 more social housing units in the area in the next 30 years. Some would be built in Chinatown, Gastown and Strathcona, but most would likely go on Hastings Street or Japantown.

Burger doesn’t think importing more poverty into one of Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhoods is a good idea.

“It’s an undisclosed political agenda to cordon off an area of the city and call it a ghetto,” he says.

“They don’t want to tell you that politically, but that’s what they’re doing here. There’s no other reason to concentrate poverty, the social service agencies, the drug issues, all within this area.

“It’s like putting an alcoholic in a bar and telling him that it’s gonna get better. It doesn’t work.”

Do I really need to ask what the sign means, now? The worst kind of NIMBY is the kind that begins as an intruder and in a short time cries “Not in my backyard!”

My guess is that the owner of a building in the poorest postal code in Canada was not so concerned with the fate of the neighbourhood until his ROI was threatened. Any self-aware person would recognize the history of the neighbourhood and that it’s first modern  manifestation was as a ghetto. Hence the name: Japantown. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a neighbourhood with neighbours who have a life there. I’m sad that the firm feels uncomfortable about their neighbours, but I wonder if that discomfort could have been mitigated by a different expectation of what it means to be a neighbour.









About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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