The cost of urban renewal

The cost of urban renewal

An anti-gentrification rant

While staff and councillors at City Hall trundle away approving millions of dollars in grants for multi-million dollar corporations in order to socially cleanse Guelph’s downtown core and beyond, our city’s social assistance recipients, working poor, migrants, artists, QUILTBAG folk and political radicals toil ceaselessly just to exist in the face of constant pressure to vanish, assimilate, or die.

We work through sexual harassment, physical assault, police surveillance, and a general deficit of tax-funded outreach programming. We keep working in spite of malnutrition, unsafe work environments, and illnesses caused by poor housing. We suffer severe depression, addictions and other mental illnesses that many of us see no point in medicating – because we can’t afford treatment, because the wait lists are daunting in size, or because we know of someone else in greater need of the limited help available.

We work the jobs those with more power and privilege will pay to not do. We sell food and clothing we can’t afford to buy. We clean the windows, floors and toilets of commercial spaces and then go home and do it all again. We serve drinks to student suburban transplants and other party people who come downtown and act like the city is their maid while threatening violent rape or calling us “sluts,” “bums,” “fags,” “psychos” and “crackheads.” We care for the children and elders of people who scarcely bother to visit their own parents or teach their own kids, avoiding the basic responsibilities of family and community to instead pursue cash flow through competition.

Worse, we have little choice but to follow suit in order to keep our own places on the few bottom rungs of a very tall social ladder, suspended above the cold, fast-flowing waters of homelessness, starvation and disability. Then, when countless resumes and old funeral suits (if we have formal wear at all) fail to furnish us with gainful employment, we move under the table.

We work for employers in similarly dire straits, who live at work, own effectively nothing and conjure up (from their own tenuous credit ratings) finances to house their businesses and employ us tax-free and below minimum wage. Incidentally, untaxed labour might sound fantastic, but it means no lump-sum tax refund in the spring, which is basically the only way to pay a first-and-last rent deposit that landlords invariably demand.

Others work in criminalized fields, constantly dodging arrest (which frequently involves being assaulted at four-to-one odds) or tickets they can’t pay. Some busk, like kazoos in a hurricane, performing original tunes at the wall of pop throbbing from bar PA systems. Some dumpster-dive and collect empties. Some climb into luxury cars to fellate unloved men, never fully sure they’ll get home alive, regardless of the precautions they take. Some are thieves or street dealers, reduced to an unspoken truce that amounts to “Rat me out and you’re dead.” It fuels a culture of antipathy towards the police that facilitates violence against women and children going unreported.

Worst of all, enduring this interminable wave of callous methodical bigotry rarely earns us five figures, let alone a living wage, and when we assemble to protest for social justice, we are beaten, blamed, ignored, insulted, or told to “get a job.”

I suggest that our only option is to organize. If those with power and privilege don’t want us to beg, busk, deal, steal, scrounge, self-medicate, or perform sex work, yet will not invest funds in offering us supportive alternatives, then we band together our workforce to fill our collective needs, rather than working individually for those who profit from our poverty. The over ten thousand Guelph residents living below the poverty line must somehow produce whatever shortfall they have on 15 billion calories of nutritionally adequate food annually, make thousands of pairs of shoes, repair hundreds of leaky faucets and nurse and console our own sick and mourning. They provide themselves with the security that food banks, churches, the medical establishment and the police cannot provide without rubbing their noses in rationales about individual self-sufficiency that ring false in the face of our social repression.

We are capable of accomplishing this. However, in the face of the city-assisted wholesale corporate purchase of brownfield sites and disused buildings that we might have been given using finances from which we might equally have benefited. Plus the intensification of state hostility to a People’s Occupation, the only real question is: where?