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A brief history of Vancouver gentrification: The drama of urban development

" Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
                                                                   — George Santayana

Photo of Michael Kluckner by Katja De Bock of

A fine mess we've gotten ourselves into

We crowded into SFU Woodwards past hipsters in skinny jeans and vagrants with skinny legs. We came to see Vancouver artist and historian Michael Kluckner deliver a lecture titled "A brief history of gentrification" which put both the concept of gentrification and the word itself into historical context. Those bland condo towers have a dramatic history.

As the author of the 1990 book "Vanishing Vancouver" and its 2012 update, Kluckner has documented the city's transformation in words and pictures. From the first condos in Vancouver to the emptying of the SROs; from the waterfront purges to the showdowns in the DTES, the main takeaway from Kluckner's presentation was that gentrification is not only a cycle, but one created by how those with influence choose to implement their visions of the future.

What is gentrification anyway?

Let's start with the definition of gentrification, which must be more rigid than "strangers are moving in to my neighbourhood with yoga mats."

Kluckner defines gentrification as "people being pushed out of their neighbourhood by people with more money."

This is more accurate in Vancouver than the Merriam Webster definition, which is "the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents." After all, a neighbourhood can still get gentrified if it isn't in a state of decay. It only has to be less expensive than those nearby.

It's a cycle, but not a fixie

Kluckner "put [his] historian's hat on" to take us through 100 years of urban development in Vancouver.

Like a tidal wave is preceded by the sea fleeing the shore, the gentrification boom we're experiencing was preceded by a long period of degentrification, in which property values plummeted to now-unimaginably low levels.

After the stock market crash of 1913, Vancouver's real estate bubble burst. Only a year later, World War I began; as did Vancouver's degentrification period. During this period, nobody could afford to keep paying their property taxes. The city was seizing land left, right, and centre for nonpayment of taxes, then selling those properties for a song at auction. Since you couldn't get credit through a bank, you would only be able to spend what you happened to have in your pocket.

This meant that you'd show up to nearly-empty auctions and walk away with a new-to-you house for a song.

Kluckner quoted Cato the Elder: "'Enjoy the fruits of another's folly,' that was the world of Vancouver." (What Cato meant was that you should buy structures that others have built, rather than build for yourself. He was talking about running a farm, but the concept applies to real estate as well. Cato the Elder was an OG of capitalism: remember that the Roman Empire used that system to keep far-flung colonies like Britain in line back in the day.)

Boudicea, warrior queenBoudicea, Warrior Queen of the Iceni. She was the real deal.

Those barely clinging to their homes after the crash could fall back on the work-for-taxes program. It functioned pretty much as you'd imagine: homeowners would toil on public projects to keep the repo wolves at bay. Kluckner points out that this is how the Fraserview Golf Course was built.

Rooming houses, shacktowns, and floating cities

A few decades whizzed by, and we found ourselves in the early days of World War II. By this time, there was a huge housing shortage in Vancouver. At this point, homeowners were converting their properties into rooming houses. What once housed a single family would suddenly house several.

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