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Arson isn’t the answer to neighbourhood gentrification

Loath though I am to let arson spark a renewed debate about gentrification, this week's fire near Victoria and 1st Avenue in east Vancouver hit close to home – literally. I live four blocks away from the almost-completed condos that were torched early Wednesday morning. The first I heard of it was on the news. With a fire hall just a couple of blocks away, the sound of early morning sirens is one of the noises my brain has learned to filter out while I sleep.

Shortly after news of the fire came, the news that a group of anti-gentrification anarchists – whatever that means – had claimed responsibility. A message spray-painted near the site reads, "We'll be back."

This was not a political act; it was a criminal act. These people are arsonists and nothing more. Burning down a duplex under construction and endangering the lives of people who live in neighbouring houses does nothing to further their cause, whatever their cause is. I doubt they agree on it.

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Eileen Mosca of the Grandview-Woodland Community Policing Centre says the boarded-up house that occupied the site before construction began was being used as a squat. Maybe that was the motive – being kicked out of a house to which they had no title to begin with. Funny that they would feel that sense of ownership.

When we decided to move into the neighbourhood, it never occurred to me that I might be seen as an agent of gentrification. Like a lot of people who insist on living within the Vancouver city limits, we paid a premium for the convenience of being close to transit, a thriving commercial district, and downtown. We bought what we could afford.

And though I'm not certain, I'm sure the three duplexes that make up our little corner of the block probably replaced a couple of single-family homes that had stood there before.

And perhaps people lamented the loss of those homes. But things change. New things replace old things. It's not unique to this neighbourhood or this city.

To the best of my knowledge, none of my neighbours is a venture capitalist, a CEO or captain of industry. They are teachers, nurses, lawyers and people who work in the arts and other creative professions. They go to work in the morning and return in the evening looking slightly worse for wear. No one is hiding a Bentley in the garage.

Shortly after we moved in, the dilapidated house across the street from us was sold. For the next six months, a middle-aged couple arrived every weekend to haul away the junk that surrounded the place and carry out renovations on their own. Eventually, after a lot of hard work, they turned the house into two rental units. I suppose technically that makes them developers and therefore also agents of gentrification.

There's no doubt that the face of the neighbourhood has changed, even in the short time I've lived here. Businesses that cater to the new arrivals have opened up on Commercial Drive. Rents have gone up and, yes, stores that couldn't make a go of it have been forced out. That sometimes happens. Others have adapted to include the new clientele, which the anarchists would no doubt call yuppies.

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But the area remains diverse – ethnically, socio-economically, and in terms of sexual orientation. That's why people want to live here. It takes all comers.

There is a real conversation to be had about how to make sure that the interests of developers don't overtake the interests of any particular neighbourhood, and that the people who call that neighbourhood home can remain there without the threat of eviction or feeling unwelcome. It's not a simple issue.

If the people who burned down the duplex are trying to effect change, it hasn't worked.

Maybe they're naïve enough to think that targeting a home under construction will scare away developers and somehow turn back the clock.

Who knew anarchists could be so nostalgic.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.

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