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Political Geography of Community

We need to slaughter a lot of sacred cows before we can have a real conversation about civic governance and community.

Political Geography of Community – Part 4: Dispossession, Dislocation and the Invention of the Neighbour

With a title like this, the only sensible thing is to begin by talking about wool.

Wool has a lot to do with the way that English-speaking who can trace their lineages to Great Britain seem to have got a pretty good deal this past half-millennium or so. Wool, strangely enough, was crucially helpful in teaching the English people how to make selves that are especially well-adapted to capitalist relations between human beings.

This remaking of the self in capitalist terms, and its sweeping political implications can be found in Thomas More’s Utopia in which the author comments on a process called “Enclosure,” whereby collectively-owned shared lands on which peasants raised crops were privatized and fenced through a series of acts by the English state. Instead of people eating sheep, More observed, with Enclosure, now, “sheep eat men.” Land used by humans to raise food to feed themselves became land that was converted to range land for sheep.

It was not enough to dispossess peasants, More went on to observe; they were then criminalized, as they are today, for their dispossession through laws against begging, brigandage, vagrancy and debt. This process, which had begun nearly a century before More wrote, only escalated over the next two centuries and more and more English commoners were dispossessed for a wider and wider range of land uses as the English state financed itself through privatization.

Once they were dispossessed, powerful forces set to work on those who had lost their lands to encourage relocation. People moved to find work; and if they couldn’t find work, the state and its agents would find it for them by converting them into convict labourers, indentured servants or pressganged members of the armed forces. For the most part, people were eager to find work and moved considerable distances – down brigand- and beggar-infested toll-roads to find somewhere to work.

These people were no different from the economic migrants of any era; their choices were conditioned by familiar factors. Is there work where I’m going? How can I persuade people to let me do the work when I get there? Are there people I know there? If I get there and something happens to me, will there be someone to bail me out? England’s market towns, which had begun their demographic rebound in the 1400s, were often the destination but many people urbanized into London and many still simply moved from one rural area to the next, often in short-term work directly associated with the wool industry. As Britain’s sheep population grew, so did the ranks of the dispossessed and dislocated.

Because these mass economic migrations were not actually associated with new technologies as much as new market conditions, the English people had the curious honour to being in the vanguard of a process that would reshape even the rest of Western Europe decades or centuries later. While processes like this had taken place at many other places and times, the sheer scale and duration of Enclosure created a critical mass of a certain kind of unstable, disconnected migrant consciousness. By the seventeenth century, common English folk thought about their relationships to their place, family and job differently than others on such a large scale that a whole new discourse emerged, a discourse that the state intervened to help shape.

We know this because of the King James Version of the Bible, a very expensive state-sponsored project to produce a text around which a new, Protestant, capitalist English identity was to be built. The KJV provided a dislocated, increasingly socially literate populace with popular, universal words to help them make new selves and new worldviews for the strangely kinetic, insecure people into which they were being transformed by the privatization of indivisible collectivities, like families and family. It did that by replacing the word “brother” with “neighbour” hundreds upon hundreds of times.

Let us be clear that English neighbours centuries ago were like our neighbours now: people you don’t really know who might or might not stick around. Now, as then, we have words for the relationships that can develop out of neighbourliness: friend, spouse, co-worker, cousin, brother-in-law, etc. Medieval English people had other words too from before the era of the neighbour like “gossip,” from the compound word “god-sib” – someone connected through a god-parent, a ubiquitous institution that linked huge portions of the population together.

But, in the world of Enclosure, new ideas of “neighbourliness” became crucial new forms of solidarity. The English people had a shared imperative, whether working as translators for one of the greatest state-directed propaganda campaigns of all time or simply trying to survive a move to a new town, where they had heard there might be some shepherding work, without first starving to death, to idealize a new form of community, neighbourliness. Neighbours were a new kind of person: a person forced into physical proximity with you by economic exigency.

As the Nobel Committee has recently recognized, one of the most effective means of surviving large-scale market-driven and state-supported dispossession, dislocation and social service downloading is through the mobilization of private micro-credit. The ideals of neighbourliness as propounded by popular early modern English writers like Thomas Tusser were, first and foremost, means of mobilizing micro-credit within a marginalized population. A cup of sugar or flour lent by one’s neighbour remains, to the present day, our idealized image of what neighbourliness ultimately means. A few pence, a little flour, an egg – in Jacobean England, the ability of the dispossessed and marginally employed to rely on new acquaintances for sustenance was crucial for the success of the first socially capitalist society.

This new social ideal and associated practices were, at once, forms of solidarity amongst the dispossessed and marginalized, crucial for the generation of the minimum material and political security needed to survive and a means of pacifying a populace in the face of oppression while concurrently reducing the material obligations of the rulers to the ruled.

What neighbourliness was not and is not is a natural form of social organization – it is necessarily a social response to the prolonged, systematic physical dislocation and atomization of a populace due to economic exigencies. It is no coincidence that the labour movement sought to undo the great intentional translation errors of the KJV. It was not simply that labour discourse in the past two centuries has sought – almost unconsciously –to restore the meaning “peoples” in place of the KJV’s “nations,” as the translation for εθνη; it has been even more invested in changing “neighbour” back to “brother.”

While leftist thought has grappled seriously with the ways in which discourses of “nation” have reinforced racism and imperialism, the response to the other great KJV linguistic reordering has received short shrift. While a handful of important scholars have recognized the ways in which neighbourliness serves to inhibit class consciousness in that it is locates identity formation – and hence, solidarity – in residential rather than work spaces, this only scratches the surface of the problem of neighbourliness.

People imagine, incorrectly, that neighbours, neighbourhoods and the neighbourly ethic are timeless, pre-capitalist things. And while we can trace the word to the time before Enclosure, its universalization in the sixteenth century was part and parcel with it coming to refer to a probably impermanent, quasi-stranger. To be neighbourly was to engage in reciprocity as an act of faith – to enact solidarity in the absence of the trust or knowledge one might expect in the world before Enclosure.

What are the implications of this to the Jane Jacobs urbanism that has come to be so uncritically embraced by self-identified leftists and progressives? Let us historicize neighbourliness and see its fetishization as an ideal as a reasonable proxy for instability, atomization and dislocation. And let us consider the implications of understanding the neighbourhood as a form of defensive solidarity that emerges when more genuine and complete forms of community in place are under constant attack.

Of course, today’s neighbourliness is not identical to the kind developed in the sixteenth century. In Vancouver and many other major cities, neighbours are, more often than not, families forced by the housing affordability crisis to move farther from work, to suburbanize, or, conversely, childless people who work longer, more irregular hours in order to stay close to work and reduce their commuting time.

What does it mean when friends, relatives and coworkers have been evacuated from your physical locale and you are surrounded by strangers? Or, worse yet, what if you are one of the new strangers, desperately trying to narrate your relevance to a series of closed doors and impersonal shops? Faced with these socially fraught circumstances, some of us lean on the idea of neighbourliness to fight back. We know those people – they are the elderly people on your doorstep with a petition for something, the odd cadre of corduroy and tweed-wearers who attend the annual general meeting of your community centre, the acquaintances who cold-call you to ask your feelings about the decline in parking spaces and, increasingly under Vision Vancouver, the people eating finger sandwiches and writing on white boards at some kind of city-financed meeting that always seems to be taking place in Multipurpose Room C, next to the swimming pool.

Those people are very much doing what self-defined neighbours have done for centuries: using a concept that is being actively popularized by the state as a means of social control and service downloading to attempt to organize against state-supported economic development and community reorganization projects. This minority of actively-neighbourly neighbours think they are part of a big, fictive community that contains you and everybody who lives near them, with whom they hang out at the Canada Day block party that never quite gets around to happening. As I have argued elsewhere, these people are actually quite unlike most people they live near; the people they are like are the neighbourhood activists who live in other parts of the city.

Neighbourhood activists often see the majority who never seem to be around for the public meeting about the development permit application as, in some way, deficient in civic virtue. As in most discourses of civic virtue, dating back to Ancient Athens, those most lacking in civic virtue are typically the most economically dislocated, those whose time is most occupied by working, commuting and fundamental household tasks like child-rearing. Or, as conversely put by Marianna Valverde, “The local champion role is one that can be played private citizens as well as politicians… playing the role of micro-local champion is time-consuming, which may be a reason this role is generally played by people with few work and childcare responsibilities.”

Ironically, those who represent neighbours are those least like them. Those able to engage in acts of representation and advocacy are situated at the polarities of economic security with their ample time arising either from considerable familial wealth or from self-inflicted poverty in order to remain in their chosen geographic area. This mirrors the situation at the inception of neighbourliness where those most active in the civic life of the neighbourhood. Early modern England’s most active neighbours were epitomized in the figure of the neighbourhood patron, an aspiring gentleman and town notable, or the disrespectable scold, the “crazy cat lady” of her day.

Furthermore, those who use their limited time to, in preference, associate with lovers, friends, coworkers, teammates or relatives, who congregate around activities like sports, co-parenting, drinking or gambling in preference to micro-governance are understood to, in some way, be quasi-citizens, people who have lost their full franchise. Maybe that is why neighbourhood activists are so comfortable in asserting what “the community,” or “the neighbourhood” really wants in these public processes—they have annexed their neighbours’ citizenship to themselves.
I write this not because I prefer the agenda of Vision Vancouver to that of the party that came fifth in the last election, Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver. By and large, I find their policies preferable to Vision’s on nearly every front, despite the party’s stated purpose being the governance of the city by the very people I just disparaged.

I offer this harsh critique not because what groups like COPE, NSV or the Green Party are doing is wrong but because it is inherently insufficient. The conservative fantasy of the neighbourly past that these groups evoke when they point to the Greenwich Village of Jane Jacobs becomes a more entrancing mirage each year precisely because the real bonds between people are being destroyed through dislocation and replaced with neighbourliness, a state-sponsored fiction designed, from its inception, at the height of Enclosure, to pacify the populace by substituting a counterfeit for real community.

More in the next part on alternatives based on organic experiences of community.

Political Geography of Community – Part 3: Communities and Neighbourhoods: Conflate at Your Peril

Recently, events in the organizations in which I am most involved these days have brought two crucial questions to the fore: (a) what is a community and (b) how does a community achieve representation? As the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) seeks to rebuild itself, as Fair Vote Canada struggles to deal with a fight over municipal voting reform in Toronto that threatens to engulf an entirely national movement in an ugly parochial schism, they avoid these fundamental questions at their peril.

Community, in my view, is an experience, a set of interactions that bind a group of people together. Communities are contingent upon continued interaction and interrelation; their composition is in constant flux and individuals’ interactions shift, based on their interests, location, time, tastes, politics and a host of other factors. Individuals, corporations and governments can decide to try and create communities but their success in doing so is never guaranteed because community is not prescriptive; it is descriptive of something that is taking place in the present. In other words, community is something that is done, not something that is declared.

Every day, we participate in community. Our workplaces are sometimes part of that, depending on where we work, how we work and what our colleagues are like. Similarly, depending on the kinds of families we have, this, too, is often but not necessarily a locus of community for many of us. Those of us who are part of racialized minorities are often in communities constructed along racial lines, sometimes in shared self-defense, sometimes in celebrating a history of struggle. Religious affiliation is also a major locus of community-making in our culture. Often, the communities with which we most enthusiastically engage are communities built around aesthetics, ideology or shared recreational pursuits. In my life, some of the most important communities are based around a shared appreciation of old school Doctor Who and Asian fusion cuisine, a commitment to proportional representation and to fighting poverty and climate change.

When one looks at community as a lived experience, it is hard, in a dense, urban centre, to find people who would rate their neighbourhood or their street as a major locus of community. I certainly do not. I have no shared day-to-day experience of fellowship and commonality with the overwhelming majority of people who live near me. That’s not to say I don’t care about them or that I won’t experience community in the future. But it does mean that when I do experience future community with them, it will likely not be because we are engaging around issues to do with our surroundings but because it turns out that, coincidentally, they are part of one of the communities that is real for me, because they turn out to be fellow socialists, environmentalists or Doctor Who fans.

The reality is that I experience more community, in a week, with a college instructor in Maricopa County, AZ, I have never encountered in person, whom I met through a friend of a friend of a friend in a Facebook discussion about the US 2010 midterm elections, than I do with either of my next door neighbours.

That is not to say that neighbourhood identity is not an important part of experiencing community for some of my fellow Vancouverites. In a handful of places, there exists a real sense of geographic identity and neighbourhood solidarity. But the experiences of people in places with the most intense neighborhood consciousness, the Downtown Eastside, Commerical Drive and Shaughnessy are generalized at our peril. People who live in those places are generally pretty special people who have, unlike the vast majority of Vancouverites, decided to make significant sacrifices and difficult life choices to situate themselves in one of the handful of places in the Lower Mainland where neighbourhood identity matters.

There is another group of people who experience neighbourhood as a significant form of community. They are the local — and excuse the pejorative tone of the term but nothing else will suffice — busybodies. They are people who have decided to be unlike the majority of their neighbours and get involved in organizing ratepayers’ associations, local civic festivals and government planning processes around transportation and development. But these groups should not be mistaken for people typifying or representing their neighbours; they are people who draw solidarity and generate community, who develop affinity with one another, precisely because of how unlike their neighbours they are. A residents’ association activist in Dunbar has far more in common with a residents’ association activist in Fraserview than she does with a Dunbar resident who never attends neighbourhood-focused events.

Neighbourhood activists, then, are not so much people whose experience of community is based on their neighbourhood as they are people whose experience of community is based on a shared set of political and aesthetic commitments about what neighbourhoods should be. These commitments, furthermore, are not located in the present. Neighbourhood activists are aspirational or nostalgic in their politics; they either celebrate an imagined past of neighbourhood solidarity and community or they look forward to creating such communities in future, often allied with the hundred mile diet, slow food movement, etc. While neighbourhood activists often deserve accolades for their work against gentrification, overdevelopment and a host of other ills, I do not believe we should compliment them with the concession that their theory of neighbourliness is true in the present for most people, because it simply is not.

These questions of community would merely be academic if they did not so profoundly taint our politics and the ongoing project of seeing voters represented by officials they choose, who reflect their concerns and priorities.

When I vote, I want to be able to pool my vote with people with whom I actually experience community and I want others to be able to do the same. I want my vote to be counted with people who share my environmental concerns, whether they live on Boundary Road or Oak Street; I want my vote to be counted with people who share my concerns about poverty and issues of affordability, whether they have a view of the Fraser River or Burrard Inlet. And I would be very happy for us to be represented by the same person or people in City Council.

The last thing I want is for an arbitrary polygon containing about 61,000 people to be drawn around my apartment and to be told “this is your community; your interests are those of the other 61,000; and you will all have a single representative on city council to reflect the consensus of your community.” What consensus? What community? Benedict Anderson wrote of nations as “imagined communities.” Municipal wards aren’t even that. They are imaginary communities.

How the people chosen to represent these false, nonexistent communities are chosen is of no interest to me because conceding this makes a mockery not just of community but of representation and democracy.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, forward-looking people in England came to recognize that the old voting system they had designed in 1215 to represent medieval communities, which were profoundly geographically structured, had run its course and the “limited vote” system was instituted to give the residents of the ascendant market and industrial towns a form of proportional representation, so that communities in overlapping geographic areas could enjoy concurrent representation in parliament. Unfortunately, as the nineteenth century wore on, those reforms were chipped away and people were once again shoehorned into false communities of neighbourhood as the English elite took measure to prevent the rise of labour politics and the emancipation of the working class.

The deliberate and coercive conflation of “neighbourhood” and “community” in a political system is a fundamentally conservative project. It seeks to displace voluntary and real forms of community with coercive and hypothetical forms. It alienates the majority of the populace from participation in government by ensuring (a) that they are “represented” by someone for whom they did not vote and (b) that they are alienated from elected officials with whom they might share ideological, ethnocultural or other genuine forms of community. Neighbourhood consciousness seeks to erase real cleavages in terms of ideology, class, wealth and status and replace them with a romantic myth of community that never existed. It helps to render our political conversations incoherent and to turn them away from real debates about the fundamental questions that determine the kind of city in which we live to focus on intersection signalization and potholes.

Now that is not to say that single-member wards are the worst thing that could happen to a city. It may well be that the current rigged, majoritarian, at-large system in Vancouver that can allow a party to sweep all 27 seats with only 43% of the vote, as happened in 1996, is actually worse. But having lived in Toronto with its hyper-parochial neighbourhood politics, it is not that much worse. But much more importantly, in both of these cities, we can do a lot better; we can create a voting system that actually empowers communities, that actually represents people, that facilitates, instead of repressing political debate.

It is for this reason that I have taken the position I have in the Fair Vote Canada referendum currently underway and it is for this reason that I am working hard to have COPE update its electoral reform policies and return them to the platform on which we ran in 1999.

In a future post, I will talk about some alternatives that could move us towards a civic politics that represents communities. In the interim, as I encourage you to look at the two reports I co-authored on civic democracy in Toronto in 2005 and 2008.

Political Geography of Community – Part 2: “Talk and Evict” Comes to Vancouver

In recent days, I have heard from activists concerned about the systematic renoviction that it is as though the Vancouver’s ruling Vision party is working at cross purposes with itself. On one hand, it is pursuing the most aggressively pro-development, pro-demolition agenda in the city’s history, far more expansive and ambitious than Gordon Campbell’s NPA-sponsored development orgy of the late 80s and early 90s. On the other, it has undertaken one of the most ambitious, comprehensive public consultation processes the city has ever seen around issues of governance, planning and development. Local area planning and citizen engagement processes seem to be a genuine priority for Gregor Robertson and his council majority and, throughout the city, neighbourhood activists concerned about densification, demolition, renoviction and gentrification are being actively courted as stakeholders in creating official local area plans.

To comprehend these moves, on one hand, accelerating development and, on the other, actively involving its opponents in creating the government’s official long-term plans for their neighbourhoods, as contradictory is to misunderstand how Third Way governments use public consultation processes.

But first, a brief word about Third Way-ism generally.

Third Way-ism is a fairly young political tradition. Developed by Britain’s “New” Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair in the 1990s, it became the label under which previously social democratic parties could enact conservative or neoliberal policies. In a post-Cold War world, where the incentive for corporate capital to tolerate the existence of welfare states had suddenly disappeared, Third Way-ism was nothing short of essential to the survival of First World social democratic parties, as well as that of centrist brokerage parties like the US Democrats and Canadian Liberals.

For the forces to transnational capital to tolerate the continued viability of these parties, they did not merely need to hew closely to conservative ideology and governance practices on key issues; they needed to show they had real utility for conservative business elites. It was not enough to simply be less enthusiastic corporate toadies; they needed to produce a net benefit. Almost every Third Way party that has remained politically relevant since 1991 can demonstrate that it has implemented some part of the program of deregulation, privatization and upward distribution of income more effectively than a competing conservative party would have.

From 1991 to 1996, British Columbia was ruled by an explicitly Third Way government, that of premier Mike Harcourt. Harcourt was a key early leader in developing the emerging movement’s ideology and rhetoric. Elected on an explicit promise to business leaders that his government would offer “business as usual,” he out-performed this promise significantly, enacting an impressive set of conservative reforms in the second half of his term.

In the fall of 1993, Harcourt delivered a major televised province-wide address, presented as a course correction from what conservative media had portrayed as his government’s left-wing sympathies. The centerpiece of this address was a vow to crack down on BC’s “welfare cheats, deadbeats and varmints,” a threat on which his government made good through a poor-bashing legislative agenda so punitive and draconian that significant portions of it were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Harcourt course correction was, in many ways, more durable and effective when it came to environmental policy precisely because it lacked the public bellicosity of his government’s welfare policies. Beginning in 1991, the Harcourt government had begun steadily increasing the number and scope of land use consultation processes in the province. Land Resource Use Plan (LRUP) roundtables overlapped with Land Resource Management Plan (LRMP) roundtables which, in turn, overlapped with Commission on Resources and Environment (CORE) roundtables; there were also CRIMP tables and a host of others I don’t remember, buried under a deluge of Harcourt-era acronyms. What I remember is this: after the disaster of Clayoquot Sound, when I and 803 other British Columbians were arrested trying to protect old growth forests, there was an even greater abundance of opportunity to sit on government round tables on environmental policy. It seemed that for every new, committed activist on environmental issues, there was a seat at a table somewhere to participate as a “stakeholder” in land use planning.

These stakeholder panels, where environmentalists engaged in interminable debates with full-time salaried employees from the logging and mining sectors were not a reward or concession by the government. They were a demobilization campaign. First, they absorbed as many volunteer hours as the movement could throw at them. Time and money that would otherwise be invested in public campaigning, lawsuits, civil disobedience, rallies, running in elections and other forms of witnessing and organizing was systematically diverted into an endless series of meetings. The conclusions of these meetings, then, were conferred additional legitimacy; they had the stamp of approval of the environmental groups that participated, even though most of their conclusions were either pre-determined by Harcourt’s cabinet or subsequently modified by it.

Most perniciously, logging of the most hotly-contested areas continued while these panels met about their fate. More clear-headed environmental leaders saw the government’s tactics for what they were and called the strategy “talk and log,” because Harcourt’s hope was that by the time you finished talking about a place, it would already have been logged. You see: it turns out that the best way to stop citizens from mobilizing to stop something bad in their community is to absorb them in labour-intensive, yet toothless public consultation processes. That insight and their continued ability to sucker otherwise clear-headed activists into these processes keeps parties like the 1990s NDP and present-day Vision Vancouver relevant — they deliver something valuable to corporate elites more effectively than any conservative party could: a demobilized citizenry.

In order for Vision’s “talk and demolish” or “talk and evict” scheme to work, it is crucial for the city government to increase people’s enthusiasm for and involvement in local area planning processes. Without housing and neighbourhood activists absorbed in consultation, we might see the kind of audacious activism that characterized resistance to Vancouver’s late 90s demolition bonanza, when seniors in my neighbourhood, like Betty Tangye, broke into construction sites and sabotaged equipment. To keep the next generation of Tangyes from joining groups like the Mainlander, the city needs to provide an infinite supply of stackable, padded metal chairs, finger sandwiches, coffee, felt markers, flip charts and trained facilitators of small break-out groups, along with a reasonably convincing narrative for participating. Otherwise, the mass renoviction of tens of thousands of low- and middle-income Vancouverites might not proceed so smoothly.

While not just the term but the concept of “talk and log” has tragically faded from the activist left’s political lexicon, I would be stunned if the Vision members of council had the same degree of amnesia. Of the two smartest, most talented members of council, one was a key operative in the governments that honed talk and log as a strategy in the 1990s; another was one of its sharpest critics. They understand exactly what they are doing.

Vision Vancouver has received the enthusiastic financial support of the city’s developers not simply because the party’s policies are acceptable to them but because a Vision government can deliver better than any conservative regime when it comes to demobilizing and effectively silencing those who might stand in the way of their systematic destruction of an affordable, mixed-income city. All this consultation, all this planning is not a concession to progressives; it is a method of greasing the wheels for development.

Of course, once those wheels are fully greased, Vision councilors, with their trade union and environmental movement ties, will find that they, like the community activists they have hornswoggled into their non-binding consultation processes, have become dispensable. For just as our current civic government plays to the worst impulses in community activists, vanity, self-importance, desire for attention and belief that they know better than others, they themselves are being hoodwinked in exactly the same way by the real masters of the city into doing dirty work that nobody else is qualified to do.

Political Geography of Community – Part 1: Why the Left’s Love Affair with Neighbourhood Empowerment Must End

The first election campaign on which I ever worked was Harry Rankin’s 1986 campaign to become mayor of Vancouver. Rankin, a bona fide socialist, prohibited from entering the US due to his communist sympathies, ran a polarizing, brutally honest campaign that talked about how renters, poor people and residents East Vancouver had been receiving a raw deal under both the NPA and the beta version of Vision Vancouver, TEAM (The Electors’ Action Movement).

Neither in that election nor as a city councilor did Rankin shy away from the geography of inequality in Vancouver – the Downtown Eastside was in desperate need of help; East Vancouver was underserviced. But he also didn’t do what successive generations on the Vancouver left have mistakenly done: worship neighbourhoods. Rankin, especially when I got to know him at a more personal level in the 1990s, was not just unmoved by the fruits of the 1970s New Left and its rhetoric, for instance, of neighbourhood empowerment; he was deeply suspicious.

In 1992, when I first entered Vancouver civic politics as a candidate, I ran against a very different COPE than the one for which I had worked in 1986. The party was running on the slogan “It’s About Neighbourhoods,” its implicit slogan in every campaign since. In the twenty years since, the party has increasingly become a caricature of the New Left ideas that Rankin disdained and “empowering neighbourhoods” has become its raison d’être.

So what, is wrong with empowering neighbourhoods? Doesn’t everybody love apple pie?

Empowering neighbourhoods does pay immediate dividends for the Left because that is the language that is used when low- and middle-income people mobilize against gentrification; it is also the language that is used when environmentalists mobilize against unsustainable development. Perhaps this is why it seems like a good idea to legitimate the concept that the people who live right near a potential site of development or change should have special rights to modify or stop it, beyond those enjoyed the rest of the city’s residents.

And self-styled progressives feel extra secure because neighbourhood activists can be relied-upon to show up and advocate for measures to maintain the current “character of their community,” whatever its current aesthetics and income mix are. But usually, when we think about those community struggles, we picture Mount Pleasant or Commercial Drive. Given our sensibilities, it seems only right to empower people in those neighbourhoods to defend their character.

But somebody needs to explain to me why the it is such a good idea for the residents of Shaughnessy, MacKenzie Heights, Dunbar, Kerrisdale, West Point Grey, Coal Harbour, Southwest Marine and Yaletown to be as empowered as possible to maintain the character of their communities. Why should the permanent exclusion of the poor from these neighbourhoods be reimagined as a civic good?

We think that reifying neighbourhoods as self-governing entities is a means of combatting the suburbanization of poverty but the reverse is true – because it means gentrification cannot be undone. And given that the main means by which neighbourhoods are “empowered” is by participating in processes designed for wealthy, white collar people with flexible work hours, any neighbourhood that gentrifies will be far more empowered to defend its new status than it was to preserve its previous character.

And that costs us, not just as the urban dominoes fall and we lose mixed income neighbourhoods one after another but in direct wealth transfers from the poor to the rich. When the time came to create a rapid transit line in the 1980s, they ran Skytrain through Rankin’s yard on Victoria Drive. Cedar Cottage simply did not have the wealth to be as empowered as it needed to be to defend its character.

More than $100 million could have been saved in construction costs had we run the Canada Line at grade or elevated up the Cambie Boulevard, and even more had we used the pre-existing rail line that runs along Arbutus Street. But the residents of Shaughnessy are very empowered. In fact, their neighbourhood is so empowered that they got the rest of us to pay to bury the Canada Line to maintain the ritzy character of both the Cambie Boulevard and the Arbutus corridor. Our increased transit fares and higher taxes are a direct result of our having raised conservative, classist neighbourhood parochialism to an unassailable civic good.

Most troublingly, the doctrine of neighbourhood empowerment is part of the Left’s larger problem of cowardice. Because we are too afraid to appear anti-development, anti-corporate or, worse yet, engaging in what FoxNews terms “the politics of envy” or “class warfare,” we hide behind the empty rhetoric of community empowerment. Because we are afraid to stand up and oppose the environmental and social disaster wrought by capitalism, we endorse essentially conservative NIMBY organizations because they are more likely to share our anti-development agenda in the short term.

But we do so at our peril. While we like to talk about neighbourhood difference in terms of lifestyle, sexual politics or religious and ethnic diversity, those are not the main things that inscribe neighbourhood boundaries on our city. The prime determinant of where people live is their wealth. When we empower neighbourhoods to defend their character, the main thing we are doing is empowering the wealthy to exclude the less wealthy from their immediate vicinity, to etch the widening gap between rich and poor more deeply into our city’s soil.

The Left needs to oppose bad development decisions, not because neighbours don’t like them but because they are bad for our city, because they magnify inequality and destroy the environment.

If we want people to share our beliefs, we first must develop the courage to tell them what they actually are.