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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.

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