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Leslie Kern

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Leslie Kern on the forces moulding urban change

Leslie Kern used to live in my old neighbourhood in Toronto’s West End. The Junction – named after the intersecting railroads that define the area’s boundaries – no longer looks anything like it did when Kern moved there in 2000, or even when I arrived 13 years later. A formerly rough-and-tumble area where you were warned not to walk alone at night has transformed over time into a family-friendly neighbourhood where charming cafés and clothing boutiques have replaced empty storefronts. In 2009, the New York Times wrote a piece about the Junction’s journey from “Skid Row to Hip,” much to the amusement of many locals. Even since I left the Junction a year ago, many of those restored buildings have been torn down to make way for massive condo developments.

The Junction is just one example in Kern’s new book, Gentrification Is Inevitable and Other Lies (published this month by Between the Lines), which breaks down several common misconceptions around urban gentrification to look at the fundamental reasons why neighbourhoods change, often displacing many of their original citizens in the process. She travels from Toronto to Vancouver, New York, London, and Paris, finding commonalities with what is happening in her old stomping grounds and weaving her own experiences and observations with in-depth research.

Kern now lives in the charming town of Sackville, New Brunswick, where she is an associate professor of geography and environment and women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University. The length of her job title hints at all the intersecting ways she approaches urban studies, as in her previous book, 2019’s Feminist City: A Field Guide, also published by Between the Lines in Canada. (Feminist City has been published in other English-language markets by Verso, and, so far, rights to 12 foreign language translations have also been sold. Verso is also simultaneously publishing Gentrification, and a number of foreign language rights have been sold for the new book.)

The first time Kern began to connect gentrification and gender issues was in the early 2000s, during one of Toronto’s many condo booms. It was the era of Sex and the City, when many of these construction projects were being promoted to a new generation of cosmopolitan-sipping women aspiring to the kind of freedom and independence epitomized by the popular TV show’s main characters. 

“As a women’s and gender studies PhD student, I wondered why they were being so aggressively marketed to, which brought me into the urban studies world and got me asking even bigger questions about women’s lives in the city,” Kern says.

In Gentrification Is Inevitable, Kern expands her scope by looking at the major forces behind gentrification – colonialism, racism, ageism, ableism, and sexism – all of which have led to the current affordable housing crisis that plagues urban centres across Canada and elsewhere. Each chapter takes one common belief, such as the idea that gentrification is about money or class, and dissects how it came to be.

Kern says the structure of the book evolved over time. “I started out presenting what I saw as the main themes in gentrification research, but I knew I wanted to critique them. As I was writing and revising, it made sense to present all of those perspectives as stories,” she says. “It seemed to work as a way to break down complicated literature and also, hopefully, to connect with readers who have probably heard at least one or two of these kinds of explanations for gentrification.”

One common belief that Kern dispels is that artists, students, queer communities, and other groups that lack major economic capital and are looking for affordable rent are somehow responsible for widespread displacement in neighbourhoods like the Junction.  

“They don’t have the financial power to enact what we see today especially, this large-scale gentrification with massive developments and luxury housing and retail and so on,” says Kern. “The media have identified them as the first wave of gentrifiers, and they have been somewhat demonized. But I think we have to really pay attention to the more powerful forces of the state and the corporate developers who are transforming things on a much larger scale with much harsher impacts on low-income communities.”

Gentrification Is Inevitable is an accessible read thanks to Kern’s storytelling skills and her conscious intent to write for a broad audience outside of academia. Following a long feminist tradition that the personal is political, “I was absolutely imagining it as a book for anyone who lives in cities, cares about cities, who is interested in questions of gender and power, and how that might play out,” she says.

“I offer that as an entry point, and also to help the audience understand who I am, and acknowledge that I’m only offering a partial perspective. I’m not the universal truth-teller about any of these things. Here’s what I observed from my position,” she says. “An important commitment to me for these books is that anybody should be able to pick them up and learn something.”

Kern understands that many people feel a sense of inevitable defeat once the first Starbucks sign goes up in a neighbourhood (an oft-invoked portent of gentrification), which is why she ends her book with chapters that dispel the idea that urban displacement is inevitable, using examples of successful grassroots pushbacks in cities such as Montreal and Buffalo, New York.

“We don’t tend to hear those stories as often. And when we look for solutions to really complicated things, we can’t always point to, ‘Okay, that was the strategy that completely fixed the problem,’ ” Kern says. “We’re not going to find that. But we need to be attuned to tactics that slow things down, that make it more difficult for developers to take over whole neighbourhoods, that do give communities more say and that help keep people in their homes for longer periods of time. If we try to find the perfect magic solutions, we’re going to be ignoring a whole range of ways that communities are pushing back.”