Gentrify or ‘Gently Cry'? - The Heart-Wrenching Truth of Gentrification

It was in the Old Biscuit Mill, ironically, located in lower Woodstock, where I became acutely aware that gentrification had different implications to others than it did for me. In conversation with a friend, I commented on the manner in which it ‘excludes’ and in many ways is problematic. When he responded, in that ever "loving", self-loathing way, saying that, gentrification was more about economic development but, yes, he "understood" - "man, white people are a problem." Firstly, I felt like I had not been actually listened to or engaged with, because he simply diverted from the point at hand. Secondly, clearly the implications of gentrification were only fancy buildings and trendy eateries to this white man. I am not saying that gentrification does not have merits, but unless one can afford to engage in the activities presented or you pose a threat to the "look", well then say goodbye to the feeling of inclusion and access.

 

Gentrification is a complex issue, but today I seek to highlight a facet of it that I think is important. This issue breaks off into multiple branches, but within South Africa, it has started to take neo-liberal roots. As a result, to attempt to build the economy perhaps, there can be little doubt of its exclusion. Looking at the definition provided by Visser and Kotze, in their article "The State and New-build Gentrification in Central Cape Town", they state, “gentrification is a powerful and often rapid process which plays an important role in refashioning the physical, economic and social characteristics of central-city areas." The key word is "powerful." The relationships that exist through gentrification are stratified and, as per usual, the poor are made to reside at the bottom. They also point to the middle-class and the manner in which areas are reclaimed for this class with those in lower factions pushed out and sometimes left homeless.

 

When Lorna Thompson speaks about the Biscuit Mill looking "white", from her makeshift store opposite it, in The Guardian interview, she is speaking to the exclusionary manifestations that gentrification can create. An area in which she views she cannot exist as a person and shopkeeper without conforming to certain expectations that the Biscuit Mill space creates. This also stems from the manner in which she has seen gentrification occur within the place she calls home. To her, the wealthy have come and forced people out of their businesses and homes. Rates have increased and overall it has become difficult for people to continue to stay in Woodstock. Businesses that have been there for many years have closed and people have had to leave their homes behind.

 

This economic exclusion is an obvious consequence of gentrification. Then, we can only guess by the distribution of wealth within South Africa who is able to afford to move into the new apartment buildings and who can afford to sit in the cafes. There can be little doubt that Cape Town is a city where racial relations relate to spatial relations. Who can and cannot exist in certain spaces, and who lives in which area is closely related to apartheid. But, again, gentrification is all about the power generated by money. Another site within Cape Town that rates have affected has been residents is Bo-Kaap. Rates had increased from R400 to R2500. Many have moved from their homes, as in Woodstock, because of the unbearable amounts they were forced to pay. With foreign tourists being able to buy properties at a steal of a price, due to the exchange rate, there has been little to stop them. As pointed out by The Guardian, investors buying properties, as in Woodstock, are increasing the rent to a point that residents who have stayed there for decades cannot afford them and are forced to relocate - often to create new apartments to rent. This stems from the government wishing to grow the economy and promote foreign investment in the city, as Visser and Koetze point out, to compete in the global market.

 

People are left fearful of whether they are next in line to be evicted, but they are also fearful of their cultural heritage and tradition being preserved. The extent to which investment has been prioritized is evident with the potential sale of a portion of the Tana Baru cemetery, which was  cancelled. This issue is fraught with complexities, as some wish to sell the land because of their own financial situations, but other family members see this as immoral, which is evident with the Doutie Family. Tana Baru is the first official Muslim cemetery to be recognized in South Africa where the first Muslims during the Dutch Colonial period were buried. Yet, here the investors saw no problem in claiming this land for new apartments - these buried bodies becoming commodified. 

Gentrification is full of potential for economic gain, but it rests on the privilege of the middle-class and extremely wealthy. When we view gentrification as a solely good thing, it comes from a place of privilege. It is time we question why neo-liberal politics is cropping up so often. I suppose, on the surface, there is nothing wrong with enjoying amenities that one may find within these neighborhoods. But, the way I see it, we have a duty to hold those in power accountable and to question policies that allow for people to be displaced from the only places they have called home - to question the spaces we so often frequent.