The Future of Cities Series: Why and When Gentrification Fail

For those who follow my blog, you know me as a freelance graphic designer and entrepreneur. Rarely have I donned my cap as an urban planner on any of my earlier posts; with a few exceptions like the one on Airbnb’s next move (story here). A slightly ambitious project this time around, where I’ll explore aspects of urban planning and urban design under the topics, ‘The Future of Cities’. I have absolutely no idea how long this series will last, but it’s definitely a subject worth exploring. Maybe I’ll even try to get a few other urban planners and urban designers involved in the discussion. We’ll see. For now though, I’ll start by looking at one “solution” that has bothered me throughout my decade-long career as an urban planner and consultant — gentrification.

What is gentrification? Well, depending on who you ask, they might tell you it’s the best thing to ever happen to any neighbourhood or city. And you know what; they’d be partly right, but not completely.

“Gentrification is a process of renovation and revival of deteriorated urban neighbourhoods with influx of more affluent residents, which results in increased property values and the displacing of lower-income families and small businesses.” – Wikipedia

It sounds spectacular for the housing and commercial developers, hipsters, and investors, but one of the greatest downside to gentrification is what it does to the character of a neighbourhood or city.

Put simply, gentrification is a lot like “Out with the old, in with the new!” approach to urban planning. Where planning fails to cater to what’s most important and that is preserving the character of a place.

We’ve all seen it happen to famous neighbourhoods like Harlem (New York City). A largely African-American neighbourhood that emerged from 1920s and 30s America to drive the cultural movement — the “Harlem Renaissance” that gave the world poetry, music, art, dance, beauty. Harlem’s had a tumultuous history that saw its people face poverty, violence, and suffering. Flash-forward to present, Harlem has evolved into high-end everything — housing, yoga studios, restaurants, coffee shops, and so on. It’s become the cookie-cutter approach to gentrification.

While this may seem like a good thing and in many ways, and it is, the downside to all this high-end lifestyle is that it can only be given by those from the outside. Those who were the original residents, whose families have spent decades in those neighbourhoods are quickly or slowly finding themselves on their way out. It’s just how the real estate market works. Fancy things mean everything else around it goes up in price. This spells great for the developers, politicians, and technocrats, but we can see who ends up the biggest losers. This is where gentrification fails.

Another classic example is the High Line project, again in New York City. It’s a fantastic project that exhibits how we can review derelict infrastructure and transform them into shiny new things and spaces to be enjoyed and savoured. In this case over six million people a year visit this space. In summary, the High Line project was an iconic railway-turned-park that has helped to catapult “a new era of landscape design”, according to one article.

Personally, the only failure of projects like High Line is not taking the steps to protect the future of the original residents in the surrounding neighbourhoods. There should always be the ambition to keep the character and authenticity of a place.

The failure of gentrification stems from not designing neighbourhoods and cities around people and their existing and future needs. Urban planning and urban design should encourage balance and equity where practical.

Here in Toronto, there has been pockets of gentrification throughout at least 25% of city in areas like South Riverdale/Leslieville, Trinity Bellwoods, the Junction, and St. James Town. Again, it’s more of the same — house prices skyrocketing (by 140 per cent), mom-and-pop eateries making way for new condominiums, little improvement in average household salaries for those at the bottom, Starbucks, restaurants, and bars (and maybe a yoga studio here and there). There’s still inequity and at the end of the day, those who are poor still get displaced by those with salaries between $65K to $99.5K.

From my previous urban planning experiences, it is tantamount that every city is a place to live, work, learn, and play. What pushes people out of a neighbourhood experiencing gentrification are increased prices and stagnant salaries. The lack of disposable income becomes a factor that works against them. The ideal scenario ought to be on that encourages employment opportunities and services within a commutable radius. Gentrification should be about elevating people’s lives and not just about generating profit.

When it comes to gentrification, here’s what should happen:

1. Engage multi-stakeholders (neighbourhoods, NGOs, politicians, developers) using workshops, vox populi, surveys, etc. and find out what their visions are for the future of their neighbourhood.

2. Get everyone to create the future they’ve envisioned using a multi-day design charrette with the help of urban designers, city planners, and architects. Gather all the pens, pencils, coloured markers and crayons, and paper you can find. It’s guaranteed to produce design ideas for master plans, artist renderings, and a brief or comprehensive report that can be disseminated to the public.

3. Focus on creating mixed-use developments with an emphasis on diverse housing solutions for those at the lower-end of the salary scale (working class). The great thing about design is experimentation. Costs can be driven down with alternate construction methods, building materials, and finishes (as well as by significant demand).

4. Attract investors by using derelict buildings, tax breaks, and other incentives on the contingency that they create employment opportunities for qualified locals.

5. Policy should then be introduced to promote neighbourhood preservation as new buildings are constructed; for e.g. mom-and-pop restaurants juxtaposed with “hip and trendy” restaurants.

The important thing leading up to and during gentrification is to consider people as people and not as statistics from a census. View neighbourhoods as neighbourhoods and not as prime real estate opportunities to drive prices upwards just to cash in on a bubble susceptible to bursting. Finally, every city should engage both its internal and external stakeholders. It is only through public-private participation and creative collaboration can sustainable results be achieved.

Nollywood’s Lagos Brings ‘The Wedding Party’ to the 6ix’s TIFF

You’re invited to the wedding of the year! Lagos’s filmmakers brought fun, laughter, energy (A LOT), vibrant colours, music, dancing, and love with them to the opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival (www.tiff.net) with the world premiere of ‘The Wedding Party’. It also didn’t hurt to get some help from Selma’s David Oyelowo (pronounced – “oh-yellow-oh”) who got the audience pumped up! Whether you were standing in line that wrapped around buildings [as I did] or walking the red carpet, the energy, the experience, and the atmosphere was nonetheless equally intoxicating.

This year’s TIFF will showcase 296 features and 101 shorts played across 28 screens with over 32,320 minutes of film from 80-plus countries (including Nigeria). [Phew!]

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Kemi Adetiba (at podium), known more for her work in music videos and shorts, makes her directorial debut at TIFF | Image credit: Phil Rodriques

The cinema of Nigeria, more popularly called Nollywood, has an impressive legacy in film that goes as far back as the late 19 century and has gone through four eras including the Golden Age. Let’s fast-forward to the present in the era dubbed the New Nigerian Cinema that kicked off in the 2000s, emerging as a force to be reckoned with government support valued at over US$220 million. Nollywood has since become the third most valuable film industry in the world (just behind Hollywood and Bollywood) and in 2014 was worth US$5.1 billion.

Which brings us back to ‘The Wedding Party’ and as the name suggests is a romantic comedy (romcom) film centered on an elaborate Nigerian wedding between Dunni, an art gallery owner and her fiancé Dozie, the son of a magnate. We get a sense of each character as the film has some a good opening couple of scenes, which setups the story and gives us a glimpse of what’s to come. The opening shot of the film takes you on a ride through picturesque Lagos, Nigeria that looked and felt a lot to me like my own country (Jamaica). I was already at ease by the sights and sounds and sank further into the red comfy theatre seats. It’s a party onscreen and it’s a party in the theatre!

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A scene from the wedding reception | Source: TIFF

Everyone’s enjoying themselves and the moviegoers, especially the Nigerians are cheering for almost everything like the montage captures traditional food being served at the wedding reception. The film wastes no time escalating into pure Lagosian chaos thanks to it’s a talented ensemble cast. They’re some of  the biggest names and raising stars in Nigeria’s cinema and under the direction of the film’s first-time feature film director Kemi Adetiba, display great chemistry, depth, range, and comedic timing (as-needed) in their delivery.

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The Wedding Party stars Banky Wellington (Dozie/Groom) and Adesua Etomi (Dunni/Bride) | Source: The Wedding Party

I was lucky enough to be among those viewers seeing the film (The Wedding Party) for the very first time anywhere in the world. I even got tickets for reserved seating (pretty exciting) thanks to my friend, Meg Sethi (President | Founder) and her Team EPR (Evolution Public Relations), who was the publicist for the movie and red carpet event. Not only was I seated about 10 rows from the screen, but the cast and director of the film were seated three rows behind me. My first thought was, “I can’t imagine what it must feel like for them to be seeing themselves onscreen in this project.” This was quickly answered by their cheers and laughter as the film quickly got underway.

There’s dancing. Lots and lots of dancing and throughout the film the infectious rhythms will leave your feet enthusiastically choreographing their own moves. Although, the entire film takes place in one day, we get tremendous glimpses and insight into the relationship shared between Dozie and Dunni from their best friends and family. As we watch their dynamic play out before us, there’s an authentic chemistry between both actor and actress, particularly when Dunni is bombarded with a few embarrassing moments, some involving Dozie’s ex-girlfriend.

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The cast, director, and executive producer of The Wedding Party take questions during a Q&A session | Image Credit: Phil Rodriques

The Wedding Party is jam-packed with funny one-liners, uninvited guests, that ONE friend we wish we didn’t have, and touching moments that combine to make one thrilling roller coaster ride.  It’s brightly coloured sets and costumes and rip-roaring pace make it all worth it at the end. The film runs for all of 110 minutes, but when you’re immersed into the film, you’ll barely notice. You’re left satisfied to have taken part in such a spectacular culture. I give the movie a solid 8 out of 10.

The Wedding Party stars Banky Wellington (Dozie/Groom) and Adesua Etomi (Dunni/Bride) who play the lead characters with their supporting cast that include Richard Mofe-Damijo (Felix Onwuka), Iretiola Doyle (Obianuju Onwuka), Atunyota Akpobome (Bamidele Coker), Sola Sobowale (Tunuade Coker), Somkele Iyamah-Idhalama, and Olusola Abiodun Sobowale with Executive Producer Mo Abudu and Cinematographer Akpevbe Ododoru.

Festival tickets are on sale now for today’s showing (Friday, September 9th) with a third showing slated for Sunday, September 18th at the Scotiabank Theatre Toronto. It’s rated 14A, suitable for viewing by persons 14 years of age or older. Bring some friends and family or go as a date night. I promise you, it’s the most fun you’ll have at TIFF!

Also, be sure to check of the film fest’s cinematic smorgasbord ranging from action and adventure to experimental and the avant-garde.

Stories by Alice Munro Brought to Life on Toronto Stage with a Fresh Interpretation

Today was the first time I had ever heard the name Alice Munro after being invited to see a theatrical performance of some of her work. In my preparation for what was the unknown, I ended up going on Google to try and learn more about her. I found out she is both a celebrated and popular Canadian author who has mastered writing short-stories. She is also the 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature; pretty impressive accomplishment when you consider this award has only been given to novelists. Munro’s managed to have produced 14 short-story collections published starting from 1968 with “Dance of the Happy Shades” and as late as 2012 with “Dear Life”. Her other works include “The Moons of Jupiter” (1982), “Open Secrets” (1994) and “Runaway” (2004).

The talented short-story master, Alice Munro
The talented short-story master, Alice Munro

So how do you pay homage to the stellar work of such a prolific storyteller? You allow Word for Word (a program of Z Space) to perform some of Alice Munro’s work, well “word for word”. It’s an interesting approach to bringing a story to life as there is no involvement of an adaptation for the theatrical presentation; rather there’s a delivery that takes your mind 10 or 15 minutes to wrap itself around. It feels a lot like reading a story aloud while doing all the voices and emotions of each character on your own, only they manage to do it a hundred times better. I’ll admit that at first I just imagined some people sitting on stools reading excerpts from a book.

The experience itself really feels like actors playing narrators playing actors. In two of Alice Munro’s short-stories, “The Office” and “Dolly” directed by Joel Mullennix, the audience gets introduced to several characters all played by five very talented performers that includes:

  • Sheila Balter
  • Jeri Lynn Cohen
  • Susan Harloe
  • Paul Finnocchiaro
  • Haword Swain

There are instances when the role of ensemble is rotated and these actors take on at least two or three roles with ease. This could mean playing a mannequin in a storefront display to then transitioning into a waitress at a local restaurant.

Actors Paul Finocchiaro and Jeri Lynn Cohen in a promotional photograph for "The Office"
Actors Paul Finocchiaro and Jeri Lynn Cohen in a promotional photograph for “The Office”

There’s something indescribable when you watch both stories come alive before your very eyes, as each actor takes turn delivering word for word Alice’s writings. The precision of how each character moves through changing not only wardrobe, but also the simple props on stage is worthy of note. There’s a certain dance that seems to take place as both actors and props glide in and out of each scene. The believability is so intense that even a wooden bench is convincing as a motor vehicle. It’s a solid intimate and awe-inspiring two hours that goes by rather quickly, which means you’ll be having fun.

My best tip would definitely be to stick around for the Q&A that immediately follows the performance. It’s a fantastic opportunity to hear stories and commentary from Munro’s publisher and from the Word for Word cast members themselves. If I had to rate the overall experience on a scale of 1 to 10 (highest), I’d give it an eight (8). Kudos to the production team!

Actress Susan Harloe (in the foreground) is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Word for Word
Actress Susan Harloe (in the foreground) is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Word for Word

“Stories by Alice Munro” runs for four nights only, during April 16th to April 19th at the Isabel Bader Theatre, downtown on the campus of the University of Toronto, 93 Charles Street West (on South side). The play is an exclusive Toronto engagement brought to you by Sara Schwartz Geller Productions. There’s only two nights left April 18 SAT 8pm and April 19 SUN 2pm and 7pm. Grab your single or group rate tickets (via UofTtix) and some friends, sit back and relax and get ready to be transported on quite an interesting literary journey.

Herjavec Group Expands Into Europe with Acquisition of Sysec LTD

TORONTO, CANADA & LONDON, UK- FEBRUARY 3, 2015– Robert Herjavec, Founder and CEO of Herjavec Group and star of ABC’s Emmy Award-winning hit show Shark Tank, announces the acquisition of Sysec™, a leading IT security solutions provider headquartered in the United Kingdom and the 2014 McAfee EMEA Accredited Certified Engineer (ACE) Partner of the Year. Sysec specializes in information, identity and infrastructure security, offering managed, consulting and professional services to over 200 enterprise clients across the United Kingdom and Europe. Sysec is forecasted to achieve over $20 million in sales revenue for 2015 and has developed a reputation for outstanding technical engineering talent. By acquiring Sysec, Herjavec Group expands its presence in the European IT security market and is well positioned to service its growing multinational customer base.

The Sysec transaction accelerates Herjavec Group’s 3-year, $250 million expansion plan. “We started as a small Canadian firm and have grown exponentially over the past twelve years to 250 team members and $140 million in annual sales revenue,” says Herjavec. “We recognize that the threat of cybercrime is a global challenge and this acquisition provides the platform for Herjavec Group to support our clients overseas with exceptional, localized, managed services 24/7/365”

Sysec’s office in Reading, UK will now serve as Herjavec Group’s European headquarters. The firm will be rebranded as Herjavec Group and continue to expand its product and service offerings throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. Cris Pikes, Sysec’s Managing Director, who will lead Herjavec Group’s European expansion remarks, “Herjavec Group is a world-class information security organization that shares Sysec’s high-touch, customer-first approach. I am confident Herjavec Group will take our managed services practice to the next level.”

The acquisition facilitates Herjavec Group’s plans to complete its “follow-the-sun” technical support structure by developing a London-based Security Operations Centre (SOC) to complement the comprehensive support offered from its world-class, Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliant, Toronto-based SOC and its technical security centre in Las Vegas, Nevada. In addition, Herjavec Group expects to finalize construction of its Los Angeles, California SOC by close of Q1 2015.

“The work we do in enabling enterprises to be more secure has never had a greater focus on a global scale,” says Herjavec. “I am so pleased to embark on our expansion into Europe and welcome the Sysec team to Herjavec Group.”

About Herjavec Group
Dynamic IT entrepreneur Robert Herjavec founded Herjavec Group in 2003, and it quickly became one of North America’s fastest-growing technology companies, accelerating from $400K to $140 million in sales annually over 12 years. Herjavec Group delivers managed security services globally supported by a state-of-the-art, PCI compliant Security Operations Centre (SOC), operated 24/7/365 by certified security professionals. This expertise is coupled with a leadership position across a wide range of functions including compliance, risk management & incident response. Herjavec Group has offices globally including three headquarters in Toronto (Canada), New York City (USA) and Reading (United Kingdom).

For more information, visit www.herjavecgroup.com.

SOURCE The Herjavec Group