How Austin and Vancouver Adopt Surveillance Strategies During Gentrification
Gentrification has shifted from the periphery to the forefront of global consciousness, becoming a pervasive topic in both academic and informal discourse. Some make the argument that gentrification is genocide, though I tend to disagree, in part because I agree with these tweets. While gentrification is embedded in systems of violence, equating it to genocide would be unfair to Indigenous populations that are proactively being forced from their homelands.
But I do believe that the surveillance methods of gentrification should be a growing concern and a part of national discourse, as they can harm and subjugate marginalized folks. I have had a growing interest in gentrification because I grew up in Austin, Texas, and my transition to Canada to attend graduate school showed me how gentrification and its propagation of surveillance tools are used to uphold neoliberalism and capitalism. I saw a globalized assault on marginalized communities when I traveled 1600 miles from Austin to see the “angelic” Canada carrying out similar tactics of surveillance, but in a different neoliberal regime.
In 2015, I worked as a researcher at the University of Texas’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis in Austin. While there, I conducted qualitative interviews with Black and Latinx residents of East Austin who had lived in the area since 1999 or earlier to investigate why, over the course of 2000 – 2010, Austin saw a 442 percent increase in the number of white residents, a 33 percent decrease in Latinx residents, and a 60 percent decrease in Black residents. Respondents were asked to grade, on a scale from one to four, the following variables: access to key neighbourhood amenities; their relationship to neighbours, police, and local businesses; and the portion of their income spent on mortgage payments (or rent) and property taxes.
There was one quote from a resident that has thoroughly stuck with me: “they care more about dogs than they do people here.” Austin has a long legacy of segregation and gentrification. East Austin in particular has a nuanced history: the City Plan of 1928 segregated Black folks into one side of the city, which they referred to as the “Negro District.” They did this by placing all the facilities for Black folks onto East Avenue and making access to utilities contingent on their residence in an East Austin home. This constituted the area east of the physical divisor, Interstate 35, which sprawls through the middle of the city. This was a method of embedding geographical segregation into the social fabric of Austin. There was never a place for Black folks in this city to continue living with a legacy to their wealth.
There was one quote from a resident that has thoroughly stuck with me: “they care more about dogs than they do people here.”
During my interviews, I found that residents were cognizant that surveillance was part of the deal if they wanted to reside in East Austin. One resident spoke about how prospective white homebuyers would drive up and down the streets and approach residents about purchasing their homes which were not marked for sale, insultingly offering a few hundred thousand dollars for property that is worth much more. Some prospective buyers would be successful in purchasing homes because residents could not continue paying the rising property taxes, which are a driving force in the displacement of Black and Latinx folks to surrounding areas of Austin, such as Pflugerville, Georgetown, and Round Rock.
For renters, landlords have been instituting technologies like Tenant Assured to scan the social media accounts of potential tenants and determine whether they have traits deemed suitable by the technology. The breadth of scrutiny includes conversation threads and contact lists. Forget that social media is not an accurate representation of potential tenants—these algorithms are exclusionary of individuals who are trans, in hiding, not up-to-date on social media, and non-English speaking. Algorithms are a dangerous way to gauge the “personality rates” or “probability that rent will be paid consistently.” This is surveillance that uses proxies for race, gender, and income to determine the capability of potential tenants.
Even areas of “fun” are surveilled. Sixth Street is a site of mass partying and bar hopping, with students parading through the closed-off streets. The clubs in this area are plastered with makeshift signs that list a gratuitous dress code: “No Jordans,” “No Polos,” “No Grills.” They use clothing as a scapegoat for race, and hang signs gloating about it. Police officers ride large horses, surveying the street and using their authority and height to regulate the Black and brown folks who are merely enjoying themselves. Just this year, Aquantis Griffin, a Black man, was killed by police officers on Sixth Street.
I imagined that Canadian cities would be free of the issues I explored in Austin. Then I started investigating the angel-complex that Canada conforms to: comparing itself to the United States in order to cast aside the human rights violations that are happening at home. I used to associate Vancouver with the narratives many of my friends had; of hikes, family-friendly communities, proper bike lanes, and athletic bliss. When I researched the city, I realized that Vancouver overshadows its institutionalized racism with a litany of environmental allures.
Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES) is a site of mass gentrification, with the 1960s marking urban renewal. The Gastown Riots occurred in 1971 as a response to drug raids in the area, ultimately leading to the arrest of seventy-nine people. The DTES is considered one of the lowest income areas in Canada, and the policing of the area reminds residents that they are monitored: “the DTES is the only district in the city with its own specialized (and filmed for reality TV) Beat Enforcement Team.” You can watch a video of the absurdity here. There have been aggressive sweeps for criminal activity including jaywalking, loitering, and other non-violent offences. The Vancouver Media Co-op writes that “a year-end performance report shows that officers issued 467 tickets for violations of the Safe Streets Act in 2008, compared to 202 tickets in 2007.”
These sweeps were especially pertinent during the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. The Assistance to Shelter Act was passed in 2009, which gave police the power to force houseless individuals into shelters during extreme weather conditions, effectively hiding them from Olympics spectators and tourists.
The police’s citation of non-violent offences disproportionately impacts marginalized and low-income individuals, since those unable to pay fines could be subject to criminalization and jail time. Besides being detrimental to the livelihood of those residents, this is also a silly waste of resources. The hyper-surveillance of the DTES and the adjudication of small offences as crimes is a way of imposing self-surveillance on marginalized people, who are less likely to enter spaces that may inherently criminalize them for their existence.
One of the most worrying methods of surveillance carried out in Vancouver is the mounting presence and social approval of “poor doors.” A poor door is a separate, segregated entrance in residential buildings intended for those who receive affordable housing. I thought overt segregation was over years ago, but I spoke too soon. A recent article reported that one development is even aiming to institute separate child play areas.
There is a surface-level appearance of class cohesion because residents of different income levels reside within one structure together, but there is an underlying inequity when there is a separation, and thus segregation, of classes.
These separation methods are an omnipresent reminder that forces individuals to self-surveil. People of different income levels no longer have to share a physical space, which can be potential sites of collective politics and community building. The argument for these poor doors is that tenants do not have to face the financial burden of paying for separate facilities; they just have to live without them. However, this is exactly what perpetuates class divisions. There is a surface-level appearance of class cohesion because residents of different income levels reside within one structure together, but there is an underlying inequity when there is a separation, and thus segregation, of classes.
A Carnegie Community Action Project report also states that there are “zones of exclusion” in Vancouver that are now flooded with surveillance, barring marginalized folks from drinking or shopping in certain areas. The report explains how businesses set prices that only allow for economic participation from higher income groups, fundamentally excluding everyone else: “Only those with status, privilege and wealth can enter; all others are carefully watched, interrogated, and criminalized.” Businesses become sites where criminality can be assumed and acted upon.
I am saddened by the underbelly of self-surveillance, hyper-surveillance, and mass surveillance that happens when you enter spaces that used to be yours. In both Austin and Vancouver, racialized individuals are forced to self-monitor to determine whether they should even bother stepping into spaces, whether they’ll be marked as a resident or surveilled as an Other. These cities both operate under a guise of being neoliberal oases, when in reality, that guise allows them to subjugate racialized folks without checks or interrogation. This is what I fear—no one questioning the marking of individuals as being a part or apart. You just watch your actions because you don’t know who else is watching. Jeremy Bentham said, “(s)he is seen, but does not see; (s)he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.” These are the marginalized bodies during the process of gentrification, subjects susceptible to paranoia and subjugation.