During my walk in Lisbon's Alfama district today, I saw a sobering sign that said "No to Gentrification" in Portuguese. Gentrification is a process of "renovation of deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of the influx of more affluent residents... a common and controversial topic in politics and in urban planning." Let's dissect why I stopped to look at the sign longer than I stopped to look at the monument nearby, shall we?
To start off, I'll give you an example of what gentrification is. In Toronto, lower-class neighborhoods have been kicked out of regions because rich foreigners or corporations buy up large swaths of land and force lower classes to leave. Real estate in downtown Toronto is impossibly priced, and increasingly only accessible to the very wealthy. Lower-class people don't really have a choice to stay where they've always stayed, due to anything from new building regulations to government tax pressures. Sometimes, new housing is offered to lower class residents as an incentive for them to leave. Although this may appear fair at the onset, the housing offered is often located on the outskirts of town in places that aren't connected to main metro lines. This means jobs need to change, habits need to change, and city regions once called "home" by lower class residents are rarely visited again. Of course, this is no accident. It happens with the goal of "beautifying" cities. Expensive boutiques pop up. Millionaire mansions are built. But the people whose families have lived somewhere for years are silently banished without another word.
This same phenomenon is happening all over the world. One great example is Rio during the Brazilian Olympics... do a Google search for examples. Gentrification can be seen in Nigerian cities, make-shift towns in South Africa ("Not In My Neighborhhood" is a GREAT documentary on that), but even in small towns in rural Vermont that are trying to attract foreign income.
Mass tourism leads to gentrification. Generally speaking, when tourists arrive in an area, the price of living shoots up. Although tourists with foreign sources of income can afford to take a trip to Cancun, Mexico, for example, internationally-run resorts are only accessible for some (aka not for locals). Food prices increase, government ministries forcefully grab once "public" land that wasn't of much interest before, and soon there is no place for lower-class neighborhoods to go but away from the coast. Isn't it strange that English is spoken in Cancun before Spanish? It didn't used to be this way.
We've all heard the argument that "jobs brought in by multinationals are good for the local economy!" but this argument is, with all due respect, bullshit. Most tourist resorts are foreign-based, meaning tourist income is often funneled into the resorts and out to the United States where these resorts have their headquarters. Additionally, multinationals often have special agreements with governments so they don't have to pay regular taxes to benefit the local population. Supermarket chains where tourists do their shopping follow the same story, with the majority of income heading back to the Global North. The few restaurants that aren't owned or influenced by Americans in Cancun often belong to the elite Mexican class who benefit from privatization. Although yes, one could argue that local people "are luckily afforded the chance to work at resorts!" (vomit), this argument is completely invalid. Minimum wages are controlled by government elites, who benefit just as much as corporate leaders when wages are low. I spoke to a man at the Sheraton Resort in Cancun who told me that while foreign-standard pay is offered to foreigners (aka Americans earning American wages), the majority of Mexican employees make minimum wage or below since authorities turn a blind eye. This man, a private taxi driver, made $30 a day after working for 12 hours. With food prices on the rise thanks to tourists, transportation prices on the rise thanks to tourists, and limited public spaces, $3.60 per hour is a starving wage for the person working at the resort spa giving you towels.
I hadn't read about gentrification in Europe, but this graffiti was a much needed wake-up call. Nobody needs to understand Portuguese to guess why the person who wrote "No to Gentrification," seen below, is frustrated.
And as a tourist in Lisbon, I'm part of the problem.
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