A café's broken windows reflect tensions over gentrification

One street has traditionally separated the haves and the have-nots in Kingston, Ontario. That is starting to change and not everyone is happy about it
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on April 5, 2018
a boarded up cafe in Kingston, Ontario
The Elm Café in Kingston had its windows broken four times in what many consider an anti-gentrification backlash. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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​KINGSTON — When masked vandals broke the windows of cafés and other shops along Hamilton’s Locke Street last month, it may have sounded familiar to residents of the Inner Harbour neighbourhood in Kingston. 

In September 2016, the owners of the Elm Café, which opened at the corner of Montreal and Charles streets just three months prior, woke up to find that one of the windows had been smashed. Logan McCartney and her husband Matthew were perturbed by the incident, but speculated it was the work of a “drunk teen on a dare.”

Then, a month later — and only days after the window had been replaced — the couple once again woke up to shards of glass: every one of the café’s windows had been broken. Logan McCartney told the Kingston Whig-Standard it looked like someone had used a hammer and struck the centre of each window. 

The McCartneys installed security cameras and took their time replacing the windows, staggering the repairs in an effort to deter any further vandalism. But before they could replace the final window, the café was attacked a third time in February 2017. And then a fourth time a month later, when McCartney was “a thousand months pregnant,” and getting fed up.

“I do feel like it was targeted, with a more meaningful agenda than just smashing windows for fun,” she says. 

Users on Reddit and Facebook speculated that there was a connection between the vandalism and gentrification in the area, a burning topic in the Inner Harbour community. McCartney says Kingston police never offered any information regarding motives. “But you can, and others did, make those assumptions based on how it was carried out.” Although no one has come forward to say the vandalism was motivated by anti-gentrification sentiment, McCartney — and neighbours who rallied to raise money for window repairs — came to believe it had been deliberately singled out as a symbol of change in the neighbourhood. 


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The sad irony, McCartney says, is that before the vandalism, there had been an “overwhelmingly positive response” to the café from neighbouring residents. The Elm Café’s vintage aesthetic, with its hardwood floors and antique Victorian-style chairs, offers an “indie” alternative to the many Tim Hortons found throughout the city. The owners and employees live in the neighbourhood, and use locally sourced ingredients to make their food. Two weeks after it first opened, the café played host to a concert as part of the Skeleton Park Arts Festival, a gesture of welcome to the Inner Harbour community. A coffee costs $2, tax included. 

“When we opened, the neighbourhood was waiting for something like that to open. They didn’t even know they wanted it until it existed,” she says. “Through the café, people have solidified a sense of community.”

But it’s possible some residents don’t share those warm feelings with the Elm Café. Insofar as it has become a symbol of gentrification in the neighbourhood, local real estate agent Mark Sinnett says he can understand why.

“We all gather there, but we don’t all gather there. It’s those of us with money who gather there and chat,” he says, speculating: “The window getting broken was a sign of the frustration with that new reality.”

Though the repeated acts of vandalism may have been intended to warn middle-class interlopers away from the Inner Harbour, they had the opposite effect: coming to the defence of the Elm Café became a cause célèbre uniting the area’s recent, relatively wealthy arrivals. 

A neighbourhood in transition

The Elm Café opened its doors in 2016 in a neighbourhood that had been changing for more than 30 years. Flanked by Princess Street to the south, Division Street to the west, Joseph to the north, and the Cataraqui River to the east, Kingston’s Inner Harbour was once a thriving industrial area, which was home to the many workers employed at local factories and docks.

But by the early 1970s, industries located along the Cataraqui River began to disappear, as did the families who relied on those industries to make a living. As a result, the demographics of the Inner Harbour shifted. Over the next few decades, the area — referred to derisively by some, and lovingly by others, as “north of Princess” — gained a reputation in the city for being a bit rough, exhibiting more poverty and petty crime than the area south of Princess Street. (For more on the history of the neighbourhood, see the Swamp Ward and Inner Harbour History Project.)

The area started to change again in the 1990s, when it was noticed by house-hunters who wanted to live close to downtown but were unable to afford a home in Sydenham Ward, just east of Queen’s University. According to a City of Kingston analysis of Statistics Canada data, the average family income in the Inner Harbour neighbourhood increased from $46,683 in 2005 to $68,125 in 2010.

Lawrence Van Wyngaarden, a landlord who started buying properties in the area more than 30 years ago, says the most radical changes have come in the last 10 years, as more professors, doctors and artists moved in.

Van Wyngaarden, who believes himself to be the biggest landlord in the neighbourhood, with almost 50 rental properties, says three townhouses that he paid roughly $130,000 each for five years ago had nearly doubled in value to an average of $275,000 when assessed by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation in 2017.

Sinnett, the real estate agent, has lived in the area for most of the last 30 years. He agrees that gentrification has been most dramatic in the last decade or so. “When I bought on Charles [Street] 13 years ago, people thought it wasn’t the best move,” he says. But now, “I’ve got profs living on either side of me. It’s an area where you’re seeing renovations on every second house. It’s the hottest real estate market in the city.”

But with rising property values came rising tension.

Neighbourhood watch

Beyond the Elm Café, another place where Inner Harbour residents gather to talk is the McBurney Park Neighbourhood Association Facebook page (McBurney Park is located within the Inner Harbour neighbourhood; as the site of Kingston’s primary burial ground until 1850, it also goes by the name of “Skeleton Park”). 

Alec Ross, who moved to the neighbourhood in 1994 and acts as administrator for the Facebook group, says it was initially created to connect a handful of parents with young children who wanted to get together for play dates and social events. In recent years, the group’s popularity has taken off.

“Now there are hundreds of people. We now have … Holy God, there’s 1,140 members,” Ross says in disbelief as he checks the page. “And there are 125 people who still want to join.”

As the group has grown, the forum has become less focused on planning social outings and is increasingly taking on the tenor of a “neighbourhood watch” group. Some members use it to warn others of perceived or real criminal activity in the area. In a post last December, a user warned the group about a “creeper” who appeared to be wandering the neighbourhood and looking in people’s windows. It set off a firestorm of comments — 432 of them in total. 

The “creeper” turned out to be a cable installer.

Ross believes the overreaction was a sign of a tense community. Threads warning of suspicious activity in the neighbourhood continue to pop up with frequency, which he believes is indicative of an “us versus them” mentality taking root among residents.

Former resident Meagan Crane says higher-income newcomers are bringing an atmosphere of surveillance to the neighbourhood. Crane had been living in Inner Harbour with her family since 2010, but left last year partly because she was feeling increasingly unwelcome.

“We originally moved to [the Inner Harbour] neighbourhood because it was a little more laid-back than some of the other neighbourhoods I’d been in. It was definitely more affordable. There were a lot of really great things happening,” she says.

But with two young kids, she and her husband wanted a bigger space, and the “skyrocketing” rents made it unaffordable for the couple to find something in the area. They were also tiring of an increasing sense of neighbour-on-neighbour scrutiny, which she says she was seeing almost daily on the neighbourhood association Facebook group.

“There was a constant monitoring and checking of people. And it seems to be mostly aimed at teaching people this ‘proper’ liberal etiquette. You didn’t used to get that,” she says. In years past, Crane says, “You didn’t always have people correcting others for perceived delinquent behaviour.”

Now, she says, “Neighbours are always up in your business, worrying about what others were doing.” 

And in an area that already had a significant police presence, Crane believes middle-class paranoia brought even more police to the neighbourhood, adding to the feeling that everyone was being watched. “It’s an attempt to protect property value that didn't used to be an issue,” she says. “This sense of ‘Well, I’ve paid a lot of money for this house, so I’m going to look out for my safety, and protect my investment.’ ” 

Rallying around a ‘tiny business’ 

After the third incident of vandalism in March 2017, a patron named Zane Whitfield launched a GoFundMe campaign to help the café owners. “All of this has been a huge, unexpected added expense for this new tiny business and its humble owners,” he wrote on the campaign page.

The campaign raised more than $6,500 in 24 hours, which covered the cost of repairs, and offset the cost of installing an electronic shutter on the storefront windows.

Sinnett — who says he sometimes feels guilty about the role he may have played in gentrification, as a real estate agent —  wonders whether the fundraising to repair the windows and install protective shutters at the Elm Café may have actually added to the friction between the longtime residents and the gentrifiers. While many of the “newcomers” to the neighbourhood express guilt over gentrification, he questions what their donations reveal about their deeper sympathies.

“Just look at the speed with which money was raised,” Sinnett says. “If I were someone who already felt like I was being pushed out, I’d be thinking, ‘Look at these rich folks who can [donate to the Elm Café,] but I can’t afford to put food on the table.’ I think people with less advantages are absolutely right to think they are being marginalized.”

Susan Belyea, a post-doctoral fellow at Queen’s University who researches poverty and food security, says gentrification can’t be avoided, and neither can the conversations around it. She would rather see a dialogue. “I think we have to be really comfortable with how uncomfortable it is for a while,” says Belyea, who has lived in Inner Harbour since she first moved to Kingston 25 years ago. (“I’m one of the early gentrifiers,” she says. “I can’t claim otherwise.”) 

The conversation can be productive — and “kinder,” she says — if it becomes about how to “create spaces that can be more inclusive around class. We still have real discomfort around class. And that’s not just Kingston.”

Meanwhile, on Montreal Street, the Elm Café is now equipped with fortifications to prevent any after-hours vandalism. A metal door protects the front entrance, and the electronic shutter is now installed and fully operational. Logan McCartney hopes to eventually enlist community members to paint a mural on it to make it appear more inviting. 

As she told the Whig-Standard last year following the third incident of vandalism, “We’re not going anywhere. This is where we are, and we’re staying.”

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