Differentiation and Indifference

While conducting research on the cultural effects of rapid economic change at the neighbourhood level, I became particularly interested in the lived experiences of people in gentrifying areas. The characteristic spatial organization of gentrifying neighbourhoods tends to magnify structural divides by bringing socially differentiated populations in to close physical proximity with one another. The neighbourhood that I studied, Parkdale, is in Toronto, Canada’s largest and most diverse urban centre and a second-tier global city that is North America’s fifth largest city (after Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago). Located in Toronto’s West End, Parkdale has had some notoriety since the mid- 1970s for its high density of ex-psychiatric patients, rooming houses, and, more recently, for its gentrification (see Whitzman 2009). Compared to Toronto, more generally, Parkdale traditionally has had a disproportionate number of rooming houses and other forms of subdivided houses since the mid-twentieth century (Whitzman 2009: 137). The most contentious part of the neighbourhood is South Parkdale, where such buildings were once abundant but where clear demographic changes have occurred over the last 15 years.5 As part of my ethnographic work, between 2006 and 2008, I conducted a series of interviews with area residents, business owners, and service providers. Among these were semistructured interviews with homeowners who had moved into the South Parkdale area since 2002. Going in to these interviews, I was interested in instances of interaction between roomers and property owners, hoping (naively perhaps) to find evidence of positive cross-class interaction (Caulfield 1989)—maybe even friendship—between precariously housed renters in rooming houses and new middle-class homeowners buying and deconverting those same rooming houses. Between December 2006 and August 2008, I carried out 15 semi-structured in-depth interviews, and out of these interviews, something altogether different emerged. In the course of my interviews, I began to discern a very particular kind of invocation of the term ‘neighbour,’ a narrative mobilization of the term as a form of boundary production and maintenance that afforded recognition to some residents while denying it to others. The quotations that follow demonstrate this, and I want to draw attention to the particular ways that the term ‘neighbour’ figures here as this bears on the conceptual elaboration that follows.

Dave, ‘the neighbours, the direct neighbour relation thing is amazing [...] our neighbours are great — you know they are the same kind of people as you’

Sally: ‘it’s kind of a weird mix for us, ‘cause had we not had such great neighbours I’m not sure if we could have handled living here’

Lisa: ‘well, I mean, you know you have to be really open minded to live in this type of neighbourhood, so all of the people who live in your neighbourhood are of the same nature’

Maggie, ‘if you’re buying here the chances are that your neighbours are exactly like you’

While my interviews with middle-class homeowners who were new to the neighbourhood were wide ranging—dealing with, among other things, property markets, sweat equity, zoning issues, schools, parks, and restaurants—curiously absent from our discussions of neighbours was a large proportion of a specific category of their actual physical neighbours, namely, rooming house residents. Of the four interviewees quoted above, three lived on the same block as a rooming house and two of these lived within three properties of a rooming house, yet they did not count residents of rooming houses among their neighbours. Relations between rooming house residents and new property owners exemplify the mixture of physical proximity and social distance that characterizes the stranger as formulated by Simmel (1971). While rooming house residents may be neighbours in a purely physical sense (in that they live in physically proximate properties), in a social sense, rooming house residents are distant.

The cultivation of an implicit distinction between neighbour and rooming house resident emerged only in the act of narrating a sense of who is close and who is not, who is recognized as a neighbour, and who is, symbolically at least, erased. In this neighbourhood, property owners have been displacing rooming house residents consistently and at an accelerating pace over the last decade and a half (PNLT 2017). Though not necessarily a representative sample, the new property owners that I interviewed either ignored this pattern of displacement or only abstractly made reference to it. For example, in other parts of my interviews, where we discussed the act of renovation, all of my interviewees focused on the physical labour involved in renovating a former rooming house to make it into a single family home, and only one made any mention of the fact that anywhere between 6 and 18 people had been displaced. Rooming house residents figured only as present absences.

Needless to say, rooming house residents were not unaware of the patterns of purchase and displacement that came to characterize the neighbourhood through the first decade of the 2000s. Robert, a long-term neighbourhood resident who moved regularly between rooming houses, put it best: ‘roomers’, he said, ‘are becoming rumours’.

I ask the reader to keep the above in mind as we move from this small glimpse at specific interview data from a gentrifying neighbourhood to a conceptualization of the city’s ‘interactional landscape’ (Horgan 2013: 189-190) in the abstract, where life is necessarily lived amongst strangers, where affective ties are coeval with relations of mutual indifference, and, as I will show, where indifference, when it is unevenly and asymmetrically distributed and enacted, gives us analytic and normative purchase on questions of solidarity and, thus, of justice.

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