Gentrification is a fact of life in a lot of places. The idea is that a place will have greater appeal, a stronger economy and a wealthier tax base if it attracts people who can afford to pay upmarket prices for places to live, shop and so on. On the surface of it, that makes some sense. Most people would agree that it’s good to have a tax base that can sustain a place.
But here’s the problem, according to a lot of other people. Gentrification makes places too homogeneous (let’s face it; shopping malls don’t vary that much). It tends to take away the distinctive nature of an area, a city or a town. Gentrification also means that many middle- and working-class residents can’t afford to live in a place any longer. And it causes traffic and lots of other logistical problems.
That conflict – between those who support gentrification and those who oppose it – certainly plays out in real life. Perhaps you even live in an area affected by it. And it makes for a solid level of interest in crime fiction too.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile for instance, Linnet Ridgeway has purchased Wode Hall, in Malton-under-Wode. She’s completely remodeling the place and intending to make some major changes. Part of her plan is to have some of the local cottages torn down and the residents moved. As you can imagine, some of those residents are not happy at all at being forced out of their homes. Here though is Linnet’s view:
‘They don’t seem to realize how vastly improved their living conditions will be!’
Linnet has money – a lot of it – and high social position, so the locals’ protests aren’t going to be very successful. But Linnet’s lovely new home won’t do her much good. Shortly afterwards, she’s shot during her honeymoon trip. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise that Linnet and her new husband were taking, so he and Colonel Race investigate the murder. Although this example of gentrification isn’t a major plot thread, it shows an aspect of the victim’s character and it’s reflective of how gentrification can work.
In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, a huge gentrification plan is underway for Melbourne. Called Yarra Cove, it’s to comprise a waterfront, marina, exclusive shops and restaurants and more. It’s intended to be
‘…arguably, Melbourne’s smartest new address.’
A lot of people want that upmarket money. What’s more, the area is currently run-down and seen by many as not safe. But not everyone agrees. In fact, an activist group led by Anne Jeppeson has been protesting the closing of the public housing located in that area. There hasn’t been much opportunity for public comment on the gentrification plan either. Sometime-attorney Jack Irish gets involved in this debate when a former client Danny McKillop is murdered shortly after being released from prison. McKillop was convicted of the drink-driving killing of Anne Jappeson and all of the evidence was against him. But now that McKillop’s been murdered, Irish comes to suspect that he might have been framed for Jeppeson’s death. If so, there’s something much bigger going on here than a tragic incident of drink driving.
Michael Connelly’s Echo Park forces Harry Bosch to return to a case he wasn’t able to solve when he first investigated it. Marie Gesto disappeared one day after leaving a Hollywood grocery store and Bosch was assigned the case. But although he had a suspect in mind, he wasn’t able to get the evidence he needed. Now, Raynard Waits has been arrested in Los Angeles’ Echo Park area for two other brutal murders. Incontrovertible evidence links him to the killings, so he’s not going to get away with them. His plan is to make a deal with the police. He’ll trade information on other cases, including the Gesto case, in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. Bosch works with what he learns from Waits to re-open the Gesto case and find out what really happened. Here are Bosch’s thoughts about the Echo Park area:
‘These days Echo Park was also a favored destination of another class of newcomer-the young and hip. The cool. Artists, musicians and writers were moving in. Cafés and vintage clothing shops were squeezing in next to the bodegas and mariscos stands. A wave of gentrification was washing across the flats and up the hillsides below the baseball stadium. It meant the character of the place was changing. It meant real-estate prices were going up, pushing out the working class and the gangs.’
Gentrification isn’t really the reason for Marie Gesto’s disappearance. But it’s an underlying part of the context of this novel.
On the other hand, gentrification is an important theme in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. A development company has made plans to tear town Jerusalem Lane, an historic area of London, and replace it with an upmarket shopping, dining and entertainment district. There’s a lot of money involved, so there is a great deal of pressure brought to bear on the residents of Jerusalem Lane to sell up and leave. It is a unique district though, and not everyone wants to leave. One holdout is Meredith Winterbottom, who lives in Jerusalem Lane with her two sisters Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe. When Meredith suddenly dies, it looks a lot like a suicide. But DS Kathy Kolla isn’t so sure. So she and her boss DCI David Brock begin to ask some questions. They find that there are several people who’ve benefited from the victim’s death. One for instance is the development company’s representatives, who now have a clear path to completing their gentrification project. Another is the victim’s son, who will inherit his mother’s home and therefore, who stands to gain by the sale of it. And then there are the other residents of Jerusalem Lane, who could have had their own motives. That’s not to mention the fact that the three sisters are the great-granddaughters of Karl Marx. They had several old books and letters that would be of great interest to collectors and academics. Among other things, this is an interesting look at a district that will be forever changed by gentrification.
Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier is in part the story of the murder of Reginald Montgomery. He and his business partner have been planning the Grizzly Resort and Spa near the small town of Trafalgar, British Columbia. The idea is to bring a gentrified, upmarket group of tourists (and their money) to the area. Some people like the idea. The economy can use the boost, and the gentrification will mean more jobs. Others though see the resort as a threat to the environment and the local ecosystem. So the resort is by no means a ‘done deal.’ When Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith finds Montgomery’s body in an alley one night, she and Sergeant John Winters look into this whole gentrification plan as one possible motive for the killing. There are others, too, including issues in Montgomery’s personal life. Throughout the novel, there’s a real layer of interest as the debate goes on about the effects of having an upmarket resort nearby.
Planned gentrification also plays an important role in Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. Some wealthy and influential people want to tear down one of Beijing’s impoverished but historic districts to make room for a new, gentrified district full of upmarket shops, restaurants and housing. Professor Luo Gan has been among those protesting this gentrification, claiming that it will drive people out of their homes and will cheat them financially. When one of his students Justin Tan is found murdered, the official police theory is that he was killed by thugs in a robbery gone wrong. But Tan is the son of Susan Tan, First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in Beijing. She doesn’t believe her son’s murder was the work of robbers, and she wants answers. So she arranges for Inspector Singh to travel from Singapore to Beijing and look into the matter. Singh reluctantly agrees and makes the trip. Soon enough, he finds evidence that the victim’s murder was likely deliberate. Now, Singh works with former Beijing cop Li Jun to find out who the murderer is. Someone involved in the gentrification project could be responsible for the murder. But that’s not by any means the only possibility. In the end, and after another murder, Singh and Li Jun find out what happened to Justin Tan and why.
Gentrification has a way of eliciting really strong feelings. It’s very much a proverbial double-edged sword, and not always popular. It’s a fact of life though, and it adds to a lot of crime fiction novels. Which gaps have I left?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s No Man’s Land.