Just what is gentrification anyway?
The story of development and the destruction of livelihood in Hanoi
by Aaron Vansintjan
We hear the term ‘gentrification’ often nowadays. The news is full of it. Protests against Google and Microsoft buses, people in Vancouver fighting condo development by burning condos, food co-ops in Brooklyn worried about whether they’re displacing the local Hispanic community. The news almost always frames the wealthy new residents as the culprits, and those unable to afford rising rent and property taxes as victims.
A month ago, I was staying in Tay Ho, a neighbourhood of Hanoi known for its growing expat population. Here I found chain supermarkets, unfinished luxury apartment complexes, brand-new chic boutiques, and dog spas. In between all of this, there remain some thin strips of orchards, garden plots, and vegetable markets hidden in the alleyways. A wealthy and mostly foreign social class seems to be increasingly encroaching on agricultural land. These, I thought right away, are the telltale signs of gentrification.
I wanted to find out more. To start my search, I met up with Roman Szlam. Roman is a volunteer guide for Friends of Vietnam Heritage, an English teacher, a blogger, and also happens to be a walking Wikipedia on the history of Hanoi.
“I’ve noticed everything you’ve noticed,” he noted, recognizing my discomfort. “I see all the farms disappearing, all the high-rises coming in here. All the luxury development.” But Roman didn’t seem too troubled by the changes in Tay Ho.
Apparently, everyone who originally owned land in Tay Ho has been able to sub-lease it at high prices. “Even the farmers,” noted Roman, “who are losing their farms here directly around West lake, tend to be happy. There are no protests from anyone.” What’s more, agriculture in the neighbourhood was primarily for decorative plants – in no way would the sale of this land affect the need for food access in the city.
I wondered whether it was really all that rosy in Tay Ho: were there some people that weren’t as happy as others? Nevertheless, to Roman, the real gentrification problems were occurring in the outskirts of the city and in the city centre.
What’s really happening in Hanoi?
In the early 2000s, Hanoi was facing mounting traffic problems, while the Old Quarter, the prime tourist attraction, was being slowly destroyed by untrammeled development. In 2008, the Vietnamese government allowed Hanoi to expand its borders significantly. To do this, they re-zoned huge swathes of land for commercial and high-income residential uses.
The re-drawing of Hanoi’s borders coincided with a spate of farm acquisitions by the land management department. Officials offered farmers a small payment in return for the land and then leased it to developers – often acquaintances – at inflated prices. In other words, outright corruption. These developers thought it was the perfect time to build houses for Hanoi’s new upper-middle-class. But this didn’t go so well.
“Nobody bought any of these developments,” Roman explained. “As they began to go bankrupt, these people who had borrowed 90 per cent of the money could no longer repay the banks.”
The criminalization of the informal sector, which grew in large part due to land dispossession, in turn sets the conditions for the creation of a cheap new labour market.
At the time, many government-owned corporations had started investing in the stock market. Come the crash of 2008, Vietnam’s banks had no more money, and foreign investors started pulling out, causing a banking crisis that still hasn’t been resolved. What’s more, a group of farmers started making a stink, holding in-your-face protests in front of the government buildings.
“This huge land grab,” remarked Roman, “became a national scandal. It couldn’t be hidden anymore. There was no money to be had anywhere. Consequently, a lot of the food production around Hanoi has been lost.” In a city where 62 per cent of the vegetables consumed are locally produced, you can imagine the effect on food prices.
Around the same time, the city cleaned up its downtown core by, on the one hand, criminalizing street vendors, and on the other, promoting supermarkets and shutting down two of the city’s open markets, replacing them with high-end – but mostly empty – malls.
Noelani Eidse, a PhD candidate at McGill, has been researching the case of Hanoi’s street vendors and how their livelihood has been affected by land grabs on the urban fringe. “It’s all part of this larger push for Hanoi to become a global city,” Eidse said. “The rationale behind banning vending is that vendors are adding to traffic congestion. A less explicit reason is that vendors are seen as uncivilized and their livelihoods are considered to be anti-modern, and a hindrance to development.”
There is no doubt that gentrification is an international phenomenon, and what links each case is the opening up of markets, privatization of public goods, and collusion between the market and state.
Eidse has found that it’s often the same people who were pushed off their land who are also forced to make a living in other ways. “For a lot of these people,” she explained, “it’s either working in factories or working informally.”
Those who choose informal work, like street vending and trading trash, are now being targeted by these new laws. Arrests and fines are more and more common, making it difficult for these people, mostly women, to practice their livelihood.
In sum, the unfair leasing of farmland to developers, shuttered and empty markets, lack of space for food vendors, and the inaccessibility of supermarkets for most Hanoians, has meant that many people in the city centre are now facing increased food insecurity and precarity. And so, the cycle of dispossession, precarity, and criminalization continues.
The all-too-real effects of gentrification
In Hanoi, top-down decisions to make the city more appealing to foreign investors helped trigger a nationwide banking crisis, followed by a shortage in food production and access locally. This is gentrification at its worst – far more devastating than a fancy boutique in the expat neighbourhood.
The changing of land rights, the corruption that came with privatization of land, and the increase in high-end development projects – all of these happened at about the same time that Vietnam opened its markets to foreign investment and encouraged foreign factories to set up shop. The criminalization of the informal sector, which grew in large part due to land dispossession, in turn sets the conditions for the creation of a cheap new labour market. People have no choice but to start working in the new factories run by foreign corporations.
Before I go on, I have to stress that Hanoi is unique. Vietnam, as a socialist state, also has an unusual land rights system and one-party-closed-door-politics. Pair this with increased liberalization, and a system of state-owned corporations, and you have a one-of-a-kind situation. It is also important to reiterate how sometimes it isn’t all that bad, like in the case of Tay Ho and its wealthy expats.
But it’s striking how these patterns repeat in other cities, like Lagos, Nigeria. Eidse noted that Singapore’s model of development and regulation has been a reference point for Hanoi’s own city planners. Gentrification in London and New York is well-documented. There, social housing and tenant rights were increasingly eroded through active government policies encouraging outsider investment. There is no doubt that gentrification is an international phenomenon, and what links each case is the opening up of markets, privatization of public goods, and collusion between the market and state.
In all cases, gentrification should be understood as the concerted effort, by a coterie of businesspeople and government officials, to profit from communal wealth.
It’s easy to vilify the upper-middle class – those taking the Google bus or the expats moving into the new high-rises – but if you really want to address the problem, you need to follow the money.
In all cases, gentrification should be understood as the concerted effort, by a coterie of businesspeople and government officials, to profit from communal wealth. In Hanoi, this came in the form of land grabs and policies targeting the informal economy, but elsewhere it can happen through the privatization of social housing, or the branding of a city as a haven for the creative class.
It all seems a bit hopeless. Yet, there are plenty of avenues for resistance. In Hanoi, a group of villagers who had been pushed off their land started protesting in ways that made it hard for the media to ignore them, or for the police to beat them up. As a result, they were able to bring national attention to endemic corruption and initiate a series of laws to protect against land seizures.
While gentrification hurts those who have little to start with, those who have lost the most often have the loudest voice. If we want inspiration for future actions, it’s these voices we should listen to. These villagers have it right – they followed the money, smelled something fishy, and created a stink.
This article was originally published in The McGill Daily.