By Michael Boriero – Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Léo Boivin, founder of the Association contre la gentrification de Sherbrooke (AGS), wants municipal officials to consider the population’s financial reality before committing to a business development project in the Alexandre neighbourhood.
Commerce Sherbrooke, a non-profit organization that aims to evolve the city’s commercial structure through sustainable development, recently announced its Imagine le quartier Alexandre project – an area they believe will benefit from a revitalization initiative.
Boivin, however, is worried about the people living in the neighbourhood. It’s considered a historic area in Sherbrooke, according to the 19-year-old Université de Sherbrooke student, and it’s also one of the most affordable places in the downtown core.
“I’m not in the neighbourhood, but I intend to speak on their behalf and the behalf of all the working class in Sherbrooke so that their interests are heard and not only those of the owner class,” said Boivin.
He started a petition last week titled, Tous ensemble contre la gentrification du quartier Alexandre de Sherbrooke. Boivin is hoping to get a better sense about how people feel about the project. The petition had 65 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
A first-year pharmaceutical chemistry major, Boivin lives a short car ride away from the neighbourhood. He told The Record that he often goes to Alexandre for groceries because it’s a less expensive, but that can change with a revitalization project.
“I’m a student, I don’t have a lot of means, I have to make what I can with the little money I have, and these people have a worse situation than mine, so I can’t imagine the precariousness it will put them in,” Boivin said.
He believes that, in its current form, the project will force people already straddling the poverty line onto the streets. These are working class people, he explained, if prices in the area are jacked up due to gentrification, and they can’t pay, they’ll need to find another home.
“In general, putting parks that’s a great idea, but if you put it without programs, without help for people in poverty, it’s going to drive up rent prices […] it’s going to drive up the price of everything, services and goods that those people rely on for low prices,” said Boivin.
The neighbourhood has dealt with some issues in recent years; increased crime and vandalization being prime examples of the area’s decline. But completely reinventing the business layout without providing necessary social services could be detrimental.
It’s not the new apartments, new parks or new businesses, that causes gentrification, Boivin said. Although they are part of the problem, he continued, it really has to do with a broken system that fails to provide adequate social housing and equity programs.
“The fact people can live just by what they own, and the fact people don’t own enough and have to work in order to survive, this is what creates inequalities, this is what creates gentrification,” Boivin said.
Vincent Cloutier, a communication coordinator at Commerce Sherbrooke, told The Record that the project is not intended to forcibly uproot people from their homes. And the goal isn’t to change the face of the neighbourhood, either.
“It’s not like we’re telling people to go open high-end stores on rue Alexandre, we don’t think it fits the culture,” he said. “Our vision at Commerce Sherbrooke is that if a neighbourhood is unique and has its own personality, we think that it should let that shine.”
According to Cloutier, Commerce Sherbrooke has been trying to put the spotlight on the Alexandre neighbourhood for years. They started a Facebook page to talk about and promote small business owners on the street.
The area is often painted in a negative light, but it has always been a storied and diverse commercial street in Sherbrooke. The fabric of the street is very hip, he continued, with several start-ups, restaurants and long-time businesses.
“It’s a place where business owner creativity is through the roof,” said Cloutier. “There’s a number of very unique businesses that have opened there and it probably has something to do with rent prices which is less than let’s say Wellington North.”
Sherbrooke’s downtown area is going through significant changes, which will likely have some effect on the population, Cloutier acknowledged. But he noted that Commerce Sherbrooke is there to help, and not to endanger the personality of a neighbourhood.
“We’re not talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars here, usually we have a couple thousand dollars […] it’s usually small initiatives, small events. In Lennoxville, we helped create Square Queen last year,” Cloutier said.