Gentrification in Willemstad: a blessing or a curse?
Written by Caspar Tromp and Krea
Willemstad is slowly transitioning. The city declined steadily since the suburbanization movements, 30 May 1969, and the opening of the Juliana bridge. A new pulse is beating. The best example in Willemstad is the metamorphosis of Pietermaai. An area that was previously stigmatized as a dangerous "no-go" area is turning into a hip district that is popular, lively with nightlife, with new boutique hotels and restaurants in former colonial houses. Even new names such as Nieuw Nederland or Quartier Latin are used to signal the rise of the new Pietermaai district. In other Willemstad areas, we also see early signs of this transitioning. Scharloo is pushing its vision to become a creative neighborhood. You can eat bagels, buy organic products, and use street art as a backdrop for your Instagram photos. To further cater to the creatives, luxury condos are planned to be built on the waterfront, and co-working spaces are available. Street art, new boutique hotels, and AirBnB's are also popping up in Ser' i Otrobanda, which has recently regained popularity with its Kaya Kaya street party. Serious attempts and efforts are made to make Punda more attractive, with the bustling Punda Vibes on Thursday and its live entertainment as the most famous example to pull in crowds.
Pietermaai is the best example in Willemstad of strategies to make urban areas more attractive to live in or to be visited by middle-income and affluent people. According to the neo-liberal economic perspective, investments in such "creativity" will magically "trickle-down" to the lower-incomes as well. This is a strategy that comes straight from the popular book "The Rise of the Creative Class" from urban studies theorist Richard Florida. In his latest book, "The New Urban Crisis," Florida and other researchers call attention to the process of gentrification and its direct, dominant driver of social inequality in cities worldwide .
In this study, we will explain what gentrification is, which signs of its process we see in Curaçao, the positive and negative effects, and how to manage this phenomenon. The goal of the study is to shed light on gentrification in Curaçao and to stimulate discussion about it.
Gentrification is the process in which a wealthier, higher educated, and primarily white group settles in a deteriorated inner-city neighborhood inhabited by lower-income residents, often of color or with a migratory background . The community's character transforms profoundly as the newcomers attract new "creative" businesses, services, and amenities. Those cool new transformations result in higher land values and rents in the area, putting pressure on the original lower-income households and businesses. Often, this process continues until local renters cannot afford the rising prices or are bought out of their family homes and are forced to move to cheaper, mostly far-lying suburban neighborhoods.
Gentrification is a "winner takes all" phenomenon that sharply increases social inequality by making the wealthy wealthier at the expense of the lower-incomes .
Gentrification is a global, neoliberal phenomenon with a strong local impact . Capitals or major tourist destinations like Amsterdam, New York, Paris, and Venice have become so expensive that even the middle-income cannot afford to live there. In Amsterdam, for example, the average rent for an apartment in 2019 was €1.580 per month (roughly ANG 3.000,-) . With tourism gentrification, similar to what is happening in Willemstad, inner-city neighborhoods are not transformed for new wealthier residents but for temporary tourists, hotels, Airbnb, and entertainment. The grant of UNESCO world-heritage statuses often ironically worsens this process . In the Caribbean, many capitals of small islands focus on tourism and cruise ships. Aruba's capital Oranjestad has seen much of its equally unique heritage diminished. It has become an uninhabited Caribbean Amsterdam theme park with fake Dutch gables that house luxury stores, casinos, tourist streetcars, and tourist shops, catering mainly to American tourists . This process is what urbanists call "Disneyfication," and it is common with gentrifying cities around the world.
Gentrification can be an organic process, but in most cases, city governments, in combination with private parties, actively push forward policies to gentrify . Sometimes an indirect strategy such as higher rents and transforming areas is used to push out unwanted residents. Forced evictions do also take place, like in Rotterdam, where 12.000 social housing units are being cleared for luxury housing . Often, as in multicultural Rotterdam and Latin American cities, there is a discriminatory motivation behind gentrification . In Latin America, these evictions can be even more aggressive, often involving the police. For example, in Cartagena, Colombia, where the colonial inner-city once housed a lively local community, it is now transformed into a depopulated center with only boutique hotels and restaurants. In Curaçao, most entrepreneurs and investors involved in gentrification are foreigners who have the financial means and vision to cater to the tourist market. Yet, recently, also locals are entrepreneurs in Ser' i Otrobanda, Pietermaai, and Scharloo. On the other hand, a passive governmental "laissez-faire" approach, which allows entrepreneurs and investors to have their way, would also be consciously allowing the risk of current inhabitants to be pushed away in the name of tourism.
Remember that tourism is a tool to help Curaçaoans with jobs and income, and should not be a goal in itself.
The good and the bad
Is gentrification bad, though? Costly, decayed monuments did receive the funds necessary for renovation through gentrification and tourism strategies, urgently rescuing our heritage and attracting more tourists to the island. Otrobanda and Pietermaai have become more visible and visited again. Some previous inhabitants of Otrobanda are returning to live there. With large-scale projects like Curaçao Medical Center and Corendon Mangrove Beach Resort, in the coming years, Otrobanda will likely attract local and foreign workers to live near their work, thus changing the dynamic of its neighborhood. Nightlife in Pietermaai has improved, with lots of great new bars and restaurants within walking distance. Cool new concept stores sell artistic, locally crafted, and differentiated products. Also, many people feel safer in Pietermaai, and tourists love these charming, colorful places. Some residents hope that gentrification will bring more life, income, and safety to their neighborhood. Between 2000 and 2018, economic development in Pietermaai has resulted in $27.5 million (ANG 50 million) in total governmental revenue, with 640 new employment positions . Investors and policymakers are calling it a success and are seeing more and more opportunities.
This in itself is great and something to strive for, but the main question is: who is benefiting from this? In 2011, only 2020 residents (1.3% of the island's population) lived in the whole historic district of Willemstad, while there were 960 tourist bedrooms and the thousands of passengers from cruise ships . Up-to-date data is absent, but with new developments of hotels and Airbnb in the city center, tourists are outnumbering the local inhabitants more and more.
Pietermaai has mainly been affected by rising land values. Since 2000, the price per square meter increased from $75-100 to $275-435 in 2017, and even to $800-1,000 at the waterfront, an increase of 225% . Housing for home-seeking middle-income Curaçaoans is thus equally unaffordable. Pietermaai's local population has been declining as well, from 383 inhabitants in 1981, to 222 in 2001 and a mere 81 in 2011 . The 147 rooms for interns and students built are mostly almost exclusively inhabited by Dutch interns who generally stay less than six months on the island. Tourist businesses are often owned by foreigners, primarily Dutch, who also hire the Dutch interns in high numbers to work in bars, hotels, and restaurants. Hence, it appears wealth generated by tourism does not always effectively trickle down to the rest of the population, making them feel excluded. Other ways Curaçaoans do not feel included are when bars, restaurants, and shops offer drinks, food, and products that are either too expensive or do not cater to their taste .
Meanwhile, the historic districts of Willemstad house some of the most vulnerable and poorest inhabitants on the island . In cities around the world, as in Willemstad, "unwanted" lower-income groups and migrants went to live in declining and unpopular inner cities when the middle-income moved to the suburbs. They survive by the proximity to work and their social network, which thrives in these dense human-scale areas . If their neighborhood becomes gentrified and expensive, they are indirectly excluded from participating and become alienated from their own "bario". Two very different groups of people with different needs and interests could share the same neighborhood without interacting. Spreading labels of Pietermaai as (previously) "dangerous no-go areas" has the threat of stigmatizing its inhabitants and justifying their displacement . Displacement, especially to far-laying, unattractive suburbs, is often disastrous for their livelihoods, social network, and well-being.
Gentrification is a "winner takes all" phenomenon that sharply increases social inequality by making the wealthy wealthier at the expense of the lower-incomes . Locals often feel neglected, unwanted, and even repressed, becoming resentful as a result. Some Curaçaoans already feel out of place due to tourism . In the Koralendistrict in Otrobanda, residents previously expressed their fear of being displaced through higher rents due to the refurbishment of their streets with EU funds . Furthermore, gentrification does not solve drug problems, crime, and poverty; it only moves them to areas further away, often worsening the problem.
If social and spatial inequality deepens, the risk of sharpening already sensitive social and racial tensions due to a history of colonialism heightens . Latin America and the Caribbean do not only know social inequality but also violence. Social inequality is related to several social problems such as crime, drug trafficking, physical and psychological health issues and lower levels of education. Such problems are also a substantial economic cost to the island. According to Richard Florida, urban areas in the US with higher social inequality were reported to have slower economic and job growth than more equal cities. He also argued that social-spatial inequality stimulated by gentrification is even linked to the rise of populist politicians. Considering Curaçao's sensitive history of colonialism, gentrification is a subject that should not be taken lightly.
Two very different groups of people with different needs and interests could share the same neighborhood without interacting.
How to deal with gentrification?
Gentrification is a sensitive and complex topic. Sometimes this process occurs organically; other times, it is planned. So how to manage gentrification in a sustainable manner which positively impacts all? What can we do to revitalize the historic districts of Willemstad in a sustainable and socially just way?
Ultimately, everybody wins with an inclusive city.
1 Change the perspective
First and foremost, a shift in perspective: revitalize Willemstad with the main focus and priority being residents. Design Willemstad with the number one goal to make it a liveable and attractive place for Curaçaoans of all income levels. Not only is more housing needed, but it should be affordable for the majority of the islanders. If revitalized sustainably and pleasantly, locals will naturally create a fascinating, vibrant culture and street life that will attract tourists like bees to honey. Tourists nowadays crave for the authentic, hence why thousands of foreigners visit cities like Havana to experience the culture of vibrant, local street life and music from the balconies of charming colonial mansions. Curaçao has that dushi Caribbean way of being too, which would naturally be expressed in an attractive Willemstad. Remember that tourism is a tool to help Curaçaoans with jobs and income, and should not be a goal in itself.
2 Create a win-win situation
Let's start thinking and planning in terms of "win-win". Development for tourism should not come at the expense of locals, the city, nature, and other economic sectors. Neither should social inclusion come at the cost of businesses. Balance is the keyword here. If stakeholders, inhabitants, and policymakers communicate and finetune their wants and needs enough, with the goal of sustainability and win-win, amazing results are possible. Tourism could become more inclusive. Residents and tourists would mix more, and the population would gain more income and pleasure through tourism. Revenue generated through tourism can be used to boost investments in other sectors to create a diverse economy. Ultimately, everybody wins with an inclusive city.
3 Practice place-based development approaches
Do not displace the original residents from their neighborhoods. This will only move the problem and create resentment instead of solving it. Rather focus on improving the lives of residents by providing opportunities and better services and amenities to support them in their livelihoods. Ensure their rights and ability to keep living in their houses or neighborhood. Also, aim in all policies to lower the social inequality gap.
Finally, it is vital to have a strong mutual agreement on vision with clear, measurable objectives. If we do not have a clear vision for the future of Willemstad and what it needs to become, gentrification can take on a life of its own, leading to damaging results for the city center and benefiting only a selected group. To maintain balance, control, and create a win-win situation for all, we need to discuss the effects of gentrification and how we want to manage these.
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