A Gentrifier Tells All

Behold and marvel at the indiscreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

By Shannon Rupp 9 Jun 2017 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

First-person essays have long been notorious for their tendency to play fast-and-loose with the truth, but Toronto Life’s latest issue contains a piece that gives me new respect for the genre. Since reading Catherine Jheon’s story of her adventures in gentrifying — “We Bought a Crack House” — I can see how the navel-gazing writer can actually deliver some valuable journalism. If only by accident.

Jheon doesn’t just document how her family used their significant wealth to evict the tenants of a rooming house in Toronto’s notoriously poor Parkdale neighbourhood, she tells us how she feels about it.

In fact, Jheon, a CBC radio host and food writer, blithely paints a picture of herself as greedy, callous, and clueless. I recommend you read it for what it tells us about the state of Canadian society.

The story begins in 2010 when the couple bought a rundown rooming house, sight-unseen, for a steal — $560,000 — then rousted the impoverished tenants. Then they pumped more than $600,000 into it, resulting in a single family dwelling stylish enough for the shelter magazines.

Given the tone of the piece, Toronto Life could have subtitled it “Marie Antoinette does a reno.”

Of course, that would be giving it away. And the value of the story is in the way it puts us in the minds of these wealthy, entitled gentrifiers.

Jheon’s recollection of touring her newly purchased house includes her reaction to discovering someone lying unconscious, surrounded by drug paraphernalia: “I shushed [my husband] and stabbed a finger in the man’s direction. Silence. What do you do with a dead body? After a few seconds, our contractor friend bravely walked over and gently nudged him. The man groaned and rolled over. We quietly tiptoed upstairs.”

What would you do if you found someone drug-addled, possibly at death’s door, lying in the house you just bought? I did a limited survey: most of the people I know would call emergency.

But the oblivious Ms. Jheon just la-la-la’s along telling us of the horrors she has witnessed while climbing the property ladder. They include an abandoned cat that had turned the house into one big litter box, garbage scattered over all four floors, and a kitchen covered in “anti-capitalist graffiti.” (Since the article began circulating a week ago, several wags have wondered if she were expecting pro-capitalist graffiti?)

Jheon notes that her husband — Julian Humphreys, a leadership coach — wondered if perhaps the tenants were angry at being evicted and had vandalized the place? (Well no shit, Sherlock.) With insights like that it’s not surprising to learn that Mr. Humphreys spends his days coaching corporate executives.

The feature invites mockery as Jheon humble-brags about hiring a dodgy contractor after he happens to cycle by and convince them he’s a structural engineer. (He goes on to damage the foundation after a Bobcat gets away from him.) Then there are the tenants who weren’t given proper notice. They refused to leave unless the Jheon-Humphreys paid compensation. The Jheon-Humphreys, after some pondering of Ontario law, agreed to pay a tenant $3,000 in lieu of notice. The tenant had asked for more, but…

“It was ludicrous,” Jheon writes. “We didn’t have enough money for the reno, let alone a five-figure bribe.”

Indeed. Pesky peasants. Who gave them legal rights?

Dynamic duo

If I were writing a satire about this cynical age, I couldn’t have picked two more perfect occupations for my anti-heroes than a food blogger and a leadership coach. Which could be why more than one reader suspected Toronto Life was putting us on. But it took only seconds for the enterprising Internet to uncover Jheon’s bona fides.

The family she describes as “cash strapped” and having “very little money” turns out to own multiple properties. Jheon wrote a similarly cutesy-and-breathless tale for Cottage Life magazine, about buying a cottage on impulse. She also revealed they have vacation property in Mexico. Throw in the two Toronto properties mentioned in the magazine piece, and the Internet went wild. Even the Beaverton immortalized them, and reminded me (yet again) that our world has made satire redundant.

There’s also a tongue-in-cheek crowdfunding page for the couple crying poor. The cash raised will be handed over to various tenants’ rights groups, though the organizer jokingly pretends that if enough is raised it will go to help the Jheon-Humphreys pay the $730,000 left on their mortgage.

Are you on the edge of your seat wondering how these brave gentrifiers overcame their cash-flow problems? Spoiler alert: Jheon’s big expensive disaster is averted when a rich relative rescues them with six-figure loan. (Bring on the airy attic office!)

‘I have listened to the feedback’

What does Jheon think of the head shaking public reaction to her piece? Even the Toronto Star’s intrepid reporters can’t get an interview. “My article was meant to be about a renovation and our fairly dramatic mistakes along the way,” Jheon did tell the Star, in an email. “I have listened to the feedback. I understand why the story and my insensitive descriptions triggered anger around real issues of affordable housing, homelessness and more. I’m going to take some time to reflect on everything that has happened.”

I hope she doesn’t reflect too hard and end up at some reputation management firm, which will advise her to stop being herself in print. Because I want her to keep writing about her life.

Journalism is about documenting the world, warts and all, not buffing up its image. This first-person narrative reflects who Jheon is and how she and her social circle act, which I would argue makes it a valuable piece of reporting about Canada in 2017.

Before reading Jheon’s piece, I had thought people like her existed only in literature. You can encounter this magic mix of cluelessness and callousness in Edith Wharton’s novels about New York’s gilded age. Or Scott Fitzgerald’s books of the Roaring Twenties. It also shows up in Evelyn Waugh’s 1920s tales of the Bright Young Things, which is satire. Although, having read Jheon’s story, I’m no longer sure Waugh was exaggerating.

But who knew people like this actually existed outside of novels? And in contemporary Canada, no less?

The piece provides me with more evidence of how Canadians’ social behaviour has changed in the last three decades. People like Jheon — and the outlets that run their views — think that sneering at the poor and unfortunate from their lofty perch isn’t just okay, it’s charming.

Which could be why Jheon can’t resist closing the piece with one last smug reference to how she and her hubby triumphed over adversity when so many others have succumbed.

“Just the other day a ragged-looking guy knocked on the door asking if there were rooms available. Not at the moment, I said, though if the market tanks, I suppose that’s always an option.”

Courtesy of wit like that, the Toronto Life story has gone viral, which makes me hopeful the city mag might give her a column. You may not like what she has to say, but I would argue that’s a good reason to read her.

I even have a title for that column. Let’s call it “The Indiscreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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