Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Hood

Someone was murdered across the street from the house I used to live in recently. I know this because the lady who bought the house from me wrote a letter to the local paper bemoaning what had happened to the neighbourhood.

In 1997 we bought an old shack in the neighbourhood, knocked it down and built a Victorian style house in what we believed was the style of the neighbourhood. This area of the city was one of the older parts of the city. At the time we moved in, it was a mixture of Victorian style houses from the early 20th century, 1960s and 70s style houses and older houses that the workers who used to live in the area, when it was more working class lived in. When we moved in, people were renovating the old Victorian houses, knocking down the older run-down shacks and even renovating the 1960s houses. The main thoroughfare 3 blocks to the south had been transformed to a vibrant street with older brick buildings, lots of small stores, restaurants, coffee shops, student bars, bookstores, and an art-house theatre. There was a farmer's market on Saturdays. To the east of us lay a wooded ravine with walking and cycling trails. Moreover I could walk to work from our new house. The neighbourhood school was a few blocks away. It was on paper the perfect place for a Bleeding Heart Liberal to live and raise his family. At election time orange NDP signs festooned the streets.

10 years later we moved away to another neighbourhood. There are a lot of reasons but the main reason was that the neighbourhood had evolved in a way that we had not anticipated.

One of the reasons was what we in our neighbourhood called "The Avenue". This was the street with the bookstores etc that we loved to visit before we lived 3 blocks away. The problem was that as the area became more popular, the rents went up which forced out the smaller independent stores. In their place came bars, lots of bars. Not the nice artsy bars that were there when we moved in. Bars that played loud dance music, and where people apparently felt they had to carry knives. Garbage from the party the night before was strewn all over the streets in the morning, and often not cleaned up at all. The area began to be referred to as an "entertainment district" oblivious to the people who actually lived in the area for whom it was part of their neighbourhood. When our hockey team made its playoff run, the local media actually encouraged people to come down to "The Avenue" to celebrate victories (and defeats) which meant a near riot a couple of times a week not to mention the honking of horns at all hours of the night.

Secondly two of the local churches set up homeless shelters in their basement. Now there had always been homeless in our neighbourhood. Many of them slept in the nearby ravine. They had been a somewhat sad part but something you could live with. With the homeless shelters opening a different class of homeless showed up. A harder more aggressive homeless who got in your face and wouldn't take no for an answer. As many of the bars simply put their empties out in the alley rather than recycling them, you had created a gold mine for the bottle pickers and this spilled over onto our neighbourhood. Soon you had people going through your garbage looking for empties, even if you didn't have empties they often dumped out your garbage some they could use your plastic bag. There began to be way more homeless camps in our ravine. (Keep in mind that we were in the midst of a huge economic boom then). These people had to shit and pee somewhere.

Complaints to the police went nowhere plus a lot of my fellow BHLs didn't trust the police. The police grudgingly agreed to have 4 officers on foot patrol along "The Avenue". They of course never patrolled the surrounding neighbourhoods. Our community league had meetings with the police but all the police wanted to talk about was crystal meth which according the police was the root of all evil in our neighbourhood. They also had the police helicopter hover our our house between 10 and 11 every evening as a general deterrent to crime. It became apparent to me that the police has decided to bottle up all the noise and crime into a "combat zone" in our hood so as not bother the residents and businesses of more politically connected neighbourhoods.

Eventually we moved away. It was the peak of the real estate boom and our house sold in a flash. It was tough for me because I really loved the hood and I felt like I was abandoning it. We are much happier now even though we still have drug deals across from our house. Now when I visit "The Avenue" it seems like a dirtier, unfriendlier place than I remember. Maybe I am just older. There is now a Dairy Queen where one of the coffee shops used to be.

There is a lesson here which if I ever have a second career as an urban planner I will pay attention to. That is how easy it is to ruin what should be the showcase neighbourhood and shopping district of your city through lack of proper zoning, allowing rents to run rampant, lack of policing and of course encouraging riff-raff to hang out. I often wonder how much extra property taxes the city collected from people like me who knocked down shacks and put up nice houses at zero infrastructure cost to the city.

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