With 47 homicides tallied in 12 months, 2011 was a record year for murders in the City of Champions. Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht said he saw no neighbourhood patterns, but Colby Cosh named names in his Maclean’s column. Specifically, 107th Avenue, a street that spans three Edmonton neighbourhoods: McCauley, Central McDougall and Queen Mary Park. For Cosh, this “band of blight and lawlessness” was not a multicultural Avenue of Nations, it was “Edmonton’s murder belt.”
Jim Gurnett has lived in the area since 1999 and was executive director of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers between 2001 and 2009. Gurnett acknowledges the “pervasive power of poverty of the neighbourhood” as indigenous people move to the city from reserves while immigrants, some of them traumatized refugees, are attracted to the “low-rent, three-storey apartments that are packing all the streets from 101st Street west.”
But Gurnett rejects the assumption that poverty equals criminality. “Chinese and Vietnamese communities came to those neighbourhoods in complete poverty and, as they’ve done better, they’ve reinvested into restaurants and shops,” he notes. One Vietnamese refugee, Than Nguyen, actually began the Avenue of Nations initiative: “Nguyen and the rest of the group wanted to make a positive statement about this area that many people were starting to think was a ghetto of newcomers.”
Local people also started thinking about an international marketplace that could be an incubator for entrepreneurs. They created events that brought groups together to be part of the marketplace and the goal of the marketplace was to break down prejudices. “There was a sense of how much is possible when you have a diversity of people, how much learning and creating new things can take place.”
Gurnett notes, however, that after initial improvements in community image, it deteriorated in the early 2000s; this also happened to coincide with a shift toward immigrants from African countries. “If you had more than three black guys [walking together], someone would be stopping to talk to them,” he says. “There was a domino effect: The more they [the police] did it, the more it created the feelings about the neighbourhood. It struck me as counter-productive.” It also struck him as racist, as a City of Edmonton Urban Renewal Study from the early 1960s – when there were few non-European people in the neighbourhood – showed similar crime statistics as today.
“It has to do with where it is in the city; there have always been pawn shops and boarding houses – places where people with less money could live.”
Community members are once again trying to overcome the perception that 107th Avenue is unsafe, and they are certainly not the first in town to struggle with this.
Arnim Joop, the publisher and editor of the Mill Woods Mosaic, a monthly newspaper, knows firsthand how racism can colour a neighbourhood’s reputation. When the German native moved to Mill Woods with his Filipino wife in 1995, the area did not have a bad name. “It was a peaceful neighbourhood – nothing out of the ordinary – just your average, middle class neighbourhood.”
In 2001, that changed, at least in media reports. “There were some drive-by shootings here and Mill Woods was always in the bad news – talking about Asian gangs, although I don’t think there were more Asians involved than white people,” he says. An Edmonton Journal cartoon appeared, spelling out “Mill Woods” in guns – and the nickname “Kill Woods” was born.
“The response from the community was very strong; they were very upset about it,” Joop remembers. He and his wife had by then become more involved locally through political campaigns. “We met a lot of leaders of the different immigrant groups – Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese,” he says. “And that’s when I realized how multicultural Mill Woods is.” He also realized how big it was, encompassing 10 neighbourhoods and nearly 100,000 people. “It was easy to identify. You have all these neighbourhoods in the North like Beverly – small neighbourhoods. And if something happens there, it’s in the news – but if something happens in Woodvale or Southwood the media tended to report it as ‘Mill Woods.’
“It also reflected badly on immigrants,” he says, “because Mill Woods maybe has a larger immigrant population than other neighbourhoods, so, if you say Mill Woods has a high crime rate, it’s because it’s immigrants. I have heard that from people here.” In 2008, Joop decided to create the Mosaic, “The Multicultural Voice of Edmonton Southeast,” primarily as a community-building tool. He has seen his proactive stand bear fruit, with more balanced media reporting across local outlets, and suggests others do the same through their community leagues, schools, churches and cultural societies. “I don’t know, maybe have a workshop and educate people about public relations?” He asks, half joking.
This strategy has been working well for Ritchie, another neighbourhood that began as a largely immigrant community because of its small, affordable houses. In fact, it had so many people of German extraction it was dubbed “Little Berlin” for many years. But, by 1984, its reputation revolved around biker gangs, pawn shops, and rough schools instead. Laurel Schulz moved to the area that year and remembers the old Gainers slaughterhouse – “a serious eyesore” – lay vacant across the street. “It [the community] was stagnant for 10 years and then all of a sudden it’s like there was this great interest in this area,” she says.
“It has improved hands-down since then,” Schulz marvels. “I can’t stress how much it’s changed.” Active community league members such as Schulz have turned things around, raising funds for family and senior activities, volunteering for Neighbourhood Watch programs, and advocating for the reimagining of the Mill Creek public school to one of very few Spanish academies in Edmonton. League Vice President Dallas Bartel also started a Ritchie Facebook page.
“The league quickly became in touch with local businesses, groups and even politicians. Local merchants such as Acme Meat Market and Barb and Ernie’s now join our events and help us advertise through their social media. Through our Facebook page and website we can now serve the community better, help advocate different issues and bring people together.”
In the community chicken-and-the-egg scenario, it is sometimes hard to know if a shift in optics causes on-the-ground improvements or vice versa. In community development circles, it is a truism that perception and reality can lock in a vicious cycle, where people wall themselves off from the community because they feel unsafe – which actually creates desolate spaces that are vulnerable to crime.
Joop has found that the old “Kill Woods” reputation has been hard to shake outside Mill Woods, but that at least within the community people know the truth. When an Internet forum user recently rated the community one of the worst in Edmonton because of supposed gang violence, it got the following response: “Yup, Mill Woods is a pretty danger[ous] place, especially if you’re scared of Sobeys, young families and culs-de-sac.”
Many in Mill Woods are even embracing its supposed ghetto reputation, wearing Winter Studios’ “Millwoods Hero” clothes (including onesies for babies), and giving each other ironic “Mill Woods 4 Life” gangster-esque hand signs. Residents feel comfortable mocking these stereotypes as positive community initiatives, infrastructure developments and other good news stories dominate media reports.
The 107th Avenue area is having a tougher time overcoming its negative labels, partly because even residents note ongoing issues with poverty and social disorder. But they are quick to point out how much they love their community and are sharing this through messaging on Facebook pages and other outlets. Now it just remains to be seen if “Meet me in McCauley” can replace “murder belt” in the popular imagination.
We feel a lot safer than we did when the first Best Neighbourhoods survey came out back in 2012. Two years ago, 88 per cent of our readers told us that the crime rate was a very important factor in deciding which community to call home. But, this year, 54 per cent of you said that crime was of low concern to you. That’s a massive change in two years; the murder rate was a hot-button issue a couple of years back, but it’s clear that more and more of us feel safe and sound in Edmonton.