Thursday, June 22, 2006

Watching the Watch

From the 4th to the 17th century, grounds of many Christian churches were considered sanctuaries from secular authorities. Within these grounds, an asylum seeker would be under the care and responsibility of the church, untouchable by the law for up to 40 days.

Of course in today’s world, church grounds no longer have the same status as a legal refuge. Symbolically however, church grounds remain a consecrated and safe place, unimpeded from the variations of the modern world around it. This is of course, unless the church stands within the boundaries of Winnipeg’s Downtown Business Improvement Zone.

Passing by Holy Trinity Anglican Church on my walk home last week, I noticed two members of the BIZ’ Downtown Watch program, on their two-way radios and pointing to the north side of the church. Curious, I watched as they walked brashly onto the church property, towards a man lying in the mid-afternoon shadows of Holy Trinity’s 1884 Gothic Revival exterior.

The man was asleep, and woke up as the Watch members arrived. Within seconds, the two patrollers had lifted him to his feet. They stood around him, his back to the wall. (Was anything learned in the Non-Violent Crisis Intervention courses all Watch members reportedly take?) After a moment of conversation between the three, the sleeping man was sent on his way. The watch members laughed as he walked eastward towards a sea of surface parking lots. Behind his back, the shorter of the two patrollers mockingly punched the air in his direction.

Further along my walk, I ran into a couple panhandling at Portage Avenue and Smith Street. Donald, 38, explained how most of the Watch is pretty good towards panhandlers, “but like with everybody,” he said, “there’s a few bad apples in the bunch.”

“Especially when someone’s intoxicated,” Donald went on, “they’ll take advantage of the situation.” Asking what kinds of things that Watch will do, Donald spoke flatly: “Kick ‘em. Kick ‘em while they’re still down.”

Donald’s companion Kathleen, 40, added that the situation can be worse for Aboriginal people. “Sometimes they’ll call us down because we’re Native.” One former member of the Watch, she explains, made a point of telling Aboriginal people on the street it was his job to send them back to the reserves they came from.

Unlike the Winnipeg Police Service to which they aspire to belong, the Downtown Watch are not subject to formal mechanisms of accountability such as the Law Enforcement Review Agency in the instance of abuse or mistreatment. Who holds these “bad apples” in the Watch responsible and ensures they do not continue to oppress certain members of the public?

The red coats do not serve the public good by upholding the law in all forms and to all people, as police do. Instead, the Watch serves private, ideological interests mandated to them by the Downtown Business Improvement Zone and carried out by regulating the users and uses of public sidewalks deemed subversive or unsightly.

Theirs is a mandate that is unfamiliar with the varying, informal, multi-social workings of the urban sidewalk. Signs of a healthy downtown are rigorously controlled or condemned: enterprising new immigrants--eager to participate in urban microeconomics--plying their wares on tables and ledges are subject to constant requests for permits; self-assertive local musicians hawking their CD’s to passerbys are driven away for “panhandling”; street performers entertaining the huddled masses at busy transit stops are shooed away.

It seems that even the most basic characteristics of city life are met with bewildered suspicion from the Watch. Sitting with a coffee and newspaper on a bench or stoop downtown, I have seen the occasional Watch member offering me ominous stares as they pass by, as if sitting in a public space is a strange and foreign concept.

In spite of this rigid, clutter-removing private agenda they enforce under a complete lack of public accountability, plans are in the works to give the Downtown Watch even greater power. Members of the Watch will soon be given “special constable” status, the legal authority to detain people, under the Intoxicated Persons' Detention Act, involuntarily for up to 24 hours.

That the BIZ Watch members may soon have this power should be of grave concern not only to poverty activists and civil libertarians, but to any citizen who enjoys the right not to be detained against their will by private parties. Giving special constable status to members of the Downtown BIZ, sets a dangerous precedent in our society. After downtown, other city neighborhoods could have young, zealous patrollers put in place to regulate both public spaces and private property. Maybe yours.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Marathon as imagery

What do you do when a civic election is looming, your job is at stake, and you have to demonstrate to the public the discipline, vision, determination, concentration, etc. you have cleary shown you do not possess as mayor? Run a marathon and use it as imagery for these lacking leadership qualities, of course.

Will there be one local media outlet that won't act like giddy FOX News-style cheerleaders with this one tomorrow?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Nothing new

This clip of a 24 Hours news broadcast from September 1989 was dug up recently, and is a story on the relationship between the City of Winnipeg and land developer GenStar, and the plans to expand GenStar's Linden Woods Community®.

Watching this reminds me that things haven't really changed at all: it's the same incompetent business practises from the City; the same lies (accompanied by a 'study' put together by ND Lea, of course) from developers; and the same promises by their elected working horses who insist that something so financially, physically and socially damaging will be a good thing (current family and housing minister Christine Melnick, for one).

The profits, they all say, go back to the city. Though I was only eight years old in 1989, I would guess that Winnipeg's transit, libraries, trees, parks, streets, sewers, community centres, etc. did not improve much since then. I don't imagine downtown and the old city neighborhoods became healthier, more prosperous places thanks to Linden Woods either. Will they be improved 17 years from now, when Linden Woods Jr. sprouts up west of Waverly Street? Will the kids of Point Douglas have a place to swim again? Will multi-storey buildings replace surface parking as the most economical use of land downtown? Will Assiniboine Park not look unkempt anymore?

The City can't see the outcome of the future, but it can learn from the mistakes of its recent past if it chooses to.

Watching this clip also makes me wonder if voting for Al Golden wouldn't have been such a bad idea after all.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Walter Lewyc -- 1946-2006

Yesterday afternoon a service was held to mourn the death and to remember the life of Walter Lewyc, the venerable beat king of Winnipeg, who passed away last Wednesday after fighting cancer for many months. I arrived at the memorial ten minutes early, yet I could hardly find a place to stand: several generations of the Winnipeg arts scene, friends, and of course his dear family, had completely filled the Knysh Funeral Chapel on Main Street.

One friend shared how it was joked about in the late 80's that Lloyd Axworthy should be making cheques out to Walter, since he was doing more to revitalize the Warehouse District than the Core Area Initiative was doing. Years later, he was doing the same thing for Chinatown, opening the antique store/gallery/hangout spot that was Golden City at 209 Pacific Avenue. A long time resident of Point Douglas, most recently in a 1920's craftsman bungalow on Lusted Avenue, Walter had a profound influence on my wife and I's decision to move here last year.

Another friend shared how Walter had first become a bit of a legend among Winnipeg's burgeoning hippie crowd in the mid 1960's, when he travelled to California to check out the scene there, and was arrested in Berkeley for stealing socks to warm his bare feet. Fourty years later, Walter was still an inspiring beacon at the forefront of arts and subculture in Winnipeg, a true hipster.

Farewell to a neighbor and a friend, the man who was crowned king of the city at Market Square in 1994. Farewell to a man who sought after, found, and added so much to the dusty old pockets of urban sophistication of this city. Chinatown, Point Douglas, and the whole City of Winnipeg will miss you.