Friday, October 29, 2010

Solution-focused therapy

"Let not the needy... be forgotten
Nor the hope of the poor be taken away."

- Anglican Book of Common Prayer

The recent result of the slow carnage in the North End has been met with considerable attention. National Post columnist Father Raymond J. de Souza, in town over the weekend to lecture at St. Margaret's Anglican Church, was shocked by the violence (and interested in this blog's take on it, I must say), and made it the subject of his column in Thursday's Post.

A city cannot afford this much disorder; indeed, this much disorder defeats the purpose of cities.

"The North End of Winnipeg is not an insignificant part of the city. It covers some 100 square blocks. So when local police advised on Saturday night that no one in the North End should leave their homes, and advised everyone else to stay away from the area, it was a temporary, but devastating, acknowledgement of a failure so complete that even living together was not possible."

Main Street looking south from the corner of Pritchard Avenue, from atop a fire-damaged apartment block that has since been demolished. Summer, 2006

Taking a broader look, to the North End as a neighborhood that is separated from the rest of the city by a giant rail yard; where residents face layers and layers of official and unofficial racial discrimination, significant barriers to employment and post-secondary education, inadequate and unaffordable housing, inadequate public welfare, and a lack of investment in local infrastructure and public recreation programming.

This is, of course, the North End that existed until the 1960s and '70s.

Since then, billions have been spent to move the North End away from this, and toward being a more socially equitable place: a place where newcomers are not confined to immigrant qhettos by an indifferent government; cast to the winds of industrial capitalism and an array of independent charity-based agencies provided by ethnic benevolent societies and altruistic Methodists. Instead, they are housed in communities by a deeply caring central government, and given a social safety net of post-industrial social democracy.

How has it worked so far?

Put another way, there are today more government-funded initiatives, agencies and resource centres of various kinds on Selkirk than there were in 1985. Is the surrounding neighborhood better off? Is it safer? Has poverty decreased? Far from ideal (like in 1992, when all was well in the world), many would say, but wouldn't there be at least some improvement overall? Wouldn't the streets of the North End become a just a little safer with every Lighthouse the Provincial government opens in the neighborhood? Wouldn't the culture of poverty become just a little less pervasive with every new implementation of the poverty reduction strategy?

What passes for "dealing with the root causes" has barely scratched the surface, and with no more effectiveness than top-down, numbers-based, foreign invader-type policing models have. The real root cause of the crime and death in the North End is that the neighborhood no longer has any roots at all.

Hanging out in front of the Merchant's Hotel, Selkirk Avenue and Andrews St. Circa 1945

Monday, October 25, 2010

Slow burn in a postal code that doesn't matter

"They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.
'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace."
- Jeremiah 6:14 (NIV)

In the evenings over the past summer, I would often hear loud fireworks of some kind going off somewhere around my home in North Point Douglas. Pretty benign stuff, but annoying enough to make my wife and I wish the neighborhood's bohemian influx would speed up, and the sounds of residents letting fireworks off on any given midnight would decrease; replaced by the sounds of the Fresh Options organic produce delivery trucks driving down the street, and the smell of Djarums coming from nearby verandahs and stoops.

Thankfully, though my Victorian-era house in Point Douglas sits in the middle of the historical, near-mythical North End, fireworks was about the extent of the nuisance experienced over the past year.

We have been fortunate to live on such a tidy, quiet, and friendly street in a relatively tidy, quiet and friendly corner of the North End. Watching our kids play on the sidewalk and chatting with our neighbors, my wife and I know it is a different story just a few blocks west.

On Austin Street, and across Main on streets like Flora, Selkirk, Manitoba, Magnus, and Boyd, decent people live there as they do on mine, but their neighborhoods are in a continual state of fear and disorder that has grown increasingly worse over the years. Gang violence has become commonplace, and the weekly roundup of stabbings and shootings are only the more dramatic (or reported) results in a continual state violence and disorder.

Unthinkable a decade or two ago, many parents do not allow their children to play on the front sidewalk. Children that do go outside get beat up and robbed by gangs of pre-teens, right in front of their houses. Even if there were still stores left to walk to, grandmothers who live alone, are afraid to venture on the streets they raised their own children on.

This isn't insider information: government officials across the board have known this for years.


Sitting at home on Saturday around midnight, I heard a gun shot somewhere in the distance. Definitely not fireworks this time. A little while later I began learning about reports of someone with a sawed-off shotgun who had shot three people, killed two, and was still at large. Winnipeg Police advised the citizens of the North End to stay in their homes, lock their doors and don't open them for anyone but the police. The entire city was told to avoid driving through the North End.

Tuning into the police radio scanner, I didn't come across anything about the gunman, just the usual stuff for the evening shift: descriptions of robbery suspects, and estimates on how long it would be until a cell at the Martha Street drunk tank was available. At one point, a call came through advising units about a robbery that occurred on Selkirk Avenue by a man brandishing scissors. But, the dispatch noted with a tone that implied "nevermind," the victim gave up his possessions without incident.

Saturday night in the North End, and armed robberies don't matter unless the victim is stabbed.


I will leave discussions of crime and policing to better blogs like Policing, Politics and Public Policy, and The Crime Scene, but it is worth pointing out just how geographically large the core of the North End--where crime and violence is strongest--is in relation to the rest capital region.

The North End, between the CPR, Arlington, Mountain, and the Red River, in relation to the rest of the Winnipeg region. But, like the new suburbs rising on the city's edges, the North End continues to expand outward: north past Mountain, west to McPhillips, and across the river to Elmwood.

While suffering through violence in 2010, much of the North End has had virtually no political representation. The M.P. Judy Wasylycia Leis stepped down to run for mayor, and the M.L.A. George Hickes and City Councillor Harry Lazarenko have both spent the better part of the year lying in hospital beds--working only slightly less harder for their constituents than they did in the years before. Without representation, property owners in the North End pay higher and higher tax bills as assessment values mushroom--all going towards the coffers of a City that does not care about them, the fear, the barbarism, the third world conditions, the bodies.

No matter how politically insignificant the North End is, no city can ever thrive overall with such a large portion of it living under the gun. When travel through an area more than 100 square blocks is not advised by police, and where no one charged with the task of caring seems to, local investment and residents will move out of north side of the city. New investment and new residents will avoid Winnipeg altogether.


"As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Nobody, no victim, who didn't matter. Makes me sick... how far we done fell." - Bunk Moreland, The Wire

Always the rougher part of town, the North End had street gangs dating back at least to the Depression, when kids formed gangs like the Dew-Drops and the Hi-Spots and terrorized shopkeepers and residents when they weren't brawling rival crews. The difference between now and then (and until very recently), is that the North End was still a functional neighborhood where citizens, with the law on their side, were the ones in charge. Today, on many blocks, it is clear the bad guys have won, and the police and the law and peace of a civil society gave up and went home. The social workers and community organizers who think they're revitalizing Selkirk Avenue are only passing through turf that turns into a jungle after they go home for the day.

There is no safety and order to be found on many blocks in the North End, and though this effects the entire city, no one cares. Left alone, Saturday night's rampage will become the new normal.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The sidewalk is too damn high

Work on replacing the sidewalks on Albert Street over the past month left a strange elevation of the curb right in front of the entrance to the Royal Albert Arms, at number 48. Why at this spot in particular does the curb rise more than a foot above the street? It is to inhibit jay-walking to and from the Albert, and crowds that hang around outside its doors between sets from spilling onto the street.

Street Life Prevention Through Environmental Design

This same type of streetscaping was employed in recent years on Main Street around Higgins Avenue, no doubt to curb (get it?) the jay-walking on that former strip of hotel bars. It has also been built on the east side of Osborne Street near the busy Toad and the Hole Pub--another place where jay-walkers like to get together and enjoy a drink or two.

Any taller, and City by-laws would require a railing

One consequence of this attempt at making it quicker and easier for cars to move, is that it is more dangerous for pedestrians. Imagine walking down the busy Osborne sidewalk and accidentally stepping off the giant curb. Or a pack of drunk hipster girls racing out of the Albert in granny boots to catch a taxi--another night of slumming it downtown nearly at its end--only to collapse on the massive drop from sidewalk to street. A sinister part of me finds this last image a little amusing, but the rest of me wonders what exactly Public Works was thinking.

*This post's title is borrowed from my new favorite political party

Friday, October 15, 2010

That was the plan, anyway

Looking through the Manitobia project, I came across several interesting items that show some of the rationalization behind the planning and urban renewal that reshaped the metro Winnipeg region after the Second World War.

In a letter to the Tribune in March of 1941, a Mr. A.V. Turner said that a city doesn't need to suffer a Blitz to be bombed to be rebuilt. Also interesting is the "anything and everything for employment" which has continued to drive much of government economic policy since the Depression.

The Tribune could see what was coming, and in May, 1944, an editorial proclaimed that "the present crowding of people into the city proper cannot be expected to continue indefinitely after the war. The residential and dormitory suburbs will undoubtedly make themselves felt once the restrictions on gasoline and rubber are eased. Families will spread out to the neighboring municipalities once "walking distance" is no longer an important consideration."

Another editorial later that year encouraged more planning as soon as possible:

"Now is the time to devise an overall plan for the city as a whole. When building starts it can be guided to conform to this master plan." In England, town planning had "made great strides with provisions for green belts, shopping centres, and decentralization." Planning, it went on, could keep Winnipeg "from expanding in haphazard fashion with business residential and industrial districts hopelessly intermixed."

Hopelessly intermixed: Simcoe Street near Sargent Avenue, c.1948

Not everyone was entirely on the bandwagon. R.H. Avent, a former City Surveyor, told the Town Planning Commission in 1944 that "[the pre-Unicity] Winnipeg itself, with an area of 25 square miles, contains a population of 223,000 where there would be ample accommodation, without crowding, for over 400,000."

Avent also noted that "the scattering of population... has increased the cost of municipal administration, distribution of utilities and of transportation. It is my opinion, therefore, that the policy of the future should be centralization, without crowding, and rehabilitation of the central areas now served with utilities."

Today, only 220,000 persons live in the former City of Winnipeg boundaries, slightly less than the 223,000 that lived there sixty-six years ago.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

123 Princess Street

On Friday I wrote of the hazard of giving more power to public development agencies. Not only ineffective and inefficient, they can be counter-productive. I used Centre Venture as a case in point: "Finding it easier than lending to small, risky private initiatives, Centre Venture instead busies itself taking credit for big-ticket projects that would have gone through with our without them. Centre Venture has even have made attempts to muscle out property owners who are actually renewing neighborhoods."

This was not the first time I've been critical of that organization for that reason. Nearly two years ago, I remember being contacted by two different people who both told me the same thing: I was more right than I knew. They were right.

Centre Venture responded to their organizations' own financial mismanagement by coming down hard on the loans made to small developments in risky parts of downtown. The real agents of change downtown, with their own money on the line, borrowers were abruptly cut down so that Centre Venture could stay solvent enough in 2008 and '09, to change directions and become an organization that plays middleman in the development of ugly publicly-driven megaprojects.

Now, one of these small players, Pat Hitchcock, who owns of a warehouse at 123 Princess Street is taking his ordeal with Centre Venture and the City of Winnipeg public with a website, Save 123 Princess Street.

Someone also took the story more visibly public, postering across Centre Venture's storefront office on Main Street (currently undergoing renovations).

Photos found at the forum

More details to follow, I am sure.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

A good day for bad ideas

What with my being part of the new media generation, I used Twitter to follow the Downtown BIZ mayoral debates on downtown issues last night, while studying for school. The tweeting brought the debate to the comfort of my kitchen table courtesy of Free Press reporter Bartley Kives, and PR professional Deborah Zanke.

Yesterday's debate demonstrated the very low level of thinking regarding downtown issues in Winnipeg. Not just the mayoral candidates and their inane responses, but the questions themselves, which aren't really a set of questions as much as they are one statement: Give us more of the status quo, please.

Land uses (question 3) and retail (question 8) should be micro-managed by public bodies; greater reliance should be placed on yesterday's mega-projects (question 7); still greater reliance should be on the public management of parking lots (question 9); suburban commercial centres are still to blame for downtown's woes (question 10); and of course, organizations like the BIZ should be given more money to be even greater self-serving cash cows (questions 1-10).

Stupid questions deserve stupid answers, and for the most part, the event organizers got exactly what they deserved.

It wasn't all bad: Katz gave lip service to private interest's role in cities (who knew?). Judy Wasylycia-Leis reiterated a pledge she made last month to remove the barricades at Portage and Main, and said transit buses should run later than 1:30 a.m.


But things got laughable when Sam Katz was asked about heritage, and responded that the Ryan Block fiasco is an example of a successful solution. And while it is a pleasant surprise to see the shell of the 115-year old warehouse rise again at the corner of King St. and Bannatyne, the backstory is one of shame not just for the City under Katz' watch, but every mayor going back to Bill Norrie (ask your parents). Close to 20 years of demolition by neglect, and at the end of it all, the City doles out lavish heritage tax credits to the owner so that he can build a parkade that apparently is poorly designed and charges above market rates.

Wasylycia-Leis, for her part, offered up another earlier promise to create a pedestrian mall in the Exchange District. But bad strategies peaked a few hours before the debate, when she announced that she would give the Winnipeg Parking Authority more power to act as a property developer, using parkade revenue to build city-owned mixed-use developments, theoretically on the site of surface parking lots.

This is essentially a promise to feed the monster that has grown during the Sam Katz years--of more "arms-length" agencies than Vishnu can keep track of, and giving them more and more power.


Increasingly over the past few years, City development agencies like Centre Venture have done less accommodating of the market and more tampering with it, while making themselves a redundant organization by focusing on public/non-profit development. Finding it easier than lending to small, risky private initiatives, Centre Venture instead busies itself taking credit for big-ticket projects that would have gone through with our without them. Centre Venture has even have made attempts to muscle out property owners who are actually renewing neighborhoods. What would make anyone believe the allegedly thuggish and unaccountable Winnipeg Parking Authority, under a new mayor long on "strategies" and micro-management, would be any better--nevermind that they would make a dent in Winnipeg's barren streetscapes.

And the book I took notes from while glancing at the Twitter feed last night: The Fatal Conceit by F.A. Hayek (a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand how cities, societies, and markets work). It was a little bit like studying the works of Rachmaninoff while listening to Nickelback.

Friday, October 01, 2010

"From one problem to another"

Winnipeg isn't the only city to suffer the junk science of Active Transportation facilities. This video shows New York commuters who gave up on the slower, more dangerous bike lanes built for them by the city, and are back riding in motorized traffic.

H/T - The Infrastructurist