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.