March 12, 2008

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Driving to our new home on our first day in Edmonton, Kevin and I passed under a bright red sign welcoming newcomers and guests to our Chinatown neighborhood. "The Gate of Happy Arrival" it read, but our arrival in this neighborhood felt anything but.

Once past the hustle and bustle and bright colors of the shopping district, we entered a dreary and derelict residential area. Funeral homes, pawn shops and used car lots were mixed in among the shabby old houses, and our neighbors seemed barricaded behind their chain-link fences. As we pulled into our back alley, the scene took my breath away: collapsing garages titled at odd angles, rusted out cars creaking on their concrete blocks, and plastic bags rolling down the snowy streets like tumbleweed. In an empty lot a few doors down from our house, a squatter had installed his RV for the winter. I actually felt grateful for the snow collecting in a thick blanket on the ground; it would cover up the worst of the ugliness until spring.

Kevin said that it couldn't really be as bad as it looked, but our first week offered little encouragement. Driving to the grocery store, I passed telephone poles plastered with "Report-a-John" signs, and our first issue of the community newspaper, The Ratcreek Press, heralded the recent police raid on one of the city's largest crack houses, "The Fortress," so named for its cinderblock walls and impenetrability to police surveillance. "The Fortress" was just a few blocks away from our house.

Then, when our furniture arrived, one of the movers, a wiry man missing both front teeth introduced himself as a neighbor. "A bit of advice," he said, leaning in as if to impart some highly confidential information. "This street here is OK, but don't go two blocks east. A lot of drug dealers and prostitutes over there." Welcome to the neighborhood, I guess.

Although our own house is well-maintained and the rent is modest, by then end of January I told Kevin that I just didn't think we could continue to live here. I didn't feel comfortable walking down the street by myself, and the scene outside my windows was offending every minute of every day. It wasn't just the bare trees and muddy snow. It was the legions of homeless people trolling my back alley and the falling down drunks in the front yard. And just as much, it was the fact that no one in my neighborhood picked up their trash or hung curtains or planted trees. I make no apologies for my petty bourgeois tastes. Ugly places just get me down, and Edmonton is possibly the ugliest place I have ever seen.

But as it turns out, my neighborhood is not the ugliest neighborhood in all of Edmonton. Since making my ultimatum to Kevin, I have driven the highways and byways of the city with an eye out for rental properties in nicer neighborhoods, but all I found were dismal, cookie cutter high rises or suburban split-levels that are mostly garage. Though more up-scale, these neighborhoods are depressing in their own way. Where were the historic urban neighborhoods like my old neighborhood in Little Rock, I wondered, with beautiful old homes and bustling community bakeries?

"But Sarah," Kevin said, "Our neighborhood isn't that different; it's just in how your look at it." To a certain extent he's right. My old Little Rock neighborhood is full of similar scenes. My parents' house, a beautiful three-storey Victorian, is hemmed in on four sides by a car dealership, a nail salon, a low-rent supermarket, and a neighbor who uses his backyard as the dump site for his construction business. The neighborhood itself is home to many dilapidated houses and its own fair share of drug dealers, and yet, I've always found such diversity charming, and I never felt uncomfortable walking down the street. And in Little Rock even the drug dealers hang curtains and plant a few petunias.

However, I can find no charm in the dilapidated state of our current neighborhood, because ultimately, Kevin's analogy is false. Though both neighborhoods are old and a little run down, they are not the same. My Little Rock neighborhood may be home to a few drug dealers and prostitutes, but it is also home to doctors and lawyers, artists and entrepreneurs, and even the governor of the state of Arkansas.

Our Edmonton neighborhood is home only to the poor and the working poor, and it's that lack of diversity that makes it so grim. It stands to reason that when you ghettoize all the poor and socially dysfunctional people in one neighborhood or housing project, the disfunction feeds on itself and becomes deeply intrenched. However, if you break up that homogeneity by adding families from higher socio-economic brackets to the mix, it lifts the standards of the whole neighborhood. I guess it has something to do with "keeping up with the Joneses." Or maybe the people from the higher socio-economic brackets call the authorities on the squatters, drug dealers and prostitutes, either way, it makes a for a nicer place to live out of all proportion to the modest influx of income.

This is all just another way of saying that my Little Rock neighborhood was more gentrified, which, though good for property values and the general appearance of the neighborhood poses its own problems by just pushing the poor into another neighborhood. "The poor will always be with us," they say. But is it really so awful that I wish to live where they are not?

Locals tell me that my neighborhood, with its old houses, tree-lined streets, and close proximity to downtown, is the next area in Edmonton to be gentrified, and that if we buy now, we'll make a killing in real estate. One local who's lived here thirty years or more, told us that gentrification is already well under way. "We don't have nearly the drunks and homeless that we used to," she said. Maybe they're right, but I don't plan on waiting around for ten or fifteen years to see the process completed.

In the past two months, though, my initial disgust has softened and I now try to look at my neighborhood with a certain degree of humor. Kevin and I like to joke about the "Mildly Chinese Herbal Centre" down the street from us. (Are the herbs mild or the Chinese, we wonder?) And whenever I walk down the street -- for I do walk down the street now -- a neighbor's life-sized, metal lawn moose makes me stop in my tracks and laugh every time.

I have also discovered that there is a great deal of diversity in our area, though of the cultural rather than socio-economic variety. Nestled as we are between Chinatown, Little Italy, and a heavily Ukrainian area, we can buy staples at the Lucky 97 Asian grocery, pasta and prosciutto at the Italian deli, and discount wine at the Ukrainian liquor store -- along with all of the local winos. Within a few blocks' radius of us are the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the Vietnamese Catholic Church, the Chinese Catholic Church -- truly a diversity of catholicism! And if you need more variety, there is the Truc Lam Buddhist Monastery across the street.

Still, I would move in a heartbeat if I could. The fact of the matter is that we can't afford to move. Not only is ours the only section of town where we can afford the rent, even if we found a comparable place elsewhere we couldn't afford the moving truck to take us there. Although Kevin is a college professor, in a town dominated by big oil money such an income doesn't go very far at all. With only his salary to live off until I get a work visa, we make no more that our neighbors who both work low-wage jobs. Somehow, with 15 years of higher education between us and creditable work histories, we have become members of the working poor, barely making ends meet. We are not in the upper brackets of an economically mixed neighborhood, we are in the same bracket as everyone else in our little ghetto. And that, ultimately, is what makes this neighborhood so unbearable.

No comments: