At the end of last summer, Boyle Street Community Services purchased the building it has occupied since 1995. Apart from the importance of this event to the 9,000 people we serve every year – the majority of whom are of aboriginal descent – the purchase is noteworthy because it puts Boyle Street across the road from the new downtown arena and entertainment district.
Can a busy social agency – and there are a number of them in the inner city – that serves some of the most marginalized of citizens live cheek by jowl with a spanking new arena that we are promised will lead to the resurrection of the downtown? How we respond to this challenge will colour what kind of city we hope to build during the next 20 years.
In many cities across North America, downtown revitalization often means gentrification and gentrification means poor people who don’t fit in are moved on to corners of the city away from the mainstream.
Is this what we want for Edmonton? Do we want the new arena and the hoped for re-birth of our downtown core to result in a city of solitudes? In our view, securing Boyle Street’s location is a substantive accomplishment, a symbolic victory and a great opportunity to bring communities together.
What is this opportunity? In our view, it is the opportunity to build an inclusive community. A community where people live next to each other, learn about each other, work together and respect each other.
How can this begin? As in most challenges of this nature, it often starts with a symbolic gesture. Some years ago, the City issued the Aboriginal Accord, a statement that symbolically telegraphed that indigenous peoples are an important part of the city fabric.
Might it be time for a statement that supported the concept that we are a city that recognizes we live with poverty, that we live with people who are homeless, struggle with mental illness, work the streets, are paying the price of childhood abuse – and we want to do something about it? But a symbolic statement is only as good as the paper it is written on. It must make commitments that will lead to action. A City of Edmonton statement about community inclusion could have the following components: Public spaces are for all people: We should insist on design standards, programming and security that is respectful of everyone. Last year, we worked with the security people in City Centre Mall to help them work with the homeless population that frequents the mall. The security company nominated us for an award.
Community policing: We are seeing more evidence of police officers working respectfully with our clients. A public statement from city hall should underline a continuing commitment to community policing.
Helping people avoid harm: We work with people who are addicted to drugs and use too much alcohol, as they self medicate usually to help them erase the effects of childhood abuse and trauma. When we help them reduce the harm of using drugs by making clean needles and treatment services available, we help clear a path to rehabilitation. A city statement about reducing harm followed by a commitment to support sensible harm prevention programs would send a powerful signal.
Living together: When we build safe housing across this city and provide a way for conflicting interests to resolve differences, we will have a chance to include marginalized people in our community. But we need the City to take leadership by indicating it is committed to finding a way for communities to resolve their differences.
Learning together: We often meet people who are scared to come to our community centre. But once they meet our community members, listen to their stories, find out who they are and learn about their strengths, the bond is amazing. A public statement and strategy should encourage more interaction between communities that don’t typically interact. We face this challenge with new immigrants; why not use some public energy to engage public schools, community leagues, seniors’ organizations and candidates for city council to learn about the people inner city organizations serve? We have just elected a new mayor and council. Perhaps our suggestions on how to signal their interest in building an inclusive city and how to build a bridge between our two solitudes will interest them?