The woman wears her lipstick like armour and idles on the corner, fifteen blocks from the heart of the city. Simultaneously she glares and dares into each passing vehicle.
I note this hooker. Desperate for a shot of caffeine, however, I’m focused on the corner café’s door that winks behind her. The woman takes me in, then drops her gaze to the stroller I push: two blond-haired girls wave to and fro with the shock of the potholes, the curbs, the sinking drains. The older one smiles with an ease she will lose with the advent of insecurity and the little one blinks long flirtations put on for strangers. The woman’s tired eyes widen in a young face (up close, my God, is she sixteen?), her lips part and the words tumble out: “Oh—I’m sorry.” Before I can reply, she slips away behind a green waste-management bin.
Welcome to my neighbourhood: a place of transition, a place of tension. A place where distracted mothers occasionally are left smarting: At what point does someone begin to apologize for surviving?
A latte hisses in production as we enter the café. Children race to greet my girls with the news: “I saw a brown puppy!” “Mommy got me chocolate milk.” We’ve made these friends in the course of drinking our coffee at the same place every week. We warm the worn sofas tucked against the walls and our babes and toddlers turn the conversation’s flow into Morse code: di dit dah dah dah STOP dit dah di dit STOP di di dit.
The Carrot Coffeehouse is a community hub and almost entirely volunteer-run. Hailed as salvation by artists, stay-at-home parents and residents seeking a hip caffeinated beverage en route to somewhere, it’s a critical meeting place. The local paper, arts groups, a food network, the knitting club, a book club and the farmers market’s committee connect around kitschy tables. Musicians play on its stage three days a week and visual artists speak from the walls.
As I nurse my drink, immigrants pass by on the Avenue’s sidewalk, headed for Mama Afro’s Beauty Salon, the Somali grocer, the Portuguese bakery or the Bullie Barber/Driving School in the middle of the block. Men in blue jeans, rocking original ’80s hockey hair, pass the café in favour of toonie beer and a game of pool next door at the Green Frog. The sex and drug trades carry on at the block’s corners.
“Peas park?” my little one begs. Why not, I shrug.
So we move on. At the corner of 93 St and 118 Ave, we press the walk signal button on the light standard (recently revitalized with black chrome and Victorian detailing). Today the lamppost boasts a nametag, the kind with a blue scalloped border you get at staff development days. Its bold Sharpie font shouts: GENTRIFICATION IS THE NEW COLONIALISM. Before I have time to translate this jargon jingle, the white man on the light beckons us across the road.
At this, the “new park,” my girls spring on the newly laid recycled-tire mat which has replaced the sand that insidiously followed us home in cuffs, shoes, pockets and purses. The kids move onto the swings and squeal with every duck-under.
Across from the park stands a three-storey house where my grandmother and her mother lived in the 1940s. Their suite on the top floor overlooked a small rink where skates still slice after pucks. The next few decades weighed heavily on the Avenue, once an east/west thoroughfare, then made superfluous by the freeway farther north. The banks, hardware store, drugstore, appliance and bike shops were replaced by seedier cousins: cash stores whose usury is in the fine print, XXX video shops selling cigarettes as loss leaders, and pawnshops that insisted their services had no connection to a growing number of local B&Es. For the next few decades, crime stats were the hallmark of our neighbourhood.
Changes are afoot again. The still-warm housing market fuels young professionals and families to “Buy! Buy anywhere!” Former drug houses with their mysterious around-the-clock visitors are snatched up. Camper shoes, MEC jackets and artisan-crafted purses inhabit the reinforced closets that once protected stashes of loot and shotguns. Broken fences are rebuilt (a little higher and tighter than before). Lawns of quack grass and chickweed are replaced by dark compost boasting prolific poppies and pumpkins. Newer cars are parked behind freshly painted garage doors.
And this resurgent energy has begun to challenge the livelihoods of those transient shadow-people who sell the proscribed in alleys and parks. Forbidden highs and forbidden fantasies, by which the Avenue became infamous, now run parallel to lifestyles made “legitimate” by Revenue Canada and worked out in car payments, house payments, student loan payments.
Like a successful busker, media attention and festivals generate revenue for the revitalization of this community. City funding has replaced the old sidewalks and garbage cans with the kind you imagine are (but aren’t) in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. Government matching funds have paid for new facades, and federal money for energy efficiency has spurred renovations. The spitting slice of air compressors and muffled rumble of pavers serenade you on walks through the neighbourhood.
For the first four years I lived in Alberta Avenue, I’d see Carl—topped with a cowboy hat and swinging his briefcase—hiking confidently along these streets. He moved with an air of irreverence at the construction that transformed his regular routes into brick-layered, green-treed trails. He’d make his way from the new street overlay into his building’s foyer, up the stairs and down the long hall whose stillness mimicked that of a cat waiting at a mouse hole.
I knew him as “Uncle Carl” and we met when I worked at a downtown soup kitchen. He was an infectious optimist. On Monday most nouns were prefaced with “Marvellous!” There were Super Sundays and Fabulous Fridays. I loved his positivity; his cheeky middle finger to the challenges life threw at him. When he was a child, frequent violent seizures left him sometimes unconscious and always disoriented. He finished Grade 3, then the school “refused” to teach him. He learned to read and write at home. After moving to the city, he lived in various forms of poorly managed housing, mostly rooming houses and basement suites. He ate at the “safer” downtown charities, but no matter where he lived or dined, his briefcase, shiny as a freshly buffed army boot, accompanied him. Inside was a placemat and disposable cup saved from his morning coffee at the mall food court. “No point in tossing a perfectly good cup, eh?”
A seizure killed him in the suite that was new only four years ago, in a building that has aged like the girls—literally girls—working the outside corners. It is a building built with grants and loans from several levels of government who, eager to erase the memory of decades of cuts to affordable housing, perhaps forgot to ask about the builder’s management plans. Who will manage the self-medication that seeps in from the Avenue like gas in a room without a pilot light?
South across the Avenue from Carl’s building is Edmonton’s grittiest 7-Eleven. The staff are a mix of temporary foreign workers and recent immigrants whose professionalism has no limit. I wonder if, like me, they feel disorientation at the regular absence of familiar social conventions. On one visit, I saw a woman fill a cup the size of a small camping cooler with Coke. The foaming stream of carbonated sugar-water flowed as she shouted to her partner across the store, “If he thinks I’m going to give him more f___ing money for that asshole then he’s gonna have something coming to him. Ah, f___! Why didn’t you tell me it was gonna overflow?”
She looked like a woman I’d seen before at the transition shelter a block from my home, just one of a diverse array of people who make their home on my street. There’s a music teacher, a speech therapist, a building caretaker and a security guard. The mechanic a few doors down lends his trailer to anyone needing to make a “dump run”; the non-profit director’s husband just finished repainting their house. Two group homes, one for the physically disabled, the other for the “hard to house,” sit invisibly along the street. Within a one-block range of our home live seniors and children, high-school dropouts and professors, well-known musicians, and union workers. A family of nine lives in a three-bedroom house, and a home where an eccentric, elderly Greek man died peacefully last year sits empty. There are Chinese, Filipino and Italian families, a Caribbean man who loves marigolds and a senior who repairs her own eaves using an ancient ladder.
Walking home from the 7-Eleven, the little one is a glacier on tiny feet. It takes minutes to pass Pussycat Video—a white stucco building with a parking lot tucked conspicuously at the back. We go by the dollar store, and smile at bored patrons in the Phở King restaurant. The human traffic on the Avenue has virtually evaporated, so when people do pass we wave: at the lady walking her shepherd/pit bull cross, at the man in torn joggers and an Iron Maiden T-shirt who’s melting on the bus bench. The Avenue Theatre, first converted into a skate park, then a music venue, is quiet—until the night’s concert, which will draw crowds pierced with silver and hooded in black.
As we pass the old George’s Cycle building—one of dozens of empty buildings—we make faces in its glass front, which stretches for a whole block. A city arts group plans to turn the yawning interior into office and studio space for artist and other non-profit projects. It is a crucial transition note in a larger score titled “Revitalization.”
Then the little one spots swings. She’s too young to note that this is the “sad park,” not the “new park.” Almost always empty, it consists of a lot full of sand topped with a toddler slide, a couple of lengths of logs (balance beams?) and two baby swings. After I agree to a quick stop, I notice the quaking skeleton squatting under the trees. Where kids play, junkies usually don’t stay. However, today she takes no notice. The girls are busy building sandcastles as she injects, drops her head then rocks on her heels like a catcher before the sixth pitch.
Shawn, our nine-year-old neighbour, cycles by and stops. His body is sick with disease, his face bloated from medication that keeps his immune system from destroying his sole transplanted kidney. His life is a fine balance between sickness and health. “You guys going to that Take Back the Avenue thing?” he asks me as the girls fill their pockets with sand.
I shrug, non-committal. Styled after an old-fashioned “sit in,” the event features neighbours taking over corners where tweaking women in their sagging skinny jeans usually ply their trade. Instead of desperation and addiction, the neighbours bring games, guitars and canvases. I’m non-committal because I just don’t know. What is my relationship to the Avenue and its animators? And exactly how do I take back something that wasn’t mine to begin with?
By all accounts, the last temporary repossession had been a good party. All down the strip, musicians strummed ballads, artists painted and families played board games. Nearing the dinner hour, a man in a van stopped and asked the loiterers on one corner, “Hey, uh, just wonderin’ when you guys will be all done here?”
“Why do you ask?” shrugged the family sitting around a chessboard.
“Uh, Gerry’s wonderin’ if you’re gonna be much longer. He’s, uh, wonderin’ what time the girls can come back out.” On that night the women would return after seven.
On this night, around seven, I pull my lightly charred chicken off the barbecue. We eat under the clematis-draped pergola on a long, slim table inspired by rows in an Italian vineyard. White beer is paired with the first harvest of potatoes and carrots grown in my back-alley garden. Friends join us for dinner and we are serenaded by a symphony of howling canines that unfailingly accompany the ambulance sirens. Two houses north, the basement tenants arrive home and we wave. It’s at times like this that I wish my table were a few feet longer.
Carissa Halton lives in Alberta Avenue with her husband and three kids. She blogs at avenuehomesteader.blogspot.com.