How 1 block in Saskatoon provides a snapshot of the city's evolving west side
Years after a murder shook the neighbourhood, the 600 block of Avenue H is changing
The 600 block of Avenue H revives painful memories for Grace Barr. It was here, in the backyard of a house, that her son was killed.
Six years ago, Jaron Jahnke was shot in the chest at close range with a .22-calibre rifle.
The more they try and change the face of the Saskatoon downtown, they push poverty further and further behind them.- Grace Barr
Barr says her son, like so many who live in poverty, had little choice about where he wanted to live. That's how he ended up only a few doors down from his would-be killer, she says.
"It's a social issue. When people live in poverty they have no choice but to rent the cheapest, ugliest darn houses from landlords that don't care."
Daniel Caswell had only lived in the house kitty-corner from the notorious gang hangout for a few years when the murder happened. He remembers that evening, as the neighbourhood watched the chaos of the night bleed into morning. Flood lights lit up the entire block. The echoes of the loudspeaker bounced between the nearby houses.
After an hours-long standoff, police fired bean bags through the window of the house and swarmed in. It turns out the homicide suspect, a teenager who was eventually pled guilty to second-degree murder for the crime, had already fled to another home blocks away.
Caswell says the murder and the subsequent tear down of the home signified a change on the block.
"Getting rid of one really bad house made a big difference," he says.
"When people on the block started caring about where they live, little by little things started changing."
The lot where Jahnke was shot now sits empty. Grass fills the space where the gang house once stood. A few feet away, one of the city's few remaining pay phones looks lonely, anchoring the corner.
Barr says the removal of the house is no relief. She thinks the gangs have simply moved on. There is probably another house, on another block, that's just as bad.
"The more they try and change the face of the Saskatoon downtown, they push poverty further and further behind them. They don't look at the problem," she says.
'It's a really safe neighbourhood'
The 600 block of Avenue H is a curious case study in the evolution of Saskatoon's inner city. Once seen in the eyes as many as the rough part of town — marked by absentee landlords, gang houses and known for that high-profile 2011 murder more than anything else — they no longer define this block.
This summer, mornings are punctuated by the sounds of frontend loaders digging through concrete. The water lines are being replaced.
Home renovations were a common sight this summer.
In a back alley, gang graffiti is scrubbed out.
But broken down fire escapes snake up the backsides of buildings and in places weeds grow tall through the gravel. A back lawn is littered with discarded children's toys; another has a burnt-out trash can.
Like so much happening on this block, there is a sense of transition.
Kennalyn O'Brien bought her house here 17 years ago, when she worked as a waitress. It was affordable, she says, and close to the riverbank. She raised her children in the house. Now, she owns her own business. She is slowly renovating and says she has no plans on moving.
"There's a lot of foot traffic here and it's a really safe neighbourhood," O'Brien says.
She says she still gets questions from clients and friends about why she never moved — why she has chosen the inner city and specifically this block to raise her family.
"I walk everywhere I go, so there is always concern: 'How can you walk in those areas with those people?' It's unfortunate because these people are just going about their lives, doing their things with their kids, their families, their work," she says.
Gentrification versus renewal
It can be awkward to talk about renewal. In the world of cities, 'renewal' is often used as a stand-in for gentrification.
Broadly speaking, gentrification is what has happened to much of Riversdale, Saskatoon's inner city neighbourhood that includes a commercial corridor along 20th Street.
Rents in the area have spiked as new businesses, developers and homebuyers flocked to the area. The latest city assessment shows residential property taxes in the area increased 26 per cent year over year.
Until relatively recently, the 600 block was virtually immune to that gentrification. The convenience store sat there for years. So, too, did the second-hand furniture shop. Neither were neighbourhood attractions.
But more recently things have changed. Gentrification, it seems, has reached this section of the city.
This summer, lineups of people waiting for a scoop from a new ice cream store serving made-from-scratch cones were a frequent sight.
Jordan Ethridge, who opened Fable Ice Cream along with his wife this year, says gentrification is "a touchy subject and a strange word."
Ethridge's shop is a small but bustling place. It's part of a tiny strip mall that now houses a tattoo parlour with brightly coloured graffiti art on it.
Almost every morning he makes ice cream in the back before opening his doors.
"I don't really like that word personally," Ethridge says about gentrification. "For my wife and I … we don't want to bring about change or anything like that. We like ice cream. We live right across the street right over here. We thought this would a sweet spot to open our ice cream shop."
Ethridge says his small, independently owned shop has one goal in mind: serve homemade ice cream to people and make them happy. He and his employees donate their tips to a fund to buy neighbourhood kids ice cream.
Ethridge and other people who live on the block say the new businesses and the renovated houses are a good thing.
O'Brien, the longtime resident, says she loves the fact people are taking pride in their homes. She says it was almost inevitable that the trendiness of 20th Street would spill over to her small section of the world.
Social issues won't be fixed by rising rents: expert
Some people probably don't even realize they are part of an economic trend that's playing out in the inner city.
Take Robert Croteau. He moved into a house on the 600 block a little over a month ago. He moved from a townhouse in Stonebridge for one simple reason: "It's a nice house and the rent is reasonable."
He says when he first told people he was moving, he was warned about crime in the area. But he says he hasn't really noticed it. The worst thing that's happened is some graffiti on his garage — something he says happens in other parts of town all the time.
But, as Barr has pointed out, there is cause for concern.
"You look at some of the rentals downtown in Saskatoon — I've seen the crappiest places for $1,200, $1,400. The landlord doesn't want to do nothing; they just want to collect rent," she says.
She says her son didn't get killed because of the neighbourhood he lived in — there were broader, more intense social and economic factors at play. Gangs don't happen in a vacuum; neither do murders.
"You got the people who don't drink and drug who live beside drug dealers … it's a big social issue. A lot of these things have to do with poverty," she says.
Simply tearing down gang houses isn't going to solve poverty, she says.
University of Saskatchewan urban planning professor Avi Akkerman believes there are two kinds of gentrification: gentrification where people in a particular neighbourhood take it upon themselves to improve their community, their block or neighbourhood, and the other more invasive kind.
"The problem with gentrification elsewhere has been alienation. People who are the residents become estranged from their own place because the place now has undergone transition," Akerman says.
I don't think people should be under the illusion that Riversdale changed into Stonebridge or something.- Daniel Caswell
He says the story is familiar in other parts of world and indeed other blocks in Saskatoon: new businesses come in, followed by new investors. Those investors raise rents and the people who've called the community home for decades are pushed out.
"If they don't own their property they probably won't be able to stay. The people who are coming in are not part of the place; they just came in because it's an opportunity, an investment," he says.
Akerman says he's unsure if that will happen on the 600 block of Avenue H. But he says it's something everyone in the area — businesses and city planners alike — should be cognizant of.
The people on the 600 block — both and old and new — are hoping for something more in the middle of Akkerman's two types of gentrification.
Caswell, the neighbour who witnessed the aftermath of the murder six years ago, says he loves the neighbourhood and has no plans to leave anytime soon.
"I don't think people should be under the illusion that Riversdale changed into Stonebridge or something," Caswell says. "It's changed but there are still people from all walks of life around here and maybe that's what's good about it."
Ethridge, the ice cream shop owner, agrees. He says his goal is to embrace the local community. That's why he started the cones for kids program. That's why he's chosen to live across the street from where he works.
"Living in this neighbourhood you actually get to walk around and see people and meet people," he says. "People [who] live in the suburbs, they get in their car and they drive to mall. You don't interact with people nearly as much."