Drugs, violence and the 'code of the street': How Calgary's open-air markets form and function

The sidewalks are full of pedestrians on any given day on First Street S.W., returning from work, bags slung over their shoulders, as they pass by a shisha lounge, barber shop and upscale restaurant. 

Expected behaviour at crime hot spots is often unspoken and reinforced by violence

Calgary police say they are aware of 15 to 20 'crime hot spots' in the city, like this one at a convenience store, on the corner of First Street and 11th Avenue S.W. (CBC)

The sidewalks are full of pedestrians on First Street S.W. in Calgary, returning from work, bags slung over their shoulders, as they pass by a shisha lounge, barber shop and upscale restaurant. 

Nearby, multi-level apartment and office buildings line the street; craft breweries and popular eateries will soon welcome the after-work crowd.

Directly across the street is a convenience store that Calgary police refer to as one of the city's "crime hot spots," an area where police vehicles will often park, keeping watch.

This hot spot emerged only recently but it has brought with it violence. A stabbing that left one man dead took place near here earlier this month. Police said they believed the attack was targeted and motivated by drugs.

This convenience store is just one of 15 to 20 similar "open-air drug markets" that police are aware of in Calgary. Some of these hot spots are "chronic" locations, while others cool off and flare up over time.

Nearby residents might wonder: how do these hot spots form? What is the police strategy in handling increased levels of violence and crime?

And what is life like, exactly, for the people who spend time here?

How markets function

It may seem strange that drug trades are happening out in the open, well within view of anyone who cares to look. But these open-air markets are, in fact, functioning as intended.

The drug market operates like any other market — there are buyers, sellers and various streams through which a product arrives at its intended destination.

To gain access to a private dealer, one might need to prove their trustworthiness to assure said dealer they are not a member of law enforcement.

That's not the case at an open-air market for a couple of reasons.

First, dealers at these markets tend to be low-level figures in a drug operation. Police say that if they arrest one dealer, another is likely to take their place in short order.

Second, being open and visible is, in a sense, a marketing strategy. If someone were searching for drugs in Calgary, they'd likely be aware of the location of one of these markets.

There is plenty of foot traffic near a convenience store that police regard as a crime hot spot. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

"In one sense, it's probably dangerous. But it can't be extremely dangerous, otherwise nobody would come," said John Eck, a professor at the University of Cincinnati and researcher of drug markets. "The most dangerous place is not going to have much drug activity at all, because who would buy there except extremely desperate people?"

Open-air markets tend to form within close proximity of a major arterial road or near an area with high levels of foot traffic. Other amenities — like lookout points, escape routes and enough street activity to attempt to disguise what's happening — are also desired by sellers.

If dealers set up locations farther away from major hubs, it's also more difficult for users to find them, which is why you'd be hard-pressed to find an open-air market in the suburbs.

Escape routes are desired near open-air markets, like this alleyway located behind a convenience store that Calgary police regard as a hot spot. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

The code of the street

Stabbings and shootings that take place in these contexts can often be reported in a colourless fashion. You might read a name, an age, a cause of death.

Often, you'll read that such incidents were targeted and related to drugs. It can seem senseless.

But each of these incidents emerged out of a specific set of circumstances, and often can be traced back to a violation of rules that dictate how one is to behave.

"What we see from the outside is a report of a shooting or a knifing or a beating. What we don't see is all the times that doesn't happen," Eck said. "Those things that happen, happen because somebody is acting inappropriately for the circumstance."

Members of these communities, often living alienated from broader society, have had to develop their own rules to protect themselves from violence and to govern social relations within their community.

Elijah Anderson is the author of Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. (Submitted)

Yale professor and famed urban ethnographer​​​​​ Elijah Anderson refers to these interpersonal relations as the "code of the street."

Because those who feel marginalized often lose their trust in police and the justice system, a new kind of "people's law" or "street justice" emerges, one that is unconsciously understood and reinforced by violence.

"You have to fend for yourself by taking your self-defence into your own hands," Anderson said in an interview with CBC News. "You cannot count on the police, you cannot count on the justice system … so street credibility becomes very, very important."

Take an ordinary drug deal at an open-air market. If an individual were to procure drugs from a dealer and decide they were not going to pay for them, that individual would likely be held accountable with violence.

As the threat of violence is constant, certain behaviours that might seem banal in mainstream culture can be taken as a serious sign of disrespect. For example, maintaining eye contact for too long can become "serious indications of the other person's intentions," a warning sign of an imminent physical attack.

"Street credibility is high maintenance. It doesn't happen once and for all. You gotta keep doing it," Anderson said. "That's why, sometimes, people get killed over a two-dollar debt, because of somebody disrespecting them."

Who participates in these hubs?

Some users may not be frequent participants in open-air markets. They may purchase drugs once and never return.

But other individuals — those with drug addictions, those who are homeless or those involved in crime — may become more frequent attendees at these locations. Many become known to police.

Some individuals in these communities started out as victims, having been introduced to drugs by family members or significant others who got them hooked to expand their markets, Anderson says.

Plus, as automation has led to an economy with fewer jobs available — or service industry jobs, which frequently don't pay people enough money to live — they may consider turning to the "underground economy."

"And the most lucrative part of the underground economy is the drug trade," Anderson said. "The code of the street is fully, fully manifested in that kind of enterprise — you can't go to court with a drug deal."

These individuals may have turned to crime having found no other alternative and having felt society's contempt for their lifestyle or appearance.

Many people who live on the street are bereft of hope for their future and even talk about planning their own funerals, Anderson said. 

And, of course, not being afraid to die is "by implication to have few compunctions about taking another's life, for the right reasons, if the situation demands it."

The role of the police

One of the more notorious open-air drug markets in Calgary is a convenience store located just off the CTrain line on Seventh Avenue S.W.

It's seen stabbings, shootings, even an notorious incident in which a woman shoved a teenager into the path of an incoming train.

Given the prevalence of violence, and the seemingly permanent existence of a hot spot in this location, one might wonder what strategy police have employed to respond.

Insp. Rob Davidson says those strategies have included introducing high-visibility policing, identifying prolific offenders and collecting intelligence, while simultaneously developing long-term plans around disrupting supply lines and the larger drug trade.

"The long-term success will be when we start tackling the complex social and health issues in and around mental health and homelessness," Davidson said. "Then, we will start to drive down supply demand."

Insp. Rob Davidson says police won't tolerate the illicit drug trade at hot spots and the associated violence that goes along with it. He says they are making a concerted effort to target higher-level trafficking. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

Crime hot spots and open-air drug markets are hardly a Calgary-specific phenomena. Calgary's isolated pockets of activity pale in comparison to something like Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a centre for people experiencing homelessness and addiction dating back decades.

"We are, as a society, increasingly seeing drug use — whether it is legal or illegal — as a public health problem and not a moral failing," said Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University. "Once we look at the issue through that lens, there begins to be much less support for criminalizing people who have dependencies on various drugs.

"Police, the courts, and the public at large have moved away from the idea that the best response is to flood this population with arrests."

The role of the merchant

Even if police arrest dealers outside of these locations, others are likely to take their place. It's why Eck thinks much of the responsibility falls on the merchants, not the police.

"Some business owners are extremely savvy. As a general rule, if they're very savvy, they're unlikely to have a lot of crime," he said. "But there are businesses, and sometimes chains of businesses, that are more crime-tolerant than others."

As convenience stores are often located in high traffic, high visibility areas, it makes sense that dealers would set up shop in such a location — and it's the tolerance and security protocols of such businesses that allows crime to persist, Eck says.

"We want to treat this as if it's a police problem. Actually, it's not. It's the problem of the owner in those circumstances," Eck said. "The solution is not just more police. It's changing the business practice."

Some merchants may just be ignorant to the fact that these hubs have coalesced around their businesses, Eck said — and by extension, they may have left their operations to employees who are poorly trained, unsupervised or even profiting off the trade themselves. 

Owners may be unable to afford to implement new procedures, or they may feel intimidated by possible retribution if they attempt to push back against hubs.

The Circle K located off the CTrain line on Seventh Avenue S.W. has been one of the more notorious open-air markets in Calgary for years. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

But some local businesses may also fall victim to distant large corporations — large national or international corporations with standard policies that restrict the strategy of local managers.

"Often the policy is based on fear of lawsuits and worries that someone might be hurt," Eck said. 

Multiple open-air markets in Calgary are located at Circle K locations. In a statement provided to CBC News, Couche-Tard — the company that operates the Circle K brand — says it takes these concerns "very seriously."

"We have implemented best practices for crime prevention and conduct regular risk assessment at our Circle K locations across Canada," the statement reads. "However, for the safety of our customers and personnel, we cannot disclose the details of our security measures."

Unclear solutions

Though police say they are focused on mitigating violence at the city's crime hot spots, knowing where these activities are taking place actually does present some benefits.

"As locations become more prominent, we put our resources in there," Davidson said. "We know where we're typically going to find people."

The problem is likely to be exacerbated in coming years as industries continue toward automation, and those who are desperate or marginalized begin to consider the underground economy as a legitimate option.

"People, they need jobs, they need opportunities," Anderson said. "But they also need an enlightened citizenry."


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