Film explores how inner-city 'war zone' became vibrant family neighbourhood

The transformation of a Winnipeg housing complex from a graffiti-scarred gang-and-drug-ridden "war zone" into a vibrant and coveted neighbourhood is the focus of a new documentary film, A Good Place to Live.

'It was a place that you really tried to avoid if you didn't live there'

Families tend gardens at Lord Selkirk Park in this image from the documentary A Good Place to Live. (A Good Place to Live)

The transformation of a Winnipeg housing complex from a graffiti-scarred gang-and-drug-ridden "war zone" into a vibrant and coveted neighbourhood is the focus of a new documentary film, A Good Place to Live.

The Lord Selkirk Park complex, a collection of residential buildings tucked along a curve of Dufferin Avenue in the city's North End, was created in 1967. By the late 1980s, it had become plagued by poverty and violence, leading to abandoned and boarded-up units.

"It's indescribable what this park, that we call it, looked like. I've seen third-world countries that lived better than they did here in the '90s," Carolyn Young of Manidoo Gi-Miini Gonaan, a non-profit child-care centre in the neighbourhood, says in the documentary by Ian Mauro and Jim Silver.

Jim Silver sits on a bench in the Lord Selkirk Park neighbourhood in an image from the documentary. (A Good Place to Live)

"They referred to Lord Selkirk Park as a place of last resort to live, a war zone," says Janice Goodman of the North End Community Renewal Corporation.

"It was very, very hard to live here. There was so much gangs. You couldn't go outside without fearing what's going to happen to you," Madeline Hatch, a longtime resident, says in the doc.

In 2005, Manitoba Research Alliance — group of academic researchers and community and government partners —began working with Goodman's group to see if something could be done.

"When we came in here, some people were saying, 'This place is a mess. We ought to bulldoze it,'" said Silver, a member of the MRA and a professor of urban and inner-city studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Rather than raze it, the groups went about revitalizing it.

Lord Selkirk Park has gone from being a dangerous place people wanted to avoid, to being fully occupied with a wait-list to get in. (Google Street View)

Residents were hired to go door-to-door and ask neighbours what they wanted and needed to see in their neighbourhood.

"We started talking with people, trying to develop a sense of trust, develop relationships," said Silver.

The first step was to break through the social isolation that kept people inside, behind locked doors, he said.

"I think that was extremely important, because when you ask the people who are living in the situation what they need to make a positive change in their life, that's the right thing to do. They're the ones who know, so I think that was a really good strategy," resident Aja Oliver told the CBC.

She moved into the area in 2013, while the transformation was in process, but has family and friends who were in the neighbourhood during its toughest days.

Oliver had heard the stories, knew about homicides that happened in the park and was one of those who didn't think there was much hope for it.

Graduates from the adult education centre at Lord Selkirk Park walk past children in the park's daycare in this image from the documentary A Good Place to Live. (A Good Place to Live)

"It was a place that you really tried to avoid if you didn't live there," she said.

But in 2013, as a single mom with four children and low income, she had no choice but to move in.

"I was definitely nervous because of the reputation it had from before. I definitely wasn't expecting to see how much it's improved," she said.

A resource centre, an adult learning centre and a literacy program were all established. A daycare, a playground, garden boxes and lighting were installed.

The changes helped neighbours meet and shattered the social isolation. Many new immigrant families live in the area, tending to the gardens, raising their children in a community where people help and look after one another.

With financial support from the government, the rundown and dying neighbourhood was brought back to life.

Aja Oliver was afraid of moving into Lord Selkirk Park but now says it was the best thing that ever happened to her. (Aja Oliver)

Today, not only is Lord Selkirk Park fully occupied with some 1,200 residents, there is actually a wait-list to get a unit.

"If governments will invest in low-income communities, doing the things that people in those communities say they need, we can make real, serious change," Silver said.

Oliver now says moving into Lord Selkirk Park was the best thing that ever happened to her. Thanks to the adult education program, she graduated in June 2017 with her Grade 12 diploma — at age 35.

She is now working as a community support worker at the learning centre while attending classes at the University of Winnipeg.

A Good Place to Live will be screened Monday night at the University of Winnipeg's Eckhardt Gramatté Hall, with a question-and-answer session to follow.

The free event runs from 7-9 p.m.

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About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

With files from Marcy Markusa