Tag Archives: Jane Jacobs

Do Cities Really Want to Change?

Maybe Saskatoon doesn’t change because it is afraid of it.

The civic world is obviously more complex than this simple joke. But given the persistent failure to change the trajectory of so many places despite the enormous time and energy — not to mention vast sums of taxpayer money — spent on it, it’s worth pondering the possibilities.

Problems are problems, but they are also sometimes solutions to certain sets of questions. One of these is how to mobilize, allocate, and deploy community resources and power. Fighting decline has become the central organizing principle in many places.

As a friend of mine from the IT industry once put it regarding what he termed “rackets”: “A racket is when folks have something they complain about and commiserate about but don’t fix. Upon delving into the roots of a racket one finds that the folks don’t really want it fixed — the subject of the racket is a unifying force that if corrected will remove the common complaint and thus the unifying force. The cultural changes that would ensue from the change in practices that ‘no one wants’ are not acceptable to [the complainers]. In corporate organizational behavior, it is important to break the rackets. It is also difficult. But, I imagine, far easier in a company with some semblance of common objectives than it would be in an each-man-for-himself city.”

In short, economic struggle can be a cultural unifier in a community that people tacitly want to hold onto in order to preserve civic cohesion.

Jane Jacobs took it even further. As she noted in The Economy of Cities, “Economic development, whenever and wherever it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” And it isn’t hard to figure out that even in cities and states with serious problems, many people inside the system are benefiting from the status quo.

They have political power, an inside track on government contracts, a nice gig at a civic organization or nonprofit, and so on. All of these people, who are disproportionately in the power broker class of most places, potentially stand to lose if economic decline is reversed. That’s not to say they are evil, but they all have an interest to protect.

Consider one simple thought experiment: If a struggling community starts booming, that would eliminate a big part of the rationale for subsidized real estate development, which constitutes the principal form of economic development in all too many places, and which benefits a clear interest group. It might also attract highly motivated, aggressive people from out of town, folks who are highly likely to agitate for better than the current inbred ways of doing business. This would inherently dilute the positions of the current powers that be.

Saskatoon has a substance abuse problem

Last night Wendy, Mark, and Oliver came along as I picked up Christmas kettles at the malls and collect them to be counted.  As I was driving from Wal-Mart in Confederation Mall along 22nd Street to Midtown Plaza.   A women just walked out in front of three lanes of incoming traffic.  Below is a screen shot of the location from Google Maps from this spring.

Google Street view of 22nd Street West in SaskatoonIt was dark and foggy last night and she was wearing a light grey coat and jacket that blended into the icy streets.  Wendy and I saw her at the same time and I hit the brakes and the horn.  I don’t drive that fast but I was still doing 50 kph along the road.  She kept on walking in front of the van.  The van slid. So did the car behind me and beside me.  She kept on walking in front of the van.  I swerved.  She kept on walking.  For a second I thought I was going to hit and kill her.  She kept on walking in front of the van.  I missed her by a less than an inch.  I think my mirror may have grazed her jacket. She just kept on walking.  Never looked up, never acknowledged she just about got hit but a couple of cars.

I called the Saskatoon Police and dispatch did what she needed to do but by the time I got to Midtown Plaza, I was shaking and my heart was still racing.  I have never come so close to ending some one’s life as I had last night.

This wasn’t the first incident we have had with someone who was really high on drugs this week.  On the way home from our staff Christmas party on Sunday night, we drove down Avenue D, past the 33rd Street Safeway.  It was below –40 degrees Celsius that night.

Google Street View of 1212 Avenue D North

As we drive past this place, I noticed what looked to be a pile of garbage propped up beside the tree.  As my headlights hit it, I noticed it was a person sitting there.  I looked at Wendy and we around the block again and saw the women who had been sitting up beside the tree, was now laying down.  We called the police and ambulance and before they got there, she came to.  She had a variety of needles, vials and what looked to be some moonshine with her.  She had no shoes on and from the dark spots on her bare feet, she had severely frozen her feet and had no idea where she was.

I spent last night trying to figure out if this is getting worse and I think it is.  Now in hindsight I should have known better than to drive down 22nd Street on a Friday night when there are checks out.  It can be a zoo.  As a teenager growing up in Lawson Heights, the was a free weekly paper called the Saskatoon Free Press.  In it they had a column called West Side Stories that talked about so many of the things that I see today.  From our vantage point in Lawson Heights, I thought he was lying and making this stuff up.  I think about it the columns a lot now when I see prostitutes shooting themselves up while walking home in the early morning or I see taxi’s roll up to the MK Kitchen in the middle of the night.

The MK Kitchen in Saskatoon

A package is tossed up into a window and a package is tossed back down.  I am pretty sure they aren’t distributing Gideon Bibles.

I wonder if this is the changing face of Saskatoon.  Wendy tells me that she has dealt with more customers high on drugs in the last year than she has seen ever before.  It has happened enough that she has the number to police dispatch memorized.

In Saskatoon, the money has come in, the good times are more or less here, the city has boomed and many have gotten rich.  Rent has gone up, cost of living has gone up and some are left behind.  I have often wondered if certain people turn to drug use when other hope is gone.  When you take home ownership away and low skill jobs are low paying, where happens to the hope?  Of course this just causes more problems.

What’s the answer?  Well the War on Drugs hasn’t done that well in the United States and according to Freakonomics, it has made the problem worse.  So much of the discussion that revolves around drugs today, revolves around white collar recreational drug use and generally revolves around legalizing or decriminalizing pot.  While I have never smoked pot, I don’t get to excited about it when friends do either.  I am not talking about pot.  It’s the meth.  It’s the heroine (and some abusing methadone as well).  It’s the crack and and cocaine.  More police on the streets makes a difference but even then there is only so much you can do.  While last night personally shook me up, about ten cars drove by that women almost frozen to death on Avenue D.  It was –40 and only two of us stopped. Jane Jacobs would be the first to say that until we care as neighbors what is happening in our neighborhoods, there is little the police or city can do. 

Jacobs maintained that mix use residential neighborhoods (industrial, residential, and commercial) was key to vibrant neighborhoods and communities.  This goes against what most cities desire as her ideal upholds redundancy against order and efficiency.  While we don’t have any input over rezoning and land use in Riversdale and the west side, we can work hard at connectiing people to each other and their community.  Last year I attended a speech by Iian De Jong who was the manager of the City of Toronto’s Streets to Home program.  In any Housing First program, the key is to get people stable housing and then work from there.  One thing he said was interesting and he talked about how important it was to create horizontal ties in communities.  Living in a car driven culture like Saskatoon, there isn’t a lot of ties I have to my neighborhood outside of our loyalty to the 33rd Street Safeway and the Bellissimo Ristorante and Lounge nearby.  We don’t feature a lot of mixed use neighborhoods in Saskatoon which means that unless someone goes out of their way to make an effort, you don’t know anyone else which is why you are left to freeze on a busy street or allowed to walk out into six lanes of traffic when you need to be at Larson House or at least inside out of the cold.  The challenge I guess is being part of a process where we create an environment where more people care and are engaged with what is happening around them.

I wish I could tell myself that this is two isolated incidents but we see this all of the time at work.  Booze, gas, drugs, solvents, and even model contact cement being abused to horrific levels.  I have been told by numerous people that there is a local doctor who will prescribe drugs to people and as you are walking out of his office, people offer to buy part of your prescription from you.   Wendy tells me that she is seeing it a lot more at work and we have seen more of it in our neighborhood as well.  In a recent e-mail from our city councilor, he pointed out that Saskatoon Police obtained a search warrant in our neighborhood the other day.

As a result two females were arrested and a large number of drug paraphernalia was seized.  This was a location used for shooting up.  It has been shut down.

Now only if they would shut down the numerous locations selling drugs…

In Reckoning: Drugs, Cities, and the American Future, author Elliote Currie says that the problem is big enough in America to threaten the countries future.  The problem is that they have been neglected for so long that the solution is focused spending on education, job training, and employment opportunity programs.  Of course those kind of solutions takes decades and generations to make a big impact and in the process, you have lost entire generations of people to drugs, violence, and crime.  It seems like such a waste.

I know many say, get tough on crime but as a parole officer reminded me, the average sentence is only 60 days which is enough to cost you your job, get you evicted but not enough time to get help in jail.  Also, there is almost no drug programming available in provincial jails.  For some reasons the same governments who like to get tough on crime also favor cutting back rehabilitation funding in prisons (it makes no sense to me because unless you plan to give everyone a life sentence, without programming they will return to their life of crime but this time with a better criminal network).  While I am not opposed to longer sentences, I do want them to get help when they are there to stop recidivism when they get out.

Well I will ponder some of this over the holidays and see what we can do when I get back to work in January (I am taking the week off after Christmas this year).  If you have any thoughts, let me know in the comments.