2 min

A scary night in Cawthra

Being proud of your neighbourhood park is not the same as owning it

Those who live on Monteith pour honey along the flat tops of the low, cement-capped wall that borders Cawthra Square Park along the north. The sticky mess keeps kids from sleeping there overnight, a resident said.

The kids piss on their stairs. When cops come by, the youth toss their illegal drugs up into the branches, then drag the branches down to reclaim the booty.

One beautiful tree has been destroyed along the way.

All this from a two hour “safety audit” of the park – the one behind the 519 Church Street Centre that we’ve claimed as our own. Pride celebrations are held here. The AIDS Memorial is a beacon. Even the trees and benches recall the names of loved ones or community groups which have given much to our day to day lives.

It’s ours, this lovely little park. We need to keep it healthy. And yet that sense of ownership can go too far. Residents often tangle up serious problems with their loathing of “undesirables.”

I don’t care who sleeps there at 4am – as long as they’re quiet. Noise? Call the police. If nothing’s done about it, keep calling higher ups until you get a beat cop in deep shit.

But many feel that their small piece of downtown means they can control people and places that aren’t theirs to control. And that is the problem with community “safety audits.” The “community” – represented that Wednesday night by a mere handful of people, some thoughtful, some not – makes decisions for us all.

Suggestions included lopping off the top of the gently rolling hill on the south side, down as far as the trees will allow without killing them.

They include cutting back some of the lovely thickets by the AIDS Memorial. The comfy window sills along the north wall should be embedded with sharp nails. Or at least blessed with decorative metal barriers.

They want sparse green space turned into a proper dog run, to keep canines out of their way when they’re walking through. (A cop in plainclothes yelled at one woman whose excited dog was – legally – running off leash.)

Many who went on this safety audit wanted to turn a lovely space into a green parking lot. Everything should be flat; trees should be skinny, with all the lower branches cut off, so as not to obscure the line of sight.

Transients use one small and out of the way corner as a bathroom. (The real tragedy is that the city refuses to allow for public toilets. Where do you think the homeless poo?)

They smoke up. (Reefer madness!)

Residents say they can’t sunbathe because of the scary types hanging around the fountain.

On the night we walked through, there was a gang of young’uns at the water’s edge. Two drank beer – they said hello as we went by. Half were girls, dressed up for a night on the town. Not one of the residents asked them who they were, why they were here. If they were just kids out sneaking a drink. If they lived down the street. If they were sleeping in the park, or just popping by.

I take some small comfort in the words of one of the city bureaucrats who herself couldn’t accept complaints that the girlfriends – and children – of drug dealers were hanging out in Cawthra Park, too. She noted that parks are for everybody.

I second that emotion.

And I’d to see some encouragement for even more such people to hang out.

Gay men cruising create safety. Prostitutes at every corner mean there’s women watching. Kids sneaking a drink aren’t your enemy. The homeless are not stalkers.

The need to push out the “other” is an emotional reaction, not a rational one. I know stumbling across gay men having sex is not terribly enjoyable (cuz I’m not one). Nor are johns looking for pick-ups.

But those who seek “safety” cannot allow themselves to buy into thinking like victims. We have to take up the space – without pushing everybody else out.

Eleanor Brown is Managing Editor for Xtra.