Last fall the Avenue Community Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (ACC) moved from their downtown location, where they’d been for over a decade, to the Riversdale area of Saskatoon. With Saskatoon booming, rents downtown have increased more than 50 percent while Riversdale remains a more affordable part of the city.
Riversdale is an urban neighbourhood that is frequently looked down on as a rough part of the city where the poor and marginalized live. Over 40 percent of the residents are aboriginals, and many are living in poverty. It was also Saskatoon’s first Chinatown, and the area still attracts immigrants because of the cheaper rents. Recently the neighbourhood has been changing as many of the bars and cheap hotels are being torn down or converted into other uses.
The ACC’s new home is in a building owned by Habitat for Humanity, surrounded by blue-collar businesses and a food bank.
As part of Saskatoon’s Pride Week, the ACC decided to throw a block party on Jun 10. “It’s important that we know our neighbours,” said ACC co-director Bob Challis, “and our block party will provide an opportunity for us to meet one another.”
Volunteers flipped burgers and hot dogs for the crowd that was originally expected to be around a hundred people. However, over 500 people showed up to the block party. Many were from the neighbourhood who showed up to enjoy free burgers and chips as well as the entertainment which was emceed by local drag legend Crystal Clear, who also works at the ACC.
Wes Williams, the president of the Riversdale Business Improvement District (BID) spoke to the crowd and welcomed the queer community centre to the area. “It’s exactly what we need in our diverse community,” Williams said. “If you want to change a neighbourhood, invite the gay community in,” he added. “Riversdale has always been an area of acceptance and cultural diversity will help revitalize Riversdale.”
Riversdale BID executive director Randy Pshebylo echoed Williams saying that he was excited to see the ACC moving into Riversdale. “We’re looking forward to a long relationship with the ACC,” Pshebylo said. “Our knowledge tells us that if an area that can capture and encourage the gay community to move in, we can say we’ve arrived. We want to do what we can to encourage the growth of gay businesses in our neighbourhood.”
Pshebylo added that he was discouraged by some of the negative responses he got from some of the businesses he approached about getting involved in the block party. “This is 2009 and I didn’t expect to hear some of the negative things I heard,” he said.
Challis said he was pleased with the event. “It exceeded our expectations,” he said. “There was a good mix of people from the neighbourhood as well as from the queer community.”
Challis is also pleased with the move to the new facilities. Since the move, he says more people are accessing the centre. “The response to the move has been very positive with more people accessing our services, many of whom we have never seen before,” he said. “There appears to be a large community of queer people living in Riversdale.” He added that they have also received a very positive response from the businesses in the area.
Since the move the centre finds itself dealing with a different set of issues including homelessness, poverty, spousal abuse, and more people being in crisis when accessing the center. “This move has been one of the better things we done in the past few years,” Challis said.