The Naked truth
For 26 years, Bob Ligertwood has played godfather
to the city’s misfits and cyber-geeks
By Gwyneth Bignell
WHAT IS A CITY without community? What is a community without a hub? For 26 years, Naked Cybercafe has been that place, no matter how hard the city of Edmonton has tried to stop it.
In 1996, Robert Ligertwood – known to the community as Bob – and his son opened the first Naked location on Whyte Avenue.
“Every penny that I had went into buying the computers and buying this place,” he says. “We didn’t have a clue what was going to happen.”
Within a few days, the place was packed. Being the only cyber cafe in Edmonton at the time, they were basically forced into keeping long hours.
“Every computer geek in the city heard that we were there,” Ligertwood says. “That we had these computers in this place, and we were full 24 hours a day. We had no intention of being 24 hours, but, from that day forward, for about 15 years, we were open 24 hours, seven days a week.”
Naked Cybercafe became a home for gamers, chatters and businesspeople alike.
‘It became this pretty cool
little community of people’
“It became this pretty cool little community of people.”
But it wasn’t until they moved the cafe to its next location on Jasper Avenue that the community strengthened, and the fate of Naked was determined.
“As we moved downtown, we were more a part of the inner-city community where, on a cold night, there would be a dozen people sleeping on the couch,” Ligertwood says. “Even today, there will still be people who come in and have a sink shower and snooze on the couch for a couple hours … That’s why we were evicted.”
The eviction had a severe impact on Ligertwood‘s mental health, he says, but no matter how hard it got, he wouldn’t surrender. He says that if he had been affected by that psychology, the bullying from the city and city organizations might have found him ready to jump from the High Level.
When Naked hit Jasper Avenue it became an unspoken, but well known, safe haven for people who might not have otherwise had anywhere else to go. And the city hated it.
“They thought they could cleanse downtown by getting rid of people that worked with the community and supported each other,” Ligertwood says. “They thought, ‘If we get rid of these guys, all these other people will go away.’”
Most nights, the cafe attracts an eclectic crowd of people, who, to the outsider’s eye, look mismatched beyond connection. To Ligertwood, and to each other, they look like neighbours, like people who were seen, known, and even cherished by someone. No matter the situation, no matter the time of day, Bob’s there.
“You’d come, then, in the middle of the night, and there’d be Jimmy and the drag queens – all about to kill each other – on this end of the table,” Ligertwood says. “And three kids here that are running away from home for various reasons. There are two guys who push carts here. And a doctor who just got out of surgery on this end of the counter. And this whole thing’s going on with all these people here. And it never stops. It didn’t stop. Three in the morning was the best, no question.”
Naked is more than a cafe, and Ligertwood is more than a barista. But the City of Edmonton and Explore Edmonton seem to disagree.
This year’s Junos were hosted in Edmonton (EPS did a “sweep” of Boyle Street just before the main event, contributing to the further displacement of homeless folks). The city contacted every major venue in the city to host, except Naked, a cafe that advocates for the support and embrace of unhoused people in the city. Also, Ligertwood says, Explore Edmonton, an integral website for Edmonton tourism, has Naked blocked on all social media platforms. (Explore Edmonton did not respond to a request for comment.)
“They’ve been trying to get rid of me for 25 years,” Ligertwood says. “They’re still on us.”
After 10 years, the landlord of the Jasper location forced the cafe out because where Ligertwood saw people, the city saw problems.
“When they evicted us from downtown, we went from a viable community business to a place where we struggle each day to keep the door open.”
After he was evicted, Ligertwood looked for other locations on Jasper. But, when he’d try to rent, landlords would do whatever they could to keep him out, sometimes doubling the rent after he inquired. To others, this might have meant just a loss of income or an inconvenience. To Bob, it was not about the money, because Naked is not a profitable business. Ligertwood sells belongings, officiates marriages, does anything to stay afloat.
He runs the cafe by himself from morning to night for the love of it; he is concerned about where his neighbours can find refuge.
“So they (marginalized people) went from a crisis to a humanitarian emergency. Why? Because all of (the community) was eliminated. What is the solution? Everybody gets to know that somebody knows who they are.”
Eventually, Ligertwood met his current landlord, who supported his business style.
“We told him who we are: ‘You know what, there could be some shopping carts chained up to that post out front. If you’re not OK with that, just let us know, and we’ll step back, and that’s cool.’
“But here we are. You see what I’m saying?”
‘There could be shopping carts
chained up to that post’
No matter how hard it tries, the city cannot stop Ligertwood from advocating for his community and providing a safe space for those who need it.
He says Rogers Place and the Ice District are emblematic of the displacement that has gone on and will continue to occur in the city if establishments like Naked continue to go without support.
“They really believe that, with this arena, they’re going to establish a displacement that would be permanent, but they can’t stop people from coming to the downtown of the city because that’s where people go.”
An Edmonton native, Ligertwood hitchhiked to New York as a teenager. But he didn’t go to Brooklyn, or to the suburbs – he went where it was hip, to the East Village, to Washington Square, because that’s where the people were, where he could find community.
The same could be said about any city in the world. When people come to Edmonton – especially people experiencing poverty and homelessness – they are not going to go to West Edmonton Mall or the suburbs. Unlike the downtown, those areas lack resources and community. In the same vein, young people aren’t going to go to hang out in the suburbs, because there’s nothing to do. A city that supports locally owned community centres like Naked gives people things to do and safe places to go.
“My friend and I, when were probably about 12, we’d sneak out for the house and go downtown and sit in the all-night diner,” Ligertwood recalls. “We’d get there and hang out, and they’d take care of us. There was never a problem. And here I was owning one, and the same thing unfolded in my place as I remember seeing as a kid.
‘People at the forefront of the scene in the city
never come into my place’
“And we knew that we had to ensure that this place was safe.”
Despite the numerous moves and the tumultuous relationship with the city, Naked remains a home away from home for many. While he was talking, a woman came in to collect Ligertwood’s bottles – something she’s been doing for years to help her pay her children’s school fees. Two students came in to study (but mostly just laughed together), an architect bought lunch, and a pair collaborated on the ninth step of a 12-step program.
The number of patrons may have dwindled, but the essence remains.
With Ligertwood being the sole employee, though, the future is unclear.
“I’ll be here for a little while,” he says. “The pressure from the city is very difficult because we’re dealing with people we grew up with. I could walk up to a dozen people at the forefront of art and industry and say, ‘Why have you never come in here?’ We used to get stoned on acid together in front of the Bay. Like, ‘Why don’t you come into my place?’ And that’s true. People at the forefront of the scene in the city never come into my place. Twenty-six years!”
Ligertwood says he wants the city and the organizations that continuously exclude and attempt to squash him to know that he won’t back down.
“If I could say one thing, it’s this: ‘Edmonton city council: Quit being a bully.’ That’s me as reflective of the community. When you’re a bully to me, you’re a bully to my neighbourhood. When you evicted me from downtown, you reduced the number of supports that were there, 24 hours, seven days a week; guaranteed we were there for the people in our community, for the people that needed us.”
And tucked in the back of the Western Supplies Building, at the corner of 103rd Street and 108th Avenue, they still are – maybe just for now. As Ligertwood says, the powers in play have yet to give up on getting rid of him, and it’s wearing him down.
“If you let this circle keep turning, it’ll keep turning. But you keep busting into it and tearing it to pieces. That’s what I don’t understand.”