Revitalization or gentrification?
Arguing about the Ice District’s effect on the homeless
distracts advocates from finding real solutions
By Anna McMillan
The anticipation was intense. Thousands of jersey-clad bodies squeezed through the tunnel that leads to the hulking, silver arena that sits in the heart of Edmonton. The Oilers were three games deep in the regular season, and fans were still optimistic – not suspecting the team was about to be pummelled by the Ottawa Senators in a 6-1 loss.
One man stood out – a lone Senators fan, chanting as the river of orange and blue flowed past him.
Edmonton police officers directed traffic and watched as people moved past the man, letting them jaywalk across the road. When the light changed and the little white man lit up, the Senators fan took a step onto the crosswalk, moving closer to the arena.
That’s when a police officer rushed over and pushed him back, onto the curb.
“Go back to the Hope,” he told the man, referring to one of Edmonton’s homeless shelters.
“Nah. I think I’m good here,” the Senators fan replied. He wanted to cheer on his team.
“Do you want me to throw you in jail?”
The man’s team wasn’t the only reason he didn’t fit in with the mostly white, mostly middle-class crowd. He was Indigenous and, unlike most of the people who were on their way to the game, he called the area around the arena home.
Rylan Kafara says he has observed scenes like this often as part of his PhD research. He’s with the University of Alberta’s faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, and has been studying the Ice District to determine how gentrification has affected the people of the inner city.
Rogers Place has been open for a year and half, so determining the long-term effects of the project is just beginning. But the monetary impacts of the development are a financial cliché: a tax-funded project makes the rich richer and the less fortunate, well, less fortunate.
Kafara says this kind of thing has been happening since the days of Frank Oliver.
Oliver founded the Edmonton Bulletin newspaper in 1880. He has a downtown neighbourhood named after him. He was also a racist.
“Unfortunately, with the time of Frank Oliver, there seems to be a lot of underlying racism in the (downtown) area,” Kafara says, highlighting how a significant amount of homeless Edmontonians are Indigenous.
“He used his newspaper to kind of boost this idea that the government needed to support the settler spirit – the entrepreneurial spirit – which would ensure the economic development of Edmonton.”
‘They’re using words like ‘revitalize,’
which is just the classic synonym for gentrification’
Kafara says this attitude has encouraged city employees to put business before people. He calls the downtown developments “gentrification,” but the City of Edmonton has another word for it.
“They’re using words like ‘revitalize,’ which is just the classic synonym for gentrification,” Kafara says.
Scott McKeen disagrees.
“I would say gentrification is a euphemism for revitalization.”
He’s Ward 6 city councilor, someone Mayor Don Iveson calls “Mr. Downtown,” and he’s severely annoyed. He’s annoyed with the finger pointing. Annoyed with the misplaced blame. Annoyed with the lack of solutions for ending homelessness.
McKeen says the conversation surrounding the impact of the arena on vulnerable populations has become obsessive and unfocused. And he’s tired of talking about it.
“Spending a bunch of time looking back and shaking our fist at Daryl Katz and the Edmonton Oilers, and the past council that approved this thing,” he says, “to me it’s a waste of time.”
Instead, he proposes the focus should be on ending homelessness.
“Why not research something for the future instead of the past?
“I’m interested in what we can do. I’m not interested in fighting old battles or listening to some cliché academic arguments about this.”
The academic argument, however, doesn’t claim gentrification causes homelessness. It just says it makes the problem worse.
Rogers Place shines like a coin in the midst of Edmonton’s busy downtown – a silver frontier between the revitalized core and the neglected side of the city. It sits where the Canadian National Railroad tracks used to lay – and those who live to the north are on the wrong side of the tracks.
“It’s clear who is welcome during games and events,” Kafara says, “and who isn’t.
“And people that aren’t are primarily the existing community members that were here before.”
Kafara recalls a moment when it was made clear what type of people don’t belong in the area. It was the first weekend playoff game of the 2016-17 season. Oilers fans hadn’t had much to celebrate over the past 11 years, but now, the wave of orange crush was in full effect.
The usual chant echoed below the arena pedway on 104th Street, which was packed with fans.
“LET’S GO OILERS!”
Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump.
“There was an Indigenous woman who was the only one that didn’t have a jersey on,” Kafara says, “but was still, like, high-fiving people and cheering.”
But she didn’t get to partake in the pre-game buzz for long. Two security guards pulled her out of the crowd and walked her to the community centre a block north of the arena. It was where those who didn’t have wads of cash to blow on a hockey game spent the evening.
“In general, community members that do pass through the arena area, they know now that they need to stay on the move,” Kafara says. “If they stop moving, then they’ll normally be approached by security guards.”
But McKeen says the continued hardships of Edmonton’s most vulnerable people can’t be placed on Daryl Katz or the Edmonton Oilers. He says it’s too easy to blame the problem on the richest guy in town.
Chronic homelessness, severe mental illness and crippling addiction – those are problems for which all Edmontonians need to take responsibility.
“Collectively, we have stepped over the homeless man passed out on the sidewalk,” McKeen says. “The way that society has treated homelessness has been nothing short of stupid. We keep shooting ourselves in the foot.”
McKeen says all three levels of government have been spending money on Band Aids instead of solutions for the plight of the homeless.
When mental illness and addiction rates in Edmonton’s homeless population go down, so does the demand for emergency rooms. When people have safe, supportive places to live, the need to clean up homeless camps decreases. When vulnerable people are provided with supervised substance sites, crime rates fall and calls to police go down.
All of that cuts costs for the municipal, federal and provincial government.
“At least know that, if we do right by those very ill, vulnerable, traumatized people – if we do right by them – we will save taxpayers gobs of money,” McKeen says.
But that’s not miraculously going to happen if the city stops building arenas, he adds.
“Permanent, supportive housing is probably the answer for the people that are most gravely ill.”
Ambrose Place is one of those facilities.
The low-cost housing site sits in the McCauley neighbourhood. It’s a modest, but well kept building, brightly painted in patches on the outside to simulate row flats in a heritage neighbourhood.
Health care services, supervised alcohol consumption and community activities are available to residents, and Indigenous medicine, food and language are all used on site.
Fifty people call Ambrose Place home – a home where Carola Cunningham says she’s seen miracles happen.
She’s the executive director of Ambrose Place, and says “we love our people.”
‘Collectively, we have stepped over the homeless man
passed out on the sidewalk’
That love has extended as far as delivering palliative care – as for a woman who struggled with addiction problems her whole life and had just four months to live.
When she moved in, the people of Ambrose Place got to work.
They reconnected her with the nine children she had given over to care. She apologized to them for choosing drugs over family. After making amends, she was ready to die. But death wasn’t ready for her.
“I know it made a change in her life because she’s still alive and with us, and we’re going into our fourth year,” Cunningham says.
Acts of kindness like this are offered to everyone who lives in Ambrose Place. That, Cunningham says, is because she sees a potential miracle in every person who walks through the facility’s doors.
“You know, if you provide choices and you love them and you bring sunshine into their life, and hope, then life changes.”
But, according to the latest homeless count from the activist group Homeward Trust, there are still 1,752 people who still need some of that so-called sunshine in their lives. Most of those people spend their time downtown.
While homelessness might be too big a problem to blame on gentrification alone (or at all), downtown developments certainly haven’t helped the situation.
Kafara highlights the night of another 2017 playoff game as an example of the damage that has been done.
It was winter. An Oilers game had just wrapped and thousands of people were spilling out of the arena. Many headed back to their cars, or to the LRT station behind the silver giant.
Hockey fans were walking behind the arena when someone in the crowd lobbed a snowball toward a group of women sitting outside in the cold. They were elderly, Indigenous, and they sat in wheelchairs. The snowball landed on the wall of the building behind them with a heavy thwack.
This was at the Boyle Street Community Centre, a modest brick structure that sits behind the arena. At any given time, large groups of people stand in front of the entrance, talking and laughing. Kafara was a front-line worker with the organization from 2012 to 2016.
“Folks will kind of just stay by the community centre because it’s a safe place,” he says. “They feel comfortable there.”
Those groups normally dissipate during arena events, when insults and racist remarks are hurled at them like snowballs.
Jared Tkachuk works there now, managing the organization’s outreach and support services.
He says the erosion of community spaces has caused a lot of hardship.
The downtown YMCA and MacDonald Lofts are two spaces the community can no longer access. Tkachuk estimates 200 housing opportunities were lost as a result of those facilities closing their doors.
MacDonald Lofts stands next to the community centre. It used to house a lot of the people who spent their time at the centre, but it was bought by the Katz Group in 2016.
The building still stands, and it fits in with the outdated-but-chic architecture found a few blocks south of the arena. Red bricks line the front of the building, and the words “MacDonald’s Consolidated” are painted on the side – white handwriting on a green background.
Kafara and Tkachuk say the inside of the building wasn’t nearly as nice, but it was home for several people who hadn’t had one in years.
Tkachuk says the sense of familiarity and safety community members felt in the area vanished with the arrival of the cranes and construction workers, and a lot of it has to do with the loss of spaces like MacDonald Lofts.
“There was more of a sense of ownership or belonging,” he says. “Those are things that are really precious to marginalized people.”
He says more resources need to be made available to vulnerable populations to compensate for what they’ve lost.
“You can’t just take from one community without replacing what you’ve taken.”
One form of compensation could be an expansion of community services beyond the downtown core. After all, marginalized people are citizens of Edmonton, not just the inner city, McKeen says.
“The answers aren’t in not having an arena or in not revitalizing the downtown and the neighbouring communities.”
The answers are in permanent, supportive housing, geographically expanded services, and for Kafara and Tkachuk, in listening to the voices north of the arena.
But those so-called “answers” have yet to arrive, and the homeless community continues to struggle every day. Fortunately, they share one characteristic that makes survival possible.
They are resilient.
On 104th Street, on the night the Senators thumped the Oilers, the Sens fan came back a little while later when he saw it was safe. He was ready to cheer on his team once more.