Oppenheimer Park

Oppenheimer Park

I have thought long and hard about a statement around the Oppenheimer park eviction notice last week.

I live and work within a two block radius of the park, and I can honestly say, although I’ve experienced an increase in non violent crime at my business this summer, I’m pretty convinced the park is not the cause. This is why.

I’ve come to understand that Oppenheimer tent city is a community. And it’s far from perfect. There’s respect, and disrespect. Violence and peace. Conflict, resolution, and some kind of thing in between. So much respect and acknowledgement to Chrissy Brett for the knowledgeable role she has taken.

The people in the park commit to a basic social structure – they’ve organized themselves into micro communities, and developed rules and understanding, like any roommates must.

Outside of that construct, what are the guidelines? Where is accountability?

We’d be hard pressed to find any community that doesn’t struggle with violence, misogyny, racism. That’s the work. It’s where we land, in a capitalist structure. And maybe any other.

We get statistics and news reports, about the number of incidents, and 911 calls. About the feeling of safety with and of our police force.

On a personal level, I’ve heard that there are folks who don’t feel confident walking through, and I respect that. I know that I have a particular insulation from it, as a white woman of a certain age.

But also, I hear the concerns of park residents over their housing prospects, and I’ve seen it. Rodent infestations, problematic washroom facilities, policing of visitors and activities that don’t prioritize a harm reduction lens.

I’ve also heard from many, many women living in the park that it’s the best option for safety available to them.

As the incidence of 911 calls to Oppenheimer park increases, I’d like to understand how that has affected calls in other parts of the neighbourhood. I’d like to know about outcomes from those calls. Have people been more protected, because they’re in a place where we know that there are challenges? Can we be on hand to address those problems in a more acute way?

My deepest concern, as a resident and business owner, is that the dissolution of this socially accountable space will create more social isolation.

We have learned that it costs a fraction of the price to house a person, compared to addressing their needs on the street. Everybody poops, yet there are no publicly accessible washrooms available in the DTES after dusk.

And we’ve also learned that the most dangerous use of space is nothing at all. Empty space poses the most risk.

If there was ever a moment to consider the privilege that Canada offers, it is now. Inner city environments are, in the vast majority, dangerous places. While it’s nothing to make light of, the fact that there has only been one gun incident, near the park, this year is tragically more impressive than depressive.

Maybe it’s the result of hyper vigilance. It’s possible. But I have to say from direct observation, there needing to be four police officers to enter the park is more a commentary on lack of trust of our enforcement, than the actual threat of violence.

We have a principle, of the public enjoyment of parks. It’s absolutely important to prioritize and protect access to green space in our urban centres. However, this is one block. I’ll argue, being put to a better use.

We have historical precedence for our decision to claim park land as our own. Oppenheimer residents are decently new, but Stanley park was already occupied with residents when we decided it should be purposed for the common good. Colonial audits aside, it’s happening right now.

As a resident and business owner, i don’t feel restricted from my enjoyment of Oppenheimer Park. As long as each time I walk through, I acknowledge the residents. Or I mind my business, and it’s a path to another place. Depending on reception. But that’s socialization as a whole. And if I’m not feeling compelled to hang out there, I can choose Maclean, Crab, or Strathcona parks – less than a ten minute walk away.

It is an error of placement, displacement and dispersion to believe that there won’t be a negative effect of evacuating Oppenheimer at least proportionate to the positive one. Of course we’d all benefit from folks being housed. But what are the parameters? Do they address the challenges? Will the DTES be a more habitable place, for everyone because of it?

These are questions I feel compelled to ask the Park Board – as the independent city body that decides what happens in our parks. And the impact that has on the surrounding neighbours.

Entitlement is always an uncomfortable topic. When it comes to tent cities, how can we navigate this, together? If your current living situation became unmanageable, would you live in your car? do you own one? how could your family take on this “challenge”? How singular would your survival be? And who must choose to accept or deny responsibility in the absence of family?

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