A Rising River?
(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part story: The second instalment will run in our March 24 Issue.)
It’s Sunday morning at Park Café, and the line-up is out the door. The crowd is mixed — hipsters, couples and parents with babies, among others. Some of the people are from the area, but many of them aren’t — because people come from all over the city to dine on the poached eggs, Monty Cristo sandwiches and homemade hamburgers that the Park has quickly become famous for.
The walls are lined with sepia-toned photographs of what this neighbourhood used to be — crowds flooding 20th Street, waiting in line to see a movie at the Roxy Theatre or watching the horses march down the street. But despite the photos, the Formica countertops and the old-time chequered floor, no place is more emblematic of the new Riversdale than this ‘50s-style dinner.
In 1906, this neighbourhood was one of the original settlements that formed what is today Saskatoon. It still has a huge concentration of heritage buildings — the Roxy Theatre, the Adilman Building on the corner of 20th and Avenue B, and the United Church up on Avenue H.
But outside the window at Park Café, you can see some of this neighbourhood’s more recent, and less optimistic, history. It’s a place still struggling with addiction, crime, and poverty: soup kitchens and street side missions are scattered along 20th, as are pawnshops and cheap restaurants, and boarded windows and “for lease” signs are a common sight. But this corner of Saskatoon is hardly dying. If anything, it may be coming back to life.
As a result, Saskatoon’s oldest neighbourhood is facing some new challenges. The same cheap rents and housing prices that made this place attractive for low-income families and people living below the poverty line years ago are now making it attractive to investors and young people who can no longer afford to live east of the river. More and more of them are buying up houses and squeezing the low-income renters out, pushing them further west.
Then, there are those for lease signs: are investors in the area simply biding their time, putting off building new restaurants, cafés and boutiques until property values get higher? Will property values ever go up if no one makes the first move? Are developers tooafraid to take a chance on a neighbourhood that still carries with it its fair share of problems? And will speculation interfere with the natural progression of investment?
Randy Pshebylo, director of the Riversdale Business Improvement District, doesn’t like the word gentrification. Instead, he prefers to say investment — and his motto for improving the neighbourhood is ‘twenty five feet at a time.’
His office is located in the back corner of the Little Chief police station on 20th and Ave D. It’s cluttered file folders, stray reports and newspaper clippings. At one point during our meeting, he reaches under a stack of file folders and pulls out a chain link he snapped while trying to pull his combine this fall.
“So: there’s Riversdale — the chain is as only as strong as its weakest link. When my neighbour says [to]double the chain up, it doesn’t matter because the weakest link is going to fail. I have to replace the chain or fix the link,” he says.
“But what does a new link look like? What does the new Riversdale look like? Does it look like that, or does it look like this?” he says, pullingout a modern chain link — the more expensive ones you find in hardware stores, the kind with reinforcements.
Pshebylo isn’t against any of the new development in Saskatoon, but he says people have to look at the core if the city is going to thrive.
“To have Stonebridge and Briarwood, and Blairmore — these are all good things for the city, and that’s wonderful,” he says. “But unless you’re paying attention to that weakest link, your combine is stuck, your tractor’s idling and you have a broken chain — or a broken city.”
WHICH CAME FIRST?
The question of how Riverdale got to where it is today is akin to one of the more tired philosophical questions of all time: was it the chicken or the egg? Are the streets lined with pawnshops and street side missions because this is where the majority of people in need of these services live, or do the people who need these services live here because the services are here? Put another way, are the rents cheap in Riversdale because low-income people moved in, or did low-income people move in because the rent was cheap?
People like Pshebylo have fought for years to rid 20th of its stigma. City Councillor Pat Lorje has joined Pshebylo in his call for renewal — and getting rid of the stigma apparently means getting rid of some of the social services like soup kitchens and missions, as Pshebylo believes that they are contributing to the poor image of the neighbourhood.
Pointing to places like Sutherland where there also many people living below the poverty line, he asks, “Why can’t they have some of the social services? Why do they all have to be here in Riversdale?
“We’re not saying all the soup kitchens go away, all the missions go away. We’re saying, ‘We’ll take one, you guys take one.’”
People like Len Usiskin, however, don’t buy that argument. Usiskin is the manager of Quint Development, a socially conscious development corporation that focuses on low-income housing in Saskatoon. He thinks the egg definitely came first.
“You can force social programs to move out, but they’re locating in that area because that’s where there’s a high concentration of need,” he says. “Why put a program where there isn’t the highest need?”
While Usiskin and Pshebylo may have their philosophical differences, in the end they both want the same thing: a vibrant, economically viable neighbourhood that has a good mix of everything — high-end coffee shops along with Tim Hortons, pawnshops along with ladies’ boutiques.
This, perhaps, is where a guy like Curtis Olson comes in. Young and ambitious, Olson has made a name for himself in the neighbourhood for his “Good in the Hood” campaign, and his various housing projects in and around Riversdale. Most recently, he opened Two Twenty in the heart of Riversdale on 20th St. Part upscale coffee shop, part office building and part artist space, Two Twenty is Olson’s launching pad.
“It’s a catalyst for 20th Street,” he says.
Unlike the developers who own the boarded-up buildings and the vacant lots, Olson is plunging head first into revitalizing the neighbourhood. Right now, an average commercial space on 20th could be rented out for anywhere between six and nine dollars a square foot — while downtown, that same space could be rented for as much as thirty. Given that construction costs are the same for both, why would anyone take the risk and build here?
The first answer may be obvious — land and real estate are cheap. Despite gentrification machines like River Landing and the Farmers’ Market, real estate in Riversdale remains some of the cheapest in the city. But it’s the second answer that may be more to the point: Olson is betting that, if he does everything he can to make it so, the people will come.
“[Two Twenty] is the first place where people can come in off the street and get a real taste of the ideas and vision that are being formulated for the next chapter in the life of 20th Street West,” he says.
THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN
But what is that next chapter? Pshebylo thinks that the panhandlers and the addiction problems need to be solved before anyone will be willing to invest. At one point in our interview, he opened his computer to show me photographs he had taken. One of them was of a group of men standing behind a derelict building: one is drinking from a bottle, while another stares directly into the camera. Pshebylo says he took that photo as a kind of evidence of the underlying problems he thinks need to be solved before real transition can begin.
But a second school of thought on how to solve the neighbourhood’s problems says it’s a lot more complex than getting rid of the panhandlers. It’s the philosophy of people like Olson and Usiskin and places like Park Café: if you build it, it’s bound to happen. The art gallery, the old movie theatre, the farmers’ market, are already there. The hope — and for now, it’s only a hope — is that attracting new people and new business to the area will have some benefit for those already living here.
It may be a pie-in-the-skykind of hope, but many people in this neighbourhood seem to be willing to give it chance.