How the neighbourhood’s residents tackled crime, grime and stigma
Vanier residents are taking back their neighbourhood from drug dealers and prostitutes and creating a place where planters are full of flowers, not trash. In the first part of a series, MARIA COOK looks at a misunderstood and maligned area of Ottawa that
Kim Yull had heard that Vanier was once a “nasty side of town,” but she figured those days were over. Besides, it was affordable and she wanted to be able to pop out for breakfast and walk downtown to her job as a bank collector.
It turns out, “I didn’t know how bad it was,” she recalls.
From the day they moved to Marier Street, she and her partner had to chase prostitutes off their driveway, where they’d stand to solicit clients.
“Inside the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, I would count 12, 13 prostitutes waving to cars, smiling, yelling at each other, fighting, yelling at us when we asked them to move along.”
One day a transvestite prostitute photographed her and her son, the house, the car, the licence plate. “That was a little disconcerting.”
Yull flagged down a police car. “What’s with all the prostitutes here? Get ’em off the street.”
She’d only been there a week and she’d already had enough.
This was in August 2007, before Vanier residents began to take back their community from the drug dealers, addicts, pimps, panhandlers and prostitutes.
Now, four years later, crime is down and property values are up. Houses are being renovated and built. Developers are buying up vacant sites. Concrete planters that were filled with trash overflow with flowers. New families are moving in.
“I jokingly call it Eastboro,” says Ottawa Police Chief Vern White. “A little bit of a shot at Westboro. If I were buying investment property, that’s where I would buy right now. A number of my officers bought homes there.”
In 2007 it was a neighbourhood in crisis.
It’s property crime rate was 1.4 times higher than the rest of the city. Violent crime was almost three times as high.
White says that in 2007 when he took over as chief of police: “Everybody I talked to in and out of this organization said the biggest challenge we have is to turn Vanier around.”
In the past four years, the crime rate has dropped a “substantial” 32 per cent, he notes. The Vanier model of joint community-police action is being studied for application elsewhere.
Today it is an area in transition. Residents have regained a sense of community. There is a marked difference in people’s lives. Theirs is a textbook case of making a better neighbourhood.
“It’s one of Ottawa’s success stories,” says Ottawa police Insp. Alain Bernard. “I give tremendous credit to the community and what they have accomplished.”
If Yull didn’t know much about Vanier, she wasn’t alone. It remains unknown territory for many who live in Ottawa today.
Vanier is bounded on the west by the Rideau River, across from Lowertown and Sandy Hill, and on the east almost to St. Laurent Boulevard (Belisle Street, Ducharme Avenue and Notre Dame Cemetery.) To the north lies Beechwood Avenue and the neighbourhoods of New Edinburgh, Lindenlea and Rockcliffe Park; to the south Stevens Avenue and the Overbrook area.
Vanier was amalgamated into the City of Ottawa in 2001. It had been an independent municipality for a century: one square mile of land, totally surrounded by the capital, a francophone island in a sea of mostly anglophones.
The first bridge dates to 1836. The link to Ottawa has been a mixed blessing. As a community of modest means, the issues affecting its larger wealthier neighbour are soon felt. When the ByWard Market and Lowertown swept out hookers in the 1980s, Vanier with its limited police budget and low rents provided a ready option.
That it has a working-class French heritage is well-known. According to the 2006 census, 63 per cent of the population can speak French. The streets have French names and this where you find French churches and clubs, francophone social services, and Museoparc, the only francophone museum in Ottawa.
But when Mathieu Fleury, the new city councillor went door-to-door last fall he was surprised at the di- versity. “You have families, professionals, English and French, new immigrants.”
It is home to many First Nations people, as well as recent immigrants, including French speakers from Africa, Haiti and the Middle East. Along the shopping strips one sees African, Caribbean and Latin American grocers.
“My sense of Vanier is it’s a community that’s redefining itself,” says Rob Dale, minister of the evangelical City Church in the former NotreDame-du-Saint-Esprit church.
Dale makes an analogy to the bikers welcomed by his church. “Bikers, like the people of Vanier, are often misunderstood. A small percentage because they’re newsmakers, that’s what defines the community. A lot of individuals are transient, here for a couple of years. Sometimes those are the ones that give the community a negative image.
“When you talk to the people of Vanier, that’s not who the community is made up of. You discover incredibly friendly people who love their community,” he says. “The biggest need is just hope, the recognition that we don’t need to believe our press reports. We don’t need to believe the image.”
In 1961, the population was 24,555, before closing of the railway and industries which provided jobs. In the 2006 census, the population was 15,726 residents. Of those, 69 per cent rent their homes, compared with 37 per cent in the rest of Ottawa.
‘The biggest need is just hope, the recognition that we don’t need to believe our press reports. We don’t need to believe the image.’
Minister at City Church
The 2006 household income was about $48,000, far less than Ottawa’s average of about $86,000, which may help explain the pawn shops and payday loan outlets.
Vanier looks like a small town. It has its own cenotaph. Telephone and electrical wires thread through backyards and along streets. Brick is rare except on the small postwar walk-up apartment blocks.
Light colours predominate; lots of white aluminum. Balconies and exterior stairs witness the division of many houses into apartments, as do multiple satellite dishes and mailboxes. White picket fences are popular. Many front lawns boast well- tended flower gardens.
Vanier was laid out block by short block by small builders; differently oriented street grids intersect creating variety. It’s not flat. There are hills and slopes and views of the Peace Tower.
Many houses date back to the 1920s or before. On tidy St. Ambroise Street you find postwar cottages. Elsewhere there are curving suburban-style streets in areas laid out in the 1950s and later, and more recent developments that could be in Orléans or Kanata.
The shopping strips — Beechwood Avenue, McArthur Avenue and Montreal Road — are mostly single-storey strip malls or houses converted to business.
Vanier has just one-tenth the green space per person compared to Ottawa. Much of it is found in 17.5-acre Richelieu Park where pillars at the entrance and a statue of the Virgin Mary are reminders of the past presence of the White Fathers Catholic order.
A community centre and library sit in this serene setting. It is also the site of an urban sugar bush.
“Vanier has changed a lot and is changing,” says Ottawa police District Insp. Ian Kingham. “In the past Vanier had a fairly bad reputation as an area problematic for crime. The reputation from the past is not deserved. The situation is dramatically improved.”
But the reputation is hard to shake. “The No. 1 issue is stigma,” says Suzanne Valiquet, of the Quartier Vanier Merchants Association.
Adds Michel Gervais, executive director of the Vanier Community Services Centre. “When an incident occurs in Overbrook, the media says it’s Vanier.”
This past winter Yull was shovelling snow when she noticed a car drive by slowly four times with the window down. “I actually yelled at the guy,” she recalls. “Do you honestly think a prostitute is going to be shovelling the driveway?”