Some businesses in Edmonton’s Chinatown district only operate with their doors locked all day.
“If you really want to walk in, you have to knock,” said Wen Wong, executive director of the Chinatown and Area Business Association.
“We work here. Some members live here. When you walk on 97th Street, our main street, you can tell, almost all stores keep their doors locked.”
Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi met Tuesday to discuss a spike in violent crime on downtown streets and on public transit.
Last week, Mr. Shandro used his ministerial power to demand a report from the city on what is being done to get crime under control. In a letter, Mr. Shandro gave a deadline of two weeks for a response and pointed to the recent killings of two men in Chinatown.
Mr. Sohi initially called the letter an overreach by the province, but after Tuesday’s meeting said he wanted to focus on solutions.
“This is the start of a very good dialogue and we’re going to build on it,” Mr. Sohi said.
“I didn’t get the sense that government is against harm reduction. They want to look at all the tools that are available to deal with the addictions crisis, mental-health crisis and homeless crisis.”
The Chinatown district has been located in the McCauley neighbourhood, east of downtown, for more than a century.
“In 1912, a streetcar began providing accessible transportation for the many new immigrants and workers moving into the neighbourhood,” says a city website.
“Travelling down 97th Street between 105A Avenue and 107 Avenue, you will find Chinatown North, the third-largest Chinatown in Canada,” it says. “You will [also] find an abundance of Asian restaurants and shops that sell unique produces, merchandise and traditional Chinese medicine.”
But the neighbourhood has been deteriorating over the last 20 years, said Mr. Wong, because of “too much social disorder” and has grown more tense during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the last two years, volunteers with Chinatown’s Business Improvement Association have been picking up needles when there is no snow. Mr. Wong said they collect as many as 300 needles a month in the community, which is just a few blocks from Edmonton’s safe injection sites. If more time were put in, hundreds more would be found, he added.
Tents housing the homeless line nearby streets.
“In the last two and a half years, we have more and more homeless population, mentally challenged, [people with] addiction and even sometimes criminals,” Mr. Wong said.
Police have been called to investigate arsons, including fires that burned a bakery and a restaurant to the ground. Members of the association regularly call Mr. Wong to tell him about an assault, he said.
“A customer called my office last Friday. When he paid for his parking, he was attacked with bear spray. He was there for a haircut. Two guys attacked him for no reason.”
Mr. Wong recalled another time when a restaurant owner and his wife found all the tires on their two cars slashed. Two months ago, a mall in the area had its windows broken at street level.
“The cleanup is huge,” Mr. Wong said.
“Everybody knows what’s happening in Chinatown now. Chinatown is falling apart. This is just a matter of time.”
Mr. Wong said he is angry.
“I don’t believe we have ended up in this (situation) overnight. We have been ignored for the last 10, 20, even more years,” he said.
“It’s a shame of all levels of government. We have nothing against [the] homeless.”
On Monday, Mr. Sohi outlined a partial plan to address crime in the city. It includes $1 million to revitalize Chinatown, grants for businesses to upgrade their security, more public washrooms downtown and help for owners doing cleanup in front of their businesses and on private property.
In the long term, the city plans to urge the government to stop releasing health patients and offenders from provincial corrections facilities onto the street. It also wants to create a five-year plan to decentralize social services that are concentrated in Chinatown.
Nearly 40 action items are on the list.
On Tuesday, after announcing an app that will help officers on a call retrieve information about a person, Mr. Shandro said he’s looking forward to seeing Mr. Sohi’s plan when he submits it to the government.
The province will wait for the submission before it discusses any contributions it might make to reduce crime in Edmonton’s downtown, he said.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
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