Christy Morin was a newlywed when she and her husband, Darcy, bought their first home off Edmonton’s 118th Avenue. She was a recent University of Alberta drama graduate and he was still completing his degree, so a small house in a less-desirable neighbourhood was all they could afford.
They planned to renovate and eventually upgrade to a better neighbourhood. But after their daughter, Allison, was born, and then their son, Zach, deals to sell kept falling though, and Morin was becoming increasingly discontent living with the stigma of the Avenue.
“The house next door to us was a scary place to live next to,” she says of the home then owned by a slum landlord. “The drug deals. The prostitution. We’d call the cops and call the cops and ask the police to come to help and they would say things like, ‘Ma’am, you sound like a really great lady. Why don’t you move to Fort Saskatchewan where I live’ or, ‘it sounds like you need to move out of that community. You don’t belong there.’”
Gang members would fight in front of their house. Their vehicle was stolen twice and a rental car was damaged. They could see into their neighbour’s kitchen, where people were regularly using meth. Morin would even drive around the block a few times to make sure it was safe to bring her children into their house.
And there were the threats.
One evening, her husband went out to get something from their car when their neighbour came over with a warning.
“He told Darcy, ‘I know you’re the ones causing us all the problems, so if you call the 5-0 again, there will be retribution to pay,’” recalls Morin. “He said, ‘I know when your wife comes home from work. I know when your kids are playing in the backyard. It wouldn’t be hard for our pit bull to find his way into your yard while your kids are playing there.’”
Morin will never forget the next night. She was alone in the house with her children when gang members started pounding on her door.
“They were screaming and saying something about the cops, the 5-0, the phone and I thought, ‘they saw Darcy drive away and now they’re going to come and hurt us,’” says Morin. “I didn’t ever know what it was like to be bullied or to be threatened and feel powerless. I was shaken to the core.”
She later learned the gang members had been in a knife fight and that it was the same neighbour who had threatened her husband the night before who was wounded and calling for help. But, as several police cars pulled up and the men were rounded up that night, something in Morin snapped. She decided “no more”.
She had tried to encourage neighbours for years to call the police when there were incidents in the area, but everyone was afraid. This time, she rallied a number of artists living in the neighbourhood and held a meeting at her home. They shared their experiences and talked about ways to reclaim their neighbourhood. First, they staged an arts street festival on 118 Avenue in 2008 that attracted 800 residents over the Thanksgiving long weekend. Then they formed an Arts on the Ave Society and Morin convinced the group it needed a central place where everyone could gather.
“There wasn’t a place on the Avenue open after 6 o’clock at night,” says Morin, who is executive Director of the Arts on the Ave Society. “Everyone battened down the traps, shut their blinders and locked everything down on the Ave so there wasn’t a place for anyone to go for coffee. And I said, ‘let’s open a coffeehouse run by resident volunteers who are key-holders.’ It was a risk, but with a belief we could do it, a small grant from the city and a lot of hard work, we made it happen.”
With a fresh coat of paint, donated furniture and art by local artists on the walls, The Carrot has become the incubator for a renewed spirit in the neighbourhood. Five local festivals now run out of that coffeehouse. The Kaleido Family Arts festival is produced by Morin and runs in early September, attracting 42,000 people from all over the city. Until this year, Morin also produced Deep Freeze, the Byzantine Winter Festival, which was born out of the Carrot after a group of artists complaining about the winter decided to do something about it and make the season theirs. The Arts on the Ave Society also holds a Just Christmas Festival on the Avenue, the Pupusa Festival, which is a celebration of the Latino culture in the community and, because so many local residents have pets, there’s the Avenue Goes to the Dogs Festival.
The Carrot is also a place for community coming together. Babes in Arms, held every Friday morning, is for local moms, dads and caregivers to come together with babies and small children to exchange recipes and share stories and ideas about raising children. Thursday afternoons is for Zoomers, or boomers with zip, which features an open mic that often attracts local and professional musicians. And poetry groups meet at the Carrot every second Saturday.
The slum landlord with the house next to Morin’s has now sold and a family of good neighbours now lives there.
“Instead of an exodus, people are moving back to the community,” says Morin, now a 118 Avenue area resident of 18 years. “Seeing strollers on the street … seeing Christmas lights. I mean, these are things we never saw. I don’t think people realize how devastating it is to live in a community that’s lost its spirit. Seeing that spirit come back has been life-changing for me.”
Lesley MacDonald is the producer and host of the Global Woman of Vision series. Stories can be seen the first Monday of every month in the News Hour at 6 p.m. on Global Edmonton and online at GlobalTVEdmonton.com