— Feature —

The Line

We get a guided tour of the barbed-wire divide that separates us and them in downtown Edmonton

“Hey John.”

“How are you, brother?” John Roberts replies, to each of the many men who greet him along the line.

Roberts is 50 and spends much of his time spreading needed kindness at the Boyle Street Co-Op. Today, he’s outside, walking along what he calls his community’s main street. To anyone not from Roberts’ side of downtown, this is an alley you dare not walk. But to hundreds of others, this line is their Jasper Avenue or 124 Street. Along this line are daily stops for many in the community: Boyle Street, Quasar Bottle Depot, Bissell Centre, and several other services to the east of the core. It’s also the place to connect, say hi, have a laugh.

The line extends 105 Avenue eastward, in the form of a multi-use pathway from where the paved avenue essentially ends, at 101 Street, to where it resumes again at 96 Street. And back here, life is bustling. Several men huddle near vents that blow heat from within the Epcor building’s massive parkade. Nearby, a few couples tend to waist-high piles of belongings and supplies outside their tents. The view is standard downtown Edmonton but with bleak additions. To the south are downtown’s glittering towers, but there’s also a deep, open pit behind the CN Tower. Nearby is a cold, doorless, north-facing back wall at the new Royal Alberta Museum.

Also here is what Roberts describes as a message that’s wrought in steel. It’s a multi-layer wall of chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire, and it stretches six blocks, often on two sides. Here, where the train tracks once split the city, colder, sharper steel now divides.

Roberts says the line is a recent demarcation between the street community he’s come to call his own and the people who are coming — developers and gentrifiers, working to take this space and make it palatable, unthreatening and commercial.

The line is invisible from downtown, but it’s all you see, walking along this community’s main street. “It looks like a prison back here,” Roberts says.

“From a business point of view it’s a gouging to push those people out. We have to admit and there’s no hiding it: Poor people do not bring much to a city. There’s places in the ‘States where they forbid helping homeless people. But hopefully we don’t ever lose our willingness to help others out. Once you put a culture like that with a culture like the one at Boyle Street, it doesn’t look good. And it doesn’t look good for us at all. It’s got a prison like effect. We’re a province that’s supposed to be rich. But we don’t look after our own very well. This shouldn’t be happening.”

“You can get a fine for leaving your dog in the car. But to line up 250 men while it’s blowing at their ears at 35 below, it seems people think, ‘Let’s just push that aside — let’s just build some fences around so those people don’t get in. Let’s put up cameras so others don’t have to see it.’ You have to look at it from the people who are investing in their business. People are protecting their investments. But they set themselves up, in my view, by putting a culture into something that doesn’t work with it.”

“Things here have changed drastically for us. The result [of new developments downtown backing onto Boyle Street] is the police are picking out my Aboriginal friends because they drink and they have problems. They’re carding them, asking them questions, harassing them. If they carry a backpack they want to see in the backpack. They have no reason or rhyme. It’s just another way to make their life miserable so they’ll hopefully move away. I used to cast these people off — ‘You can do something with your life.’ But when you get educated about the Native people and the schools we ran, we created a tidal wave impact into the culture.”