Ottawa’s 12th homicide of the year occurred on September 20 at 3:20 p.m. on Caldwell Avenue, 800 metres from where we live.
I say 0.8 kilometres but it could just as well be another world. Sometimes, numerical description of physical length between two places is irrelevant.
My neighbourhood brings to mind this typical newish mix of detached and semi-detached houses, each garage door painted a different colour in a desperate attempt to personalize your investment—and to spot your cookie-cutter home. These are so-called “starter houses,” the kind you’re supposed to buy after getting married and where you will raise your first child from infancy to toddlerhood before moving to a bigger home, in some farther-out suburbs, as you’re pregnant with your second baby and simply need additional bedrooms, bathrooms and a yard with a swing set—or at least, that’s what you’ve been told to believe.
My neighbourhood never makes headlines. When you hear sirens, it’s usually paramedics rushing to the nearby retirement community and posters on mailboxes revolve around lost cats and charity events. If it is mentioned in the newspapers, it’s because a garage sale has been particularly successful or because residents want to change the name of their street—developers picked NYC-themed streets twenty years ago and “Trump Street” wasn’t so popular after the US elections.
In a nutshell, it’s a sedate neighbourhood.
On the other hand, Caldwell Avenue is most often associated with adjectives such as “dangerous,” “sketchy,” “violent (insert minority scapegoat here)”, “unsafe.” “Diversity at work,” “imports who can’t integrate in Canada,” some idiots claim with disdain and ignorance. Everybody’s got a story about Caldwell—a dispute with police involved, a drug dealer busted, gang-related activities. When you hear sirens down there, it’s the police, and local posters often advertise community initiatives, like cooking groups featuring low-cost recipes or crisis counselling.
In Ottawa, a very safe city by national and international standards, Caldwell Avenue is the “rough ’hood.”
I take Caldwell Avenue almost every day. I’d rather go through a pedestrian-friendly area than walk on Merivale Road. I like this route, through residential neighbourhoods and the Experimental Farm Pathway.
This pathway marks the subtle line between the “good” and the “bad” neighbourhoods.
Going down toward Merivale, on my right is the neighbourhood I live in. I can barely see the backs of the houses on Whitestone Drive behind the tall wood fence. On my left is Carlington neighbourhood and the infamous Caldwell street. The fence isn’t high, there are toys and BBQs in most backyards.
So, what does this “rough ’hood” look like?
The subsidized Ottawa Community Housing townhouses are well maintained—many residents grow flowers, display Canadian flags, hang pretty curtains. Most days, there are kids playing in front of the units while parents and neighbours relax and watch them. There are outdoors toys scattered all across the path and no one bothers to bring them home at night—at this stage, they are pretty much common property. A bit further, by the tall apartment building complexes, is a Quickie convenience store I avoid because it’s overpriced and the owner is convinced every customer is a potential shoplifter—yet he makes big bucks because the community tend to shop for groceries here rather than at Loblaws or Walmart, two supermarkets a bit far for those who don’t have a car. In front of the convenience store is the final stop of the #14 St Laurent-Carlington bus route.
This is it. I have never felt unsafe walking through this neighbourhood or waiting at the bus stop. I don’t have any bad story. I haven’t seen anything weird going on. People here are as polite as in the rest of Canada.
I get annoyed when I hear people bitching about Caldwell. There is a very fine line between “there are issues in this community” (and I’m sure there are, most of them socio-economic, though) and “this place is sketchy because I saw three black teens wearing hoodies and a couple speaking Arabic.”
Today, when I walked through, part of the street was taped off. For a second, I thought it was a “caution” construction tape—this is still the season when people have their roof fixed, after all. Then I noticed two police officers, and further, a CBC van. Right. The murder. I had seen the news on Twitter earlier but it hadn’t registered with me. The crime scene felt incongruous on a nice, hot sunny day with a clear blue sky—you always picture shootings at night, in the cold, under the rain.
The victim, Hamzeh Serhan, 20, was swarmed by a group of armed youths and gunned down in broad daylight. The shooter fled on foot and the victim succumbed to his injuries in hospital.
I’ll keep on walking through Caldwell. I’m a neighbour too, after all. There’s safety in numbers. It ain’t gonna help if we all run away and abandon all these decent people who don’t want to live in fear, ostracized from the rest of the city.