Square roots

This weekend, Tyler Morton invites the city to the first Uniacke Square Community Conference.

Block party Tyler Morton wants people to share a community vision. photo Jamie Smith

When Tyler Morton was growing up in Uniacke Square in the ’90s, he knew the neighbourhood’s “bad guys,” including its drug dealers. Sometimes, he says, they’d offer him money to—wait for it—go to school. Or threaten to beat him up if he didn’t. At the time, he says he thought they were picking on him; now he understands they just wanted to make sure he had a better future than their present. Today, in fact, some of those same bad guys are quietly spreading the word about this week’s Uniacke Square Community Conference and everyone’s-invited block party that Morton’s organizing.

The gathering, for “residents and friends” to “talk, listen to each other and to dream about the future,” will feature workshop sessions on everything from violence, to motivation for tenants, to public perceptions of public housing. Jim Silver, a political science professor at the University of Winnipeg, who has written extensively on that city’s Lord Selkirk Park public housing development, will make the case that, “with public investment in educational and employment opportunities and related supports,” public housing can be “a place of opportunity and hope rather than a place of poverty and despair.”

Morton, 23, also wants to show the rest of us that Uniacke Square—just like the drug dealers of his youth—is more than the sum of its stereotypes.

He knows all about stereotypes. The second of six kids of a stay-at-home, black, single mom—“you see ‘single-parent family’ on TV and you know they’re not supposed to make it, but everyone in my family who should still be in school is”—Morton remembers growing up in the 250-unit, north-end public housing project with fondness. And pride. “There was a great sense of community,” he says. “People weren’t necessarily related but everyone was ‘family.’”

But he didn’t have to go far to realize not everyone saw it through his eyes. When he was a student at Saint Mary’s—he graduated with an English and sociology degree in 2004—the student drive-home safety service, Husky Patrol, didn’t include the Gottingen-Brunswick Street area on its route map.

Ironically, the Square, which opened 40 years ago, was intended not only to provide new, modern housing for those displaced when the city razed Africville, but also to serve as a shining symbol of the benefits of urban renewal.

It didn’t. In the ’70s, in fact, area merchants blamed the mostly poor and black Square for dragging down Gottingen Street’s reputation as a commercial centre. A 1986 marketing study described it as “the black eye that’s hurting the rest of the community.” Despite a multi-million dollar makeover in the late ’80s, most white Haligonians still equate the Square with its TV image as a breeding ground for drugs, crime and violence.

Morton, who’s been a community volunteer here since he was 15—among other projects, he’s helped dropouts get their high school diplomas and single mothers find their way into the work force—is not naïve about the Square’s reputation. Or its very real problems.

Of the 16 students in his grade nine class, he says, only two went on to university. Many who were left behind ended up “hanging around,” sometimes doing “bad things.” Today, however, there are fewer so-called bad guys like the ones who set him straight when he was younger, “people who broke the law because that’s all they’d ever known, but who believed there was a better life and wanted their kids to have it. The violence today,” he adds sadly, “has become so glorified that kids see the way it’s portrayed and they want to be part of it too.”

But he also believes that one way to change that self-fulfilling self-portrait is for the larger community to begin to see the Square as he does—as a neighbourhood. Which is why Saturday’s all-day block party on Uniacke Street, featuring entertainment and games, is as important as Friday’s conference. “I want people to come here and go away and say I didn’t see any drugs. I didn’t get beaten up. I want people to see the community I live in.

For information on the weekend’s events, call the Uniacke Square Youth Centre at 420-4685.

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