Two St. Boniface residents have gone to the media with concerns over various “ambush points” they have to negotiate on their daily commutes. One of them told CBC news “there’s a lot of dark spots, a lot of hiding places,” under the Norwood Bridge, where people hide or pass out while intoxicated. The solution, they suggest, is for the city to remove the shrubbery around the bridge to increase visibility.
Even if we set aside the fact that riverbank foliage is essential for preventing erosion (a massive ongoing problem for which the city has no meaningful solution), this is an absurd and regressive approach to poverty and addictions in Winnipeg.
Now, I’m not exactly bursting with fortitude, and I would probably flail in an attempt to defend myself if I was mugged under a bridge, but I am a fairly tall, able-bodied man. I don’t look vulnerable. So I’m not about to tell others who don’t look like me that they shouldn’t be scared when they encounter unfamiliar people under a bridge. Everybody has the right to be and feel safe in public spaces.
But the notion that bushes should be removed because of their potentially nefarious use is just an example of the classic (and classist) assumption that if a social issue is moved out of sight and out of mind for middle-class people, it has probably been resolved. It implies that if we make seemingly dangerous places unappealing to supposedly violent people, they will simply go away.
It brings to mind the anti-homeless spikes that have been installed in various cities over the past few years, and it’s not so different from the “clean up the neighbourhood” thrust that drives displacement and gentrification more broadly.
Without a doubt, violence, poverty and addictions are very real problems in Winnipeg, and the undersides of bridges are sometimes hubs for violent or sketchy activities.
But before we start tearing up our riverbanks to make commuters feel better, we should perhaps consider that people who spend time under bridges probably have experience being kicked out of other, more visible, public spaces.
What some of us consider to be dangerous places are actually safer spaces for the city’s most vulnerable who may face ongoing harassment from business owners, security guards or police. Maybe they struggle with addictions or other mental health issues and don’t have access to sufficient treatment. Maybe they don’t otherwise have access to shelter from the heat or cold.
The city should bear some responsibility for creating safe spaces that can be enjoyed by all its residents. But making spaces like the Norwood Bridge less hospitable to the people who spend time there won’t do much to curb violence. Instead, all three levels of government need to aggressively fund social programs that address addictions, mental health, housing, over-incarceration and the ongoing legacies of colonialism.
In the meantime, those of us who pass under a bridge on our way downtown would do well to remember that people we don’t know aren’t inherently violent. Or at the very least, let’s remember that everyone has a right to safe public spaces, not just those of us with relative privilege.
Tim Runtz is the Comments Editor at The Uniter. His regular column, Middle of Nowhere, explores the culture and politics of places around Winnipeg.
Published in Volume 71, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 29, 2016)