The changing face of Old Town

Strange noises roused downtown resident Angela Walkley from her sleep at 1 a.m. last Friday morning. “When I hear noises I don’t know if…

Strange noises roused downtown resident Angela Walkley from her sleep at 1 a.m. last Friday morning.

“When I hear noises I don’t know if it’s just the usual drunks, or if it’s someone who’s taking things too far,” said Walkley.

“There’s been a lot of noise this summer.”

Hearing strange noises has become common, so Walkley thought nothing of it and tried to get back to sleep.

Forty-five minutes later she was woken again — this time by the screaming sirens of fire trucks.

The house next door had been vandalized, broken into and then set on fire.

Police and city firefighters stayed on the scene until nearly 8 a.m. and the neighbours watched the fire gut the inside of the family home, causing between $150,000 and $175,000 in damages.

Whitehorse RCMP have been investigating the suspicious fire, but they haven’t yet questioned neighbours, like Walkley, about what they saw that night.

And Walkley is wondering why.

“A neighbourhood inquiry would form part of the investigation with regards to the fire,” RCMP Cpl. Grant MacDonald said on Friday.

But he hadn’t yet looked into why the neighbours hadn’t been questioned.

Walkley is looking for more communication from the police.

“Is there something else we should be doing? Does it involve a neighbourhood patrol?” she asked.

Over eight years living in Old Town, Walkley and her partner Mitch Miyagawa have seen their fair share of problems with the area.

“The summer is the time that things get noisy because people hang out in the clay cliffs and you’ve got more foot traffic,” said Walkley on Wednesday while having a lunch with her partner and two young children.

“There’s definitely a crime element around and, within a block’s distance, there are known dealers.”

Several years ago their house was broken into.

“If you talk to most people downtown who have lived here for a while they’ll have a story about being broken into,” added Miyagawa.

“At the same time, it’s not like living in downtown Vancouver with alarm systems and big fences — I still feel relatively safe here.”

Groups of teenagers and 20-somethings walk the streets and regularly hang out on the clay cliffs.

“You can see the trail and they just sit on the edge there,” said Walkley pointing out her front window toward the cliffs.

“They’re out there Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.”

And they make a lot of noise.

“If we called (the police) every time we heard people yelling, we would call every weekend,” said Walkley. “Every so often you hear a woman who seems to be in distress and then I don’t hesitate, I just call immediately.”

They see people passing things between cars that stop near their front door.

“You can see car deals going down and just a lot of drunken yelling,” she said.

“When we go for a walk, we’ve got a two-year-old kid so we’re just constantly watching for needles and we find them on the trails and the back alleys.”

Since the territory’s Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods office began turfing suspected drug dealers from their houses, she’s noticed the neighbourhood traffic slow down.

“There’s definitely been less activity from the drug dealers that I’m aware of, so there’s been less traffic,” she said.

The family has been in the Old Town house for eight years and, having just completed massive renovations, they have no plan to leave.

“We like our neighbours, we like being part of the downtown community, we like our house and our yard and we like being close to the clay cliffs because of the scenery,” said Walkley.

“Living here means that our kids are exposed to the crime that’s going on, so there’s the choice to move to a neighbourhood where you know there isn’t the same constant visuals of the alcohol bottles and syringes that people have left behind.”

While working in the yard earlier this week, she spotted a group of people sitting on the clay cliffs drinking from a bottle.

“We could see them, so the two-year-old says, ‘What are those people doing?’

“From my perspective it looks ugly and I hope it teaches my kids that there’s not a romanticized view of drugs and alcohol.

“We’re going to have to be a little more cautious, but if we can raise them seeing the not-so-nice side of it then hopefully that will be a positive rather than a negative.”

The young family is looking to build community in the area, and there’s already a lot to build on, said Miyagawa.

“We know a lot of our neighbours, I think there is a lot of connections and solidarity.”

There isn’t the same number of young families choosing to raise their children downtown as there is in places like Copper Ridge, said Walkley.

“But I think part of making downtown better is choosing to live here and choosing to stay here and make it a better place.”

The Old Town area, which sits between the Pioneer Cemetery and Ogilvie Street, and Sixth Avenue and the clay cliffs, gets a lot of bad press, said Pam Holmes, who lives a few houses down from Walkley and Miyagawa.

“A lot of people don’t seem to know this residential area exists. When my daughter was in high school, people would ask her where she lived and she’d say downtown and this look would come over their face.”

Holmes and her family have lived in Old Town for more than 20 years and have no desire to leave. She raised three children in the area.

“The kids knew where (the drug houses) were,” she said. “Up near Wheeler. It’s sad, but you have to be careful about checking for needles.”

Local residents have created park areas along the clay cliffs and groups such as the Downtown Residents Association and Crime Prevention Yukon have hosted community barbecues.

On top of building community, the events are held to take a stand, said Holmes.

“One park is next to the Wheeler dealer, and it’s just to say we’re not going to let you intimidate us.”

Like Walkley, Holmes is looking for more communications and support from the RCMP.

“There is a good community here, but we do feel like we have to fend for ourselves a little bit.

“There hasn’t really been that much support from the police,” said Holmes. “I think we could use some increased presence and improved communication.

“We don’t get regular patrols despite it supposedly being this ‘den of iniquity.’

“But people do take care of each other and we make do ourselves.”