Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What Central Park needs

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From previous columns about living next door to Central Park, I have become known as "that guy who writes about the neighbourhood" to the seniors who watch immigrants from Africa play flag football in daishikis and see Slurpees sipped by shawl-covered sisters from Iran and Iraq.

I was also told to "stop narcing on us or else" by the after-hours club that used to congregate by the convenience store to cobble crack across from Central but who have been replaced by cops on constant patrol.

I wrote that Central Park is one of the liveliest places in Winnipeg on warm, summer evenings and weekend afternoons. Packed with people of all pigmentation, the area "works" and is a beehive of friendly faces sitting on benches and playing in the pool and playground that remains little known to most Winnipegers who flee for the suburbs after spending their eight hours working downtown.

My roommate has taken to gathering news about the 'hood each morning and he had two headlines to proclaim on a recent Thursday morning.

Teen found in dumpster down the street (Cumberland and Sherbrook) was one. And Central Park to receive $5 million facelift was the other.

By facelift, the report mentioned better lighting, they are going to get the old, beautiful Waddell Fountain spouting again, better landscaping, playground upgrades and perhaps a soccer pitch. At least, that is what has been suggested by the people putting up the money, a local minister and the head of a local business improvement zone.

I guess whatever money is left over will be spent according to the wishes of inner-city residents, who "instead of seeing a makeover foisted upon them, will be asked what kind of upgrades the park should receive," according to one media report.

About 75 per cent of those residents are new Canadians. I see their joyous faces thoroughly enjoying the park the way it is now during "prime" times and I imagine they will enjoy the improvements.

Finding out exactly what they want might be a stretch. I toured the park and not one of the people from Africa or the Middle East who I talked to had heard anything about the facelift. The African Communities of Manitoba Resource Centre office was closed.

I suggest a survey of people who actually use the park every day be taken.

But more important, there are plenty of faces in the park who need a lift and until the "off hours" social problems that plague Central Park are taken care of, we won't be fully realizing the potential of this Winnipeg landmark.

It will not be safe to take an early morning stroll in Central Park while the benches are full of people sleeping off a night of drinking or huffing because they can be quite unpleasant, threatening and, of course, panhandling, when they wake up.

And a moonlight stroll is not advised after all the good families go home to put their kids to bed because that is when the party starts.

Manitoba Housing and the Winnipeg Police Service have cleaned up a lot of the drug dealing and other illegal banshee behaviour but there is no law against running amok and the park is often full of people you simply don't want to inadvertently rub the wrong way.

The social workers who run the Central Park Lodge are big boosters of the area. But the ones I talked to don't live by Central Park, they only work there 9 to 5. The residents they have managed to get into their care (detox, counselling, medical, three squares a day) sit in wheelchairs across the street, or stroll or get strolled through the park most afternoon.

But one of the seniors was assaulted about a month ago, and street people crashing the senior centre looking for relatives on payday (and for any other reason they can think of) are a constant problem. The staff go through a war zone to get to work every day, but the afternoons are very pleasant.

This gives Central Park Lodge an undeserved bad reputation to the relatives of the people in care there.

Just like the reputation the punks and the people with serious problems of addiction and homelessness give to Central Park when "safety in numbers" isn't available.

Central Park is a very popular haven for law-abiding immigrant and aboriginal families and they are going to enjoy the upgrades. But that is about all that is going to change unless the place is policed 24 hours a day.

Don Marks is a freelance writer who lives by Central Park.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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