It’s a neighbourhood with a past, a past with certain people-centred values that neighbours would dearly like to protect.
The Downtown Neighbourhood Association was born of a common desire to save City-owned Stuart Wood as an elementary school in 2014, when school board was considering whether to move its 200 students to the more modern Beattie elementary up the hill. Seems like long ago but it was just yesterday, really.
Residents felt compelled to fight to save the only remaining public English-language school downtown, reasoning that a school ought to be integral to any neighbourhood. Since the school’s been a part of the community and a life-affirming fixture of the downtown for well over a century, the issue was bound to get heated and confrontational.
A neighbourhood meeting was held at Desert Gardens and all kinds of people showed up, downtown residents voicing their concerns not only on the school but on a variety of issues, and that was the origin of DNA.
They were in for a big disappointment. School trustees refused to hear from a DNA delegation on the matter and ultimately decided that old Stuart Wood is just too old and too costly to upgrade. This is the last year of public school there, sadly. As a former downtown resident, I share the common affection for the school. Walking down Third won’t be the same next fall without the banter of children playing there. Knowing the building will have a new life doesn’t soften the sting of seeing the heart ripped out of your neighbourhood.
It was understandable, then, that the DNA, as Bruce Thomson put it, “kind of floundered” after that.
“We punched on it pretty hard and clearly incurred the wrath of school board in some of our actions,” he recalls. “I don’t think people had a taste for getting into larger action so we abandoned that.”
The pattern is a typical one with neighbourhood groups that galvanize around a single issue. When the issue is gone, the crowd disperses and usually a core of activist volunteers remains.
What do you do when the main attraction suddenly exits? Find new purpose, of course, and there are no shortage of needs if you know the downtown. The remaining DNA group was united by a vision of making the downtown more livable and sustainable. There were disagreements, including over whether to work with downtown businesses.
“After that we thought, ‘No, we’re kind of in this together.’ ”
One of their guiding philosophies is that espoused by a Canadian organization called 8 80 Cities: “Focusing on the idea that if an area is safe for an eight-year-old and safe for an 80-year-old, it’s going to be safe for everybody in between,” Thomson said, citing the thoughts of Gil Penaloza, founder of 8-80 Cities. The Canadian nonprofit organization that advises cities worldwide on how to become more livable, vibrant and healthy
Penaloza says, “Every city should have a law of two words: Pedestrian first.”
At the inaugural meeting of the association, a few parents with young children spoke with profound emotion, and it wasn’t about the threat to the school. They were upset, having moved their families to a neighbourhood that seemed seemed safe on the surface but turned out to be dangerous at every turn, particularly for young children. And it wasn’t the street scene or the drugs that put fear in their eyes. It was the traffic.
Having abandoned one initiative to preserve neighbourhood values, DNA has seized on this much more substantial and ambitious potential of the downtown. The issue was there all along, staring them straight in the face at the first meeting. They have their work cut out for them in a city historically tied to transportation, North American-style, with the automobile still king.
Thomson knows the issue only too well, having presented a petition a few years ago to have a crosswalk installed at Battle to help ensure safe pedestrian crossings of the three-lane drag strip known as First Avenue. “They didn’t want to slow down traffic.”
On a positive note, he is encouraged in recent dealings with transportation staff and feels the attitude has changed at City Hall.
As for Stuart Wood, there appears to be a solid plan is in the works that would at least have it continue as a school in some form. A year ago this week, TRU president Alan Shaver and Mayor Peter Milobar announced a joint plan — a “memorandum of exploration” — to look at the possibility of a downtown campus.
Or it might make a great Montessori school.
Any future use should formally recognize, through design, the full function of Stuart Wood and St. Paul Street — along with nearby civic buildings — tying into the future performing arts centre and Kamloops Art Gallery in a cohesive approach to a more pedestrian-oriented downtown.
Imagine a skating rink in front of Stuart Wood, for example, bringing some life back.
To hear what downtown residents think about their neighbourhood in general, DNA is holding a gathering on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 7-9 p.m. at The Art We Are on Victoria Street.