Derrick, the counter man at a local electrician’s, recently told me about a boyhood scare. He was a young teenager walking home on rue Centre one night when a car pulled up beside him. The passenger door swung open, and a man tried to grab him. Derrick ran and eluded the man in the back lanes. Closer to home, a neighbour warned me about leaving construction debris in the back yard because he remembered the time when enthusiasm for the traditional Victoria Day bonfire/riot would inspire local pyromaniacs to share the warmth. When we moved here, almost four years ago to the day, some of our doors had as many as four locks on them, and even the second-floor windows were imprisoned behind iron bars.
Two peaceful months after moving in, Patricia heard what sounded like cries for help late one night. The next morning we stepped out to see bloody handprints on a neighbour’s door.
There is a long trail of blood here. A couple of years ago, the body of a girl who had been missing since 1999, when she left home for a quick trip to a dépanneur on Charlevoix, was found under a bridge. There is still a sad little memorial behind scratched Plexiglas to her there.
Kathy Dobson, the author of With a Closed Fist: Growing Up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood has written of other sadly compelling stories of violence from the point.
The truly terrible stories are rare, but the potential for violence of all kinds in the present-day Point is exacerbated by the presence of crack houses and concentrations of troubled people in shabby and low-rent apartment buildings.
One of these buildings, near the end of our block, has been the scene of a murder, and receives regular visits from police and firefighters. The residents are often loud and drunk, the drug dealing is obvious, and the condoms in the lane speak for themselves. More than once, neighbours have seen these people taking a crap in the lane or in a back yard unprotected by a fence.
This summer, when carpenters were cutting the rough opening for the window on our ground floor, the street suddenly filled with police cars. A rumour that there had been a murder in the apartment building spread quickly. The police closed off the area because, I heard, the perpetrators had been seen running down our back lane. When I went down to commiserate with the carpenters, whose trucks were trapped there, I found them being interviewed by a police detective.
As it turned out, no one had been murdered. A man was just stabbed repeatedly in the face with a broken beer bottle. That’s all. It was them, not us.
Then, some weeks later, I was putting the finishing touches on a cedar fence and used a noisy power tool (mid-morning on a weekday) for a few minutes. The open windows of the apartment building overlook the fence and a man suddenly appeared in one. I took off my ear protection to hear the end of a string of curses followed by “If you don’t turn that off, you fuckin’ bitch, I’ll kill you.”
I’m not used to receiving death threats, even ridiculous ones from idiots, so it took me aback. After a moment, though, I just felt angry, and part of me wanted to invite him to come down and give it a try. I’m not always above my own stupidity, but I let that impulse go, stewed for a while, and called the police. The officer was polite and receptive, said he knew the building and its residents well, and expressed frustration with the inability of the police to do anything. He also let it slip that police worked undercover in the building. But the big shocker was his mention that the building is under the stewardship of the Société d’habitation et de développement de Montréal. Come again? The Société’s web site lists its lofty goals, which include the provision of “affordable quality housing” and contributions to the “social vitality and economy of districts.” Come again? I’ve been inside the building, and I have spoken with residents. The interior is penitential, the filthy washrooms and showers are shared, scores of feral cats leap in and out of the windows and prowl the halls and, of course, there are the people.
Stories about Pointers who conducted their own battles against thugs, prostitutes and crack dealers found their way to me. The worst of these was from a couple living just a few blocks away. A lady whom I’ll call Caroline had scrupulously documented the goings-on in a next-door crack house for what she characterizes as her “hellish first 7 years in the Point.” Caroline and her husband wouldn’t even make improvements to their home because they were afraid its value would be destroyed by their squatting neighbours. “We did nothing to stop it, fearing reprisals if we did,” she said. “But the [final] straw was the day I was threatened by a hooker saying ‘They will know who the real whore is when they find you dead in a ditch.’ It was only then that I decided to fight back.”
And fight back she did, beginning with meetings with the police chief, politicians, neighbours, and bureaucrats. She mailed reams of letters to civic authorities with the power to seal off doors, evict squatters, and clear out the trash. A paragraph from a supporting letter written by one of Caroline’s neighbours deserves quotation: “I have had to put up with harassment, verbal abuse, trespassing, stalkers, theft, vandalism, attempted assault, constant garbage, syringes, condoms, continuous influx of dangerous tenants, mentally ill drug addicts, not coincidentally wanting to be my boyfriend… just doing yard work is a risky activity.”
Caroline’s amazing industry, anger, and persistence eventually won the day and the building was cleared. Here’s the rub, though. Caroline’s last message to me specifically mentioned a resident of her “crack hotel” by nickname. “I felt a little guilty when you mentioned the cats and the flophouse on your street,” she wrote. “They were all living next to me and got shuttled over to your side!!! I don’t know if they are the same characters but there was one special one that started one of the fires, his name was ‘Cowboy.’ He always wore a cowboy hat and boots. He is no longer allowed on my street I was told.”
I recognize many of the people who have lived in our crack hotel, but I know only one by name. Just guess.