Saturday, 14 April 2012

Want to Make a Ghetto? Sault Ste. Marie Shows Us How

In the previous post, we saw how the depressing state of Welland’s city center foretells what’s planned for Peterborough by KPR. You’ll find no schools of any kind within a half-hour walk of Welland city hall in any direction. The nearest is a tiny public elementary school, Ross Public, 1.5 km north. The next nearest is the Catholic board’s Notre Dame College, a secondary school still on its original site 2 km north-west.

But surely 2 km isn’t all that far away for teenagers to travel, you may protest. Why hasn’t Notre Dame acted as a neighbourhood draw for central Welland?

For one thing, like Ross Public, it’s on the other side of the river from the downtown area. 2 km may not be much for older teens, but most adults and young teens won’t walk that far voluntarily on a regular basis, and having to cross bridges along major thoroughfares on foot isn’t an attractive proposition for anyone.

Moreover, although they receive public funds, Catholic schools don’t actually cater to the general public. They serve that portion of the population who want a specific educational experience for their children consistent with their religious values and family histories. In Ontario, that portion is seldom more than one-third of a city’s population. Catholic schools are thus considerably weaker magnets than public schools.

Most families who send their children to Catholic high schools in Ontario have resigned themselves to busing as the trade-off for getting their preferred specialized education. Because it’s the only Catholic high school in the entire region, the majority of Notre Dame’s 1300 students are bused in each morning, and bused out again at 3 pm. They’re not around the neighbourhood to make friends or put on events after school, and they’re not participating in the downtown financial or cultural economy.

This doesn’t mean that they’re isolated. The built-in Catholic community provides for the school's more geographically diffused families something like what local neighbourhood networks can in theory provide for the more diverse collection of public school families.

But without the neighourhood connections provided by a walkable public high school, it’s easy for both the school experiences of the public system students and the communities they live in to disintegrate – especially if stressed by other economic factors. And once this happens, families who can get out, will get out.

If you thought Welland revealed a frightening future for Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie might be scarier still. Considered large in its northern context, the city is actually home to the same number of people as Peterborough, about 79,000. The population of Sault Ste. Marie doubled during the boom years of the 1960s, maxed out in the 1980s, went into decline as families and young adults left town, and has only recently begun growing again. The city has an unusually high percentage of Catholic families, most of Italian background.

In 1980, just as its population was cresting, Sault Ste. Marie allowed its original high school, Sault Collegiate, to be closed. For the next fifteen years the building housed a French Immersion elementary school – a specialty use appealing more to upper-middle class children bused from suburban areas rather than families in its own neighbourhood. 

Former city landmark and lynchpin Sault Collegiate:
"repurposed," abandoned, then demolished

The closing of Sault Collegiate signaled the decline of the city as a whole. Truly a pivotal institution, it had linked the city’s residential, commercial and industrial areas, and also bridged the working-class neighbourhood to its west with the more middle-class area to the east. After 1980, any students still living near the city’s center had to bus 3.5 km east to Sir James Dunn CVS, built in 1957.

The situation was analogous to what would have occurred in the early 1980s in Peterborough had the school board not been pressured by resistant citizens to reverse their plan to close PCVS and have students from the center of town bused down to Kenner. Given the subsequent history of Sault Ste. Marie, the debt of gratitude we owe those citizens is a substantial one.  

In 2001, just a year shy of what would have been its hundredth anniversary, the historic building was torn down. A nursing home now overlooks the downtown area from the hill on which Sault Collegiate presided for most of the city’s history

While the Sault’s center deteriorated without schools to hold it together, areas north of the TransCanada highway continued to grow, and new schools were built to serve them – making the fringes even more attractive to new homeowners than the center. The city was caught in a vicious circle

Finally, even the old east end around Sir James Dunn didn’t seem to the Algoma District School Board to warrant a local high school. Dunn was recently closed, and its former neighbourhood students are now sent 5 km northwest up around the TransCanada to the new Superior Heights “mega-school.”

According to this Sault Star article, the Algoma School Board spent two years debating the name of the new school, even holding a public vote.

Schools? Who needs 'em!
If only they’d put as much thought into the effects on the city of the school consolidation itself.   

Five km north of city hall, Superior Heights is still closer to the city center than the other two public high schools. The only public school of any kind anywhere near the core is the specialized  Urban Aboriginal School. The closest regular elementary schools are 2.3 km away to the east and west, leaving an astonishing 23 square kilometer swath of the city’s center without any schools at all catering to the general public. 

This bizarre configuration was perhaps justified in the minds of decision-makers by the presence of two Catholic high schools (formerly gender-specific) near one another in the Italian area west of the old Sault Collegiate. However, these schools, St. Basil’s and St. Mary’s, are the only ones in the Catholic board’s huge geographical jurisdiction. Most of their students are bused in from the city’s outer reaches and well beyond. Located 2 km west of city hall, on the other side of the main commercial strip, St. Mary’s gravitational force is a tiny fraction of what would be required to hold the core together - in spite of the relatively high proportion of Catholic families in the city.

The spectacular lack of success achieved by Sault Ste. Marie’s “Downtown Association” in their efforts to convince residents from other areas to “come downtown” is evident in the opening words of their promotional webpage: “Where is Downtown?” 

What is downtown Sault Ste. Marie known for today?


In this Sault Star article from last year, residents and politicians appear shocked and upset by the ever-worsening problem of the sex trade. “The scariest aspect was hearing that children and grandchildren are afraid to visit their families in the neighbourhood because some as young as 10 and 12 years old are being approached and propositioned,” said city councilor Lorena Tridico. The article implies that city officials were taken by surprise at the extent of the problem.

Really? Leave a twenty-three square kilometer chunk of real estate in your city’s core without any public schools, and you’re caught off guard when criminal activity goes out in the open?  

In this Star article from the 2010 municipal election campaign, Tridico and her rival discuss increased by-law enforcement to deal with boarded-up storefronts, stronger police presence to control prostitution, affordable housing projects to attract residents, and negotiations with businesspeople to bring a grocer to the neighbourhood.

No one mentions schools. Looks like the Sault’s going to be in for a long, painful ride.

Having consolidated the city’s five high schools into three, emptied a huge tract of the city’s core of public school services, and installed expensive WiFi systems at every school in the board whether they wanted it or not, the Algoma school board appears to be the role model that KPR administrators have been eagerly following.

It’s safe to say that most Peterborough citizens don’t share their enthusiasm for this trajectory.

If KPR administrators have their way in closing PCVS this year, and either Adam Scott or Kenner five years from now in their quest to bump TASSS enrolment to the level required to entice provincial funding to renovate it, Peterborough will be well on its way to joining our cousins to the north.

We’ll be pouring tax dollars into policing, subsidized housing, and construction projects in a vain effort to stem the tide of vacancies and criminal activity brought on by a deficit of city center schools even worse than that in Sault Ste. Marie, as our local Catholic board has already abandoned Town Ward entirely.

How do you like that outlook, Mayor Bennett?  

1 comment:

  1. Hi
    I really like your analysis. And I have noted that some older posts also suggested solutions suitable for all. Will your next posts be again suggesting solutions?