back to intros
You have a beautiful home here!
Cindy Chan Piper:
You should have seen it when we first moved in. The electricity was out, the furnace didn't work, the hot water wasn't working, and it could only give me enough water to wash one thing every day.
So you have to decide what it is you want to wash.
You either wash clothes or you wash your dishes, or you wash your kid. Well actually that's not true, it was one wash every 12 hours, so we could have our bath in the mornings and the dishes at night. No insulation, nothing and it was cold on the floor, it was a bulldozer special. I did it because I know how to do my own work, and I just have to pay for materials. Which I guess I'll get on sale anyway. That's the beauty of doing what I do.
It's a beautiful city and this community looks really interesting.
That's a nice word for it!
Well, you know,
It's unique; it's a very unique community.
It's very clear looking at the East Side and the West Side, where the resources were put for many many years.
I know, but we have resources here that they don't have over there. We've got people; we've got really interesting people.
And spirit! And imagination, I mean, I don't like that... but I suppose I could pull off, go to the west side and you know, make do and all that but it's not interesting. My friends are from the West Side, because of what I do, my profession, I have a lot of west side friends, but it's boring! Not like here.
They haven't been sharpened in the struggles. I'm very interested in knowing what kind of organizing work you have done and what you've been involved with and what you're involved with now.
It's always been the same, I'm involved in keeping this community from falling into decay, I guess is the best way to put it. It is overbrimming with crime, drug dealing, prostitution, it's an inner city neighborhood, and my involvement over the last 14 years has been to keep it safe. I guess basically what I wanted was the fundamental right to walk on the streets and keep our children safe and our seniors safe. It's taken many turns and many twists and it's been a fascination journey! If I had known it was going to be that hard I wouldn't have done it!
So, where did you come here from?
I've always lived here. I lived up the coast as a child for a while, but we used to come up for summer. I was born and raised in the downtown, 20 blocks from here. I'm an East Side inner city kid.
So you bought this house. When you bought this house and moved into this neighborhood, you got involved right away, or?
No, I got involved because my son went with, I got involved, I remember exactly the day I got involved. It was the first day of school, grade 1, for my son, and it was Strathcona School, which is about 14 blocks from here. On the way to school we passed 3 prostitutes, there were prostitutes on school grounds and there were drug deals and every morning there were needles on the school grounds and there were condoms all over the place. And I said this is not good for children.
So I got involved in cleaning it up. And then it just got worse from there. So we cleaned up the school, you know, I protested, wrote letters to the city council; I did everything you normally do to get attention. Got the school board, and there was a lot of resistance, the usual dah dah dah dah dah dah. Got the school cleaned up after a lot of resistance and organizing. It went into the neighborhood, that neighborhood didn't want it in the neighborhood, so they pushed it out and they pushed it up here, further east. And actually they pushed it to Mount Pleasant, and further East. And then Mt. Pleasant had a campaign and it got moved here. So basically it's a circuit. And I've been involved in all that. So basically it started where my son went to school and it came to my doorstep.
Why do you think you do this, why don't you just go, why don't you just ignore it? Why don't you just,...
Because I think I'm certifiably insane.
Certifiably insane, that's a rational explanation!!! And where does this insanity come from?
I have no idea. I might come by it naturally. My parents fought for our right to vote. My father went to war for our right to vote,
Yes, he was in World War II and he deliberately joined the air force for the right to vote for Chinese people. So I guess I come by it honestly. So, maybe you know. But if you really want to know why I did this I can't give you an explanation. It's just that it's wrong. There's something wrong, I just feel very very deeply this is wrong and I have to ...you know that old saying, all it takes for evil to flourish is for one person to turn the other way? There is something very evil going on here. In fact at David Driscoll's summer picnic I ran into one of the bank members that used to be in the foundation that said, don't lose courage, Cindy, because you're fighting evil. So that's why I want to describe it as evil. They are after our children. I'll give you the stories of what they're doing, it is pretty horrific.
So you have been involved as a mom, as a volunteer, and you've been involved professionally as a community organizer, or community development work?
Not professionally. I've been involved as a mom, as a neighbor, as an activist. Professionally I'm an architect and a city planner, so I know all the stuff about city planning.
How it works.
But I didn't organize this activism, this activism in this community as part of that job. In fact, I've lost my job as a city planner because of my activism. They didn't like my profile, they thought that I was too much of an activist ...not tame enough to be in city planning. I was a community planner. Obviously their idea of community planning was not my idea of community planning. Like how could I be a community planner here and watch your children being seduced into prostitution!
When did you lose your job?
Oh, I think about 5 or 6 years ago.
And how did it happen?
Oh, they down sized. But right before they down sized, I was called on the carpet several times, I got reprimands on my permanent record, I got told so many times by my supervisors and my managers, you can't do this. I told them, what I do on my own time is my business. I'm not criticizing the city of Vancouver, I'm criticizing the federal government for its laws and I'm criticizing the provincial government for it's lack of services, but I haven't said one word of criticism against you. I did this on my own time and my job performance reviews; you rave about my work. So, what's the problem here? But you know we don't like your profile. You can't be an activist and a city planner at the same time.
So they found a way.
They found a way. I've done some official roles. I'm now the chair of my community center; I helped to organize and to put that together, because that's one of the key aspects. I founded some non-profit organizations for prostitutes. I've helped,
Tell me about that.
In my activism to get street prostitution away from the neighborhoods I met and talked to a lot of prostitutes and really it's a pretty sad story. I mean I have heard it all, I just don't want them to stand on street corners for obvious reasons. It's not the girls, they bring perverts into the neighborhoods, and they bring drug dealers they bring the pimps. They are a symbol of something that's wrong in a neighborhood but they themselves aren't evil creatures mostly. So I thought well how can I rightfully ask them not to ply their trade in my neighborhood and push them out and not give something to help them. Then I met some of them and I met a very articulate one and I helped her to found a nonprofit organization for prostitutes to get them out of the trade. I worked very hard at that until I had to give it up. And it still is in existence but it has become something other than what it was originally intended. It's gotten taken over. So there is something about prostitution that brings out some of the worst of humanity you know, it's a very complicated subject and I don't know what it is, but I think there's a reason it's a the oldest profession and it brings out the worst in humanity. If it wasn't for the fact that there are some very nice people in this world, some very nice males in this world, there's a pretty dark side. So I did that. And I helped to found the John School.
What's that about?
That is something we're doing with Vancouver police department and Vancouver City hall. I'm working with one of the councilors and we founded a school where the Johns that are caught and arrested, instead of sending them to jail they are sent to an all day seminar in which they are shown the consequences of being a John. It works! It works. I helped to found it; I helped to put it together, you know, as a community person. And it's looked to by many many people. And I go once a month and I deliver a lecture to the Johns. So that's very,
A very powerful experience.
Yes, it's powerful; it's very difficult. But it works. It really works because it's taking a positive approach. It's not punishment, it's education and a lot of these men didn't know the consequences of what they were doing. It's pretty good.
Pretty exciting. So what else are you involved in?
I'm involved in a lot. Some of the other things I'm involved in is a lot of work with anti-racism stuff. I've been appointed on the advisory committee for the infamous anti-racist commission.
What does that involve, the province supports it?
The province supports it. It's mostly employment equity, in workshops and doing features on employment equity on anti-racism, I've done a number of television shows on you know, on anti-racism and stuff. You know, personal experiences in my life, so that's what I've done a lot of. This crime stuff and anti-crime is only because,
It's not your choice.
It's not my choice! It's only because I live here and I can't bear to see what's happening to our children.
Tell me more about how this community is working out. What organizations are there?
There are many organizations here, many community organizations, many agencies. It's a very multi-cultural area, it was Italian and it's now turning into Chinese.
So how is the area known?
This is Grandview Woodlands. And the section that is most afflicted is the Hastings North part of it. Grandview Woodlands is the official city district name.
They often don't get that exactly right. What is a neighborhood, what is a community? Is that true here?
That's true. Yes. There are many communities in this neighborhood, so this is the Grandview Woodlands neighborhood but there are several very distinct communities and sub-communities and there is a polyglot. And there is a distinct schism in the neighborhood because there are a lot of people here who make their living and get a lot of provincial, or a lot of government money, from all three levels of government, doing their services. So they have a stake in keeping the community in a certain state so they can apply for more grants. That's the down side of services, eh? So then there is another element, they want a clean neighborhood, they don't want the drug dealers, they don't want the prostitutes here and some of the agencies want them here because then they can administer services and so there is a huge tension in the neighborhood.
How does that tension play out?
It plays out very difficult if you are a leader. I've had my house vandalized, at this very moment I'm under personal attack because I am a big bad vigilante. I was involved in trying to get Jamie Lee Hamilton not to open a brothel in the area, she went public with it, we kind of left it to be quiet, and she went public with it. I said it wasn't suitable, so the media painted her as the hero, me as the vigilante and the anti-hero. My neighbors, they basically called me names and scowled at me and frowned at me and won't talk to me. And you know, not all of them,
It doesn't take many to make an impact.
Yes, and then now they organized to get me out of the community center. They don't want me to be in this community anymore. So it plays itself out that way in a very personal hurtful way.
And so I've had to really step back and take a look at all of this and the power play, too. It's a play for power and money.
It's not about you necessarily.
And I had to think about this and to see if I really was further victimizing helpless victims and I thought, no, how could I be wrong when I'm trying to make safe space for children. When the children can't play in the park, when they can't go out in their own yards, when they're locked indoors, how can it be right for seniors to be so afraid, they won't open their door. A just cause, right? And what does it serve community or society for people to inject drugs into their veins in plain sight. How does that help anybody, how does dealing drugs help anybody? How does it help anybody when men come onto the school grounds in the middle of the day and proposition grade 5 schoolgirls, asking them if they will have sex for money? How does that help anybody?
How can you turn your head?
How can you turn your head on that one? Because that's what's happening. It's not just the condoms and the needles, it's just evolved, it's just gotten worse. It started with condoms and needles and garbage and it started because the governments wouldn't address the situation because they wanted it to go away because they were cowards, cowards, it got worse. The age of prostitution went from 16 down to 10! 10-year-old girls out there on the street, I see them with my own eyes! How could that be right? And the men are acting with impunity! They know they're immune, so they feel it's their right to go to the school grounds and ask children. I know it happens because, you know, you're looking at me and you know, I'm not gigantic,
Not a tall person, on the tape we'll say, not a tall person.
Not a tall person! And you see,
And you look very young,
Well, not young, but, you see, if I happen to wear my hair down, and I like backpacks, so I carry my stuff in a backpack, I can walk around the school. In front of my own house, a man stopped me and asked me if I would sell my body for sex because they think I'm one of the kids. That's how I know it happens, because when they get closer and they see I'm an old bag, it just shocks them! But you should see how persistent they are! It's really disgusting. I mean you can't imagine how this feels and what if I really was an 11 year old girl or a 12 year old girl, this would be completely out of my realm, I wouldn't know what to do,
What are you supposed to think of yourself, what are you supposed to think of men what are you supposed to think of love even, There's no reason kids should have to deal with that.
My son has had to deal with watching men perform sex acts in a car right under his bedroom window, and from the time he was 3 he's been watching prostitutes on the streets. I don't know what his idea of a relationship is, but it certainly is not a healthy one, his image, you know, of intimacy. But the role model that he's getting from men is not a very good one. But, there are good men around, so we hope that influences him, right?
One thing that you said is that this area is gone from Italian to Chinese. Does that have an effect on neighborhood unity on issues like this?
Yes it does. The other thing that is happening is that we can't reach the people. There aren't enough Italian people here for us to really get cohesion of an Italian community. The Chinese people are very very poor. It's not the rich ones who come here, it's the really poor ones. And they are in a subsistence, survival mode, they don't get involved. A lot of them don't speak the language, you know, so we can't get them to participate in keeping the community safe. They're all so really poor and one of the things that I do every Christmas is I collect left over presents from the Union Christmas parties and I deliver them to the really poor families and that's how I get to know some. But, they are afraid, so they lock their children indoors so we can't reach them. That's pretty difficult. They need services; we don't know how to get ahold of them. And I speak a bit of Chinese because it was kept. But still that's not enough. But we work through the schools. The schools have communities, so we try to work through there and that's a really good way to work, reach through the children, through the schools, because they have bilingual,
Oh, they do?
Is there bilingual education in the schools?
Social workers and outreach workers are bilingual.
Yes. And we have a huge native population right in this area, sort of a 4-block radius. And those children are prone to being drawn into the prostitution and into the drug dealing and we have some Vietnamese families here, their children are being recruited into the gangs and it's a very visible, organized recruitment program. It's really scary. I mean I've experienced it myself because they tried it on my son. I got him out of it. Because I know the recruitment process, so they target our children, they target the boys into running drugs and they target the girls to go into prostitution. And the two are intertwined. The prostitution is intertwined with the drugs. There's no separation. That's how they get the girls into the prostitution is to get them addicted.
They have to make the money. You said there were a lot of community groups and then you talked about the service organizations. What citizens organizations,
We have some of those, too, I've been leading mostly the citizens groups. And we've done foot patrols and patrols at night to maintain a presence and not really do anything, just coordinating to sort of state that this is our community. We are a visible presence; we're not going to hide indoors. Lately I've been working with the police department very very closely with the police department. They finally came onside. They were working against us for many years and they finally changed philosophies and decided community policing was a good thing.
Really? So there's more presence in the community, there's a consistent presence, the same people,
Yes, yes. That's why I hope to salvage the neighborhood. I've been helping to get that established here and I've been the president for a little bit over a year, and it's only been in existence for a year and a bit. It's been a struggle to teach the concept. They don't know, they have no idea,
They get a phrase, get a couple symbols, and a program, that's it.
They don't understand. We've got a great neighborhood police officer, but that is an unusual thing. He understands it. Well put it this way, he is not so arrogant that he won't listen to what the community wants. And so he doesn't know what community policing really is, but he's willing to listen and he's willing to cooperate.
Where do you find information and contacts on that, that helped you know what to do?
For the police?
Well, across the board,
I make it up as I go. I really don't know, I never studied community development, I've never taken courses, my type of community planning is a very narrow, professional type of planning, and I did mostly the physical part of it. I just make it up as I go. I see a problem in the neighborhood, I find what I have to do to fix it.
I've worked with a lot of community groups that are involved in community policing, and, there's a big confusion what is it really about? When it's done well, how is it done? And so it takes a lot of study, a lot of information, it's sort of helpful to know what other people are doing in other places. Do you have that kind of network in place where you can get information?
We are starting to get it in place. I first heard about community policing about 10 years ago. Chris Brayden made a visit here and he talked to us about community policing. And of course our police department was dead set against it. But, he was an inspiration.
Who was this?
He was invited here, I forget. I was just, I was active in the school getting rid of this problem, the school grounds, and the policing was part of it and he happened to be in town and somebody invited him to come and talk. And I thought this is one tool, I didn't know if it was THE tool, but I knew that it was a tool, right? And there are things like the Van city community foundation and then there's the Vancouver foundation and there's all of these other places to get help and we're working with the police department. We just find whatever resources we can, and I'm pretty sure that I miss quite a few.
So where else do you get help, besides from these?
I get help from my neighbors and from the community. That's the real mother lode of where we're getting it from. We've had demonstrations because initially the government, they needed a place to contain the problem. They designated this as their unofficial red light district. They contained it here in Hastings North, so we were fighting the bureaucracy, we were fighting our politicians, we were fighting everybody that had an interest in keeping it here. So we had to organize ourselves and we organized ourselves and the mother lode of everything is the people who live here. The businesses gave us money, we had rallies, they donated things, the neighborhood, you know, they just took things out of our own homes, out of our own pockets, we walked the streets, we bought our own flashlights. You know? We had rallies, we had demonstrations, we bought our own materials to make our signs. And we got people who went through the garbage cans, like I rescued a whole bunch of phone cable cores from developers who were throwing them out and I picked them up and I painted on the back of them. I went up to a sale where I picked up some old bed sheets and I made a banner you know, for the television, stuff like that. And we borrowed a bullhorn and the school principal of that school at that time, he was behind us, he let us use the staff room for our meetings. He let us use the emergency storage area to store our signs. You know,
That kind of support is so helpful.
That's really where it's rich because you spend a lot of time writing grants and applications, doing presentations. How we projected ourselves is that we, I wrote a lot of letters to city hall, we appealed to them, and I got all the little old ladies to come with me, and I got the business men to come with me. Which is something else I'm doing, is I'm working with the businesses in which we will tax the commercial properties, we'll get a levy on the commercial properties and that will give us an annual budget to do improvement for the area. You see. So I mean,
So they can tax themselves.
So they can tax themselves, and you know how much apathy there is. But when it's voluntary participation it gives you that strength. So I've been working closely with the businesses to do that. It's a multi-pronged kind of thing. It's in the people who are actually in the area, businesses, residents, little old ladies, they bake cookies, you know? And everybody puts some money out of their pockets and we've got a web site up together. Somebody else, a little old lady gave us 50 dollars, we bought flashlights for our patrol. It's magic!
What's the site called?
It's called Street Watch. And it's up and running but we're still debating as to what we're going to put on it. I got a friend of mine to do it. I'll show you, it's all free stuff. And of course, media, over the years we've learned how to work the media. You can't always work it the way you want it to, but we got television coverage, we learned how to get television coverage when we wanted and we had demonstrations, the whole bit.
My next question was going to be what sustains you, what keeps you going at it, but you're telling me, it's the people.
Oh, yes. It's the people, although right now it's pretty sad because somebody in the community has created these divides. And the feeling seems to be that I am not a liability, I'm an affliction, which is fine. I have no need to be a power person. I did it because it needed to be done, because of the people, I mean there is something magic. I get phone calls all the time from people who are watching drug deals go down, who are scared out of their wits and they call me. I have a direct line to the drug squad and I can call them and say, this is an address, you know, I can organize that kind of thing. That's why I do it, because there' s people living here. And people, they always forget that communities are victims, too.
That's an interesting point, it's not just the victim of the crime, or the perpetrator of the crime that are involved in that situation,
No, communities are victims and nobody wants to hear that a community is a victim. Because community is composed of a whole bunch of people who just want to live their little quiet lives and usually don't get involved but they are victims because they can't walk in the streets.
So, what would help you be more successful in organizing?
I wish I knew. I wish I knew.
You wave your wand,
I don't know, I really don't know. I make it up as I go. A lot of people have told me that over the last 14 years that the community has turned a corner, that my work has been successful, that it has not been in vain. It is still a livable community, it still has problems, the politics are horrendous, but they say, it's livable. And they're actually saying it's changing, we have this police officer on our side, that we can see the difference. We see more children on the streets now, we see more little old ladies on the street now. So they're saying that, and they say, Cindy, you stabilized it. So, maybe I'm not successful, but maybe what I did was I prevented it from going under. Try to keep the community treading water until it could heal.
That's pretty exciting.
So this story isn't finished yet. Everybody's saying, okay, we're not going to take this. And the measure of it is the type of people that we're moving into this area, now we're getting some more young couples, now we're getting people with children, it's more family. So that's a little glimmer.
Are those people interested in getting involved?
They're getting more involved, because they are more Canadian, they're more main stream Canadian and they have the tools to fight back.
Well, would you say you're hopeful?
I have to be hopeful! Otherwise I'd give up!
Yah, I guess!
I guess I have to be hopeful. I mean there are days when I am really depressed and down in the dumps. And I am a really hard person to get down. I lost the job at city hall, then I started my own practice doing architecture and planning consulting. I spent so many hundreds of hours, literally almost thousands of hours, doing this community stuff and didn't do my market research and I have been distracted from ways for my own practice that have gone down the tubes. Which is why I am scrambling, looking for a way to make money, which is - I am a movie extra!
I love this - you went down, said you were interested in being an extra, you got a job right away.
Five minutes, you're going to be in a commercial and next week you might get another call, maybe another movie, I think that's cool.
And so what I do is I just do it one day at a time. And I may have to step back a little bit because I do have to look after my own financial situation, it's really precarious right now, it's really really really bad right now. So I have to start to look after that. And emotionally I'm all strung out, too. So I can take a deep breath. But a lot of people tell me that the community is fickle. It's okay.
It's easy to see the things that are wrong. It's hard to say.
People say that it is turned around. My neighbor right across the street, that big old brown house, they sold their home in Kerrisdale to move here. They are both professionals, he is a coroner and she is at a high school. They lived in Kerrisdale, they sold their home in Kerrisdale, and they bought their house. They said, Cindy, they had seen me on television a lot, fighting for the area. Cindy we would have never moved here if we didn't think it was a viable neighborhood.
That's worth fighting for,
And they're joining in the fight and there's another couple that I work with very closely, they're both professional writers. And they bought a home right in the heart of the stroll area and they said we would never have bought here if we didn't see that we could win this battle. So.
Wow, that's exciting.
I'm seeing more of that.
Yah. What would you say were the most important lessons that you've learned from your activism?
I guess you give power away. Learn to give power away. Because that's the real strength in the neighborhoods and it's really easy to organize and be a hero, and be an organizer, and all of that, but that's only one person, that's not a neighborhood. If I had been more of a macho type person, and a traditional leader, I probably could have cleaned this area up a lot faster, right, and more in the military style. I didn't do it that way. It's the joy, the wonderfulness, of the people, there's so many good people here, so you give them the power to do it for themselves. So you have to fight the apathy, you have to get them enthusiastic and then they have other lives and they don't do things and sometimes things don't get done and I can only do so much. But basically giving the power away for them to do it for themselves. So that there's a power play, they can have the power. I guess that's what we're going through now. There's a power play. They can have the power. Because they build it from themselves, and I think that is what I have learned.
I asked about what it takes to be an organizer in this community, and I hope you're in touch with other organizers in other places. How are you in touch with other places?
Mostly by telephone. I get a lot of phone calls. I am in touch with the police department because all of the neighborhood police officers have organizations called the community policing advisory committee. And I meet with the police department once a month, so I meet all of those organizers through there. A lot of them know of me because of the media stuff that I've done and because I've been fighting for so long. And they call me and anything that goes on we talk. So any time anybody else has an issue, if there is a commonality we work together.
So does that happen in coalitions across the communities?
What are some examples of that?
Well there was the Neighbor to Neighbor one, that was sort of functional, there was the policing one, there's the different neighborhood houses and then there's the different area councils and sometimes, and there's different community centers and sometimes it depends, it's simple because you know, what it depends on? It depends on the person and the people involved.
How open they are to cooperation.
And whether there is a common issue. So you just find the alliances where you can.
What are the alliances? You talk about the network that you have. Who is the us in your work?
Right now it's the police. Before that it was the patrol, just an ad hoc community patrol. Sometimes it's the schools, before that it was the schools, I worked through the schools. I've worked through organizations like the Van city community foundation. I'm trying to remember, it's just wherever I can find it, it's just wherever I can find it. But sometimes it's formal, sometimes it's not. The most powerful one is the ad hoc. It just brings that out of the community. Sometimes it's just like getting my neighbors together and having a block party. We had one on Sunday; we took over the streets. We put up a barbecue and tables and out on the street here, we had hot dogs and you know, we all brought a potluck dish and we got to know each other, you know. This is our second time, we've had a get together, and the first one was at my house. This one was here. There were drug dealers right down on the corner there. They sit there, they go to the phones on Lakewood and Hastings, at the end of the block and they make the deals, and they come here, right there, we could see them from my front door, they sit there and the deal gets done. We were having this block watch party and one of the girls' sons, of the neighbors, came. He saw the dealers there and he just walked down to the corner and he walked up to the dealer and he says, I don't appreciate what you're doing on my block, get out of here! I don't want to see you here ever again. And they left! That's what we do. That's powerful!
That's power is right!
And you know that was just, I didn't tell him to do it, he just decided. And he decided because he could see that we were a neighborhood and he wanted, he's going to be living across the street, he's going to move in with his parents and he decided that now that he was going to participate in saying what is acceptable in cleaning it up. So there's more and more and more of that.
Very exciting. It's the little things that show that we have hope.
I've found that sharing the hope was the best tool I had. Not what I did so much as giving them hope. Like every time I went to city council, every time I led a demonstration, every time I complained to somebody, and voiced the opinion, it wasn't just my opinion, I'm repeating what other people tell me. I phone myself, every time I say that, I give them hope that something can be done and every time I get a scar, every time I get hit, I pick myself up again, I do it again, they can see that somebody cares so much and if she cares so much and she's got so much hope, then I can have it, too. So you keep that hope going, because you don't want them to be apathetic, you don't want them to hide and to succumb to their fear. So that young father he decided right, he decided he would do something.
This is it. This is not the first time he saw it, not the only time he's seen it, but it's probably the first time he stepped out and did something, and never turned back.
That's right. You know, there have been community meetings called by the service groups that want to co-exist with the drug dealers and the prostitutes. They want to co-exist here. And I've always said, you can live here, I have no problem if they live here and they're neighbors, but I would like you to behave in a neighborly fashion, in other words, I don't want you selling your body in front of my door and I don't want you to deal drugs in front of my door. But if you want to live here and be my neighbor, I don't care. So co-existence, they want to co-exist. And because quite a few people in this community don't want that type of co-existence, they are attacked. They called this Coalition Against Police Brutality and Harassment. There have been a number of communities in which they mentioned my name as part of this harassment. And the purpose of these meetings, and there were 2 or 3 of them, the purpose of them was to organize and do something about Cindy Piper.
Well, I guess if you are known best by your enemies that's OK.
And I mean, one time, you know, the last time was at a rally which was about 5 years ago, that same group got together. They were professional agitators and they got together, they were targeting me, they had my name and my phone number on posters and they were handing it to the drug dealers to come and park at my house. My house had been vandalized, they wrote threats against me, etched on the pavement on the sidewalk, the city crews had to come out and see, and clean, and the threats had my name on it, so it was quite personal.
You know what, you're still here.
I'm still here and I'm still fighting. And I've got 80-year-old women helping me, you know! They say, Cindy there's a drug deal going down here and they call up for help!
It's hard to give up when you've got the 80 year old women behind you!
Oh, they're powerful! You know you don't want to mess with grandma!
I don't want to get her mad!
And there's a whole bunch of them. And last night Shirley Fisher came to see me. I think she's in her 70's, middle 70's. What a powerhouse! And she came, she had just come back from a bicycle trip across Canada.
God bless her!
That's right, she's just so full of energy and she came to see what was happening in the neighborhood and she said we're not putting up with it! And she's going to organize all the other little old ladies!
One of the things that I'm trying to do is by collecting stories and then passing them on, is really to get out and start a dialogue and a conversation among organizers. Do you have any questions or any statements or any conundrums to pose for those other organizers?
Particularly inner city communities, I would like to know what other community organizers have done to take their community back. I had the occasion to visit Toronto and I visited, you know, some of their people and I would like to know how they deal with the issue of a visible presence of crime in the neighborhoods, particularly street prostitution and open drug dealing. How do they deal with that? Especially when they have a set of laws that is non-functional, a justice system that is hostile, and a government that is apathetic, what they do to turn it around, I really want to know that.
That's interesting, I know there's a lot of experience, a lot of people struggled with the same questions, there is no simple answer, but I think you have a lot of experience, and I think you have a lot of answers for that question that could help others.
I don't know if I have the answers, I don't know, but I've tried so many things. Like I said, I make it up as I go. I'm not sure if I'm right, but if somebody had the same results, then maybe two people with the same results maybe that was the right thing to do. The other thing I want to know is, I want to know what part government plays with bringing about the decline of a neighborhood. I actually went to the University and I wanted to do a PHD on this one. My son decided to go to a university in another city and we can't have 2 people in university at the same time, right? But that's what I want know because I have a theory that the government plays a big part in making a certain section of the city open to street crime by their policies. I want to talk to other governments and other organizers and other activists to see how it worked, or is that same situation there? How does their neighborhood go into decline and how do they take it out?
That's an exciting question. There's a lot of experience.
I think the next step that I have to do is be more organized, I mean, I think up to this point, the last 14 years I've had a bucket of water trying to fight this fire.
Now it's time to get the fire brigade in a little row.
But up till now it's been the old sackcloth and the bucket of water, just trying to keep things from sinking. And I'm pretty sure there's a more sophisticated answer, I'm pretty sure there's a better way to do it, I just haven't found it.
I think the key ingredient in any of this is passion.
Yes, that's the stuff you can't buy, you can't make or buy. But the process of rehabilitating a neighborhood or rehabilitating a community I'm sure there's a better process then the one we've done. I'm sure there's an easier way to do it.
My last question for you is what have I forgotten to ask, what should I have asked?
I mean, it's hard just distill 14 years of fighting into an hour and I'm sure there's lots of things I've missed, but, you basically sort of have to pick my brain.
Sure, sure, and one of my hopes is that once we get these texts up on the web site, and we can see what other people said, it'll spark some conversation among people. The other thing is, we will be inviting everyone that's been interviewed to the annual summer institute in Montreal and so we're hoping that everyone in Canada can come to that and then we'll have some Australians and some Americans.
That would be a good,
I'm really excited about that, I think, you know, I will have met everybody, but I'm dying to have you meet the people that I've interviewed from Saskatchewan, and from Calgary, there's a lot of people.
I think there is, and I have suspicion that there's a commonality in inner city neighborhoods and in communities and I would like to know what that is.
I think there's a substantial change of the quality of life in the inner city communities, when crack cocaine came in.
That is absolutely true. I noticed the change in this neighborhood, based on the type of drugs that came on the market. The types of confrontations and the types of violence escalated, because at first, 14 years ago, the prostitutes were heroin addicts, and they were just harmless, well they're still, well actually they're not harmless anymore, but they were really harmless. And then cocaine, coke became the drug of choice and the neighborhood got lots more schizophrenic and there was a lot more violence and a lot more confrontation. At the same time, the age of the prostitutes dropped, and I need to talk, remind me to talk to you about the evolution of prostitution in these neighborhoods. Cocaine came and the number of burglaries and the number of assaults, the number of violent confrontations; guns came out around that time, and the neighborhood just got really scary. Then the girls had to turn tricks three times as often, because with heroin, the high lasted so many hours, with cocaine it lasted like a couple of hours, right, and not that I'm an expert on this, but they had to be turning their tricks more, and everything got more frenetic, the violence exploded. Now it's crack cocaine, and it's really scary, now. The girls are out every 20 minutes, it's edgy. Now they'll look at you, now the dealers are arrogant and they are immune, they act with impunity. So they're all wired. 14 years ago, a prostitute, I was able to go up to them and say, you know, please don't stand here, this is a school grounds, I've got a young son, would you mind going into the industrial area, you know, and they would say, yes, I don't mind, and we'd chit chat and I would find out about them, oh yes, she came from Montreal, she came from Toronto. And you got, that's how I got to know them. Now, you go up to a prostitute and she'll mouth you with the "f" word and the four letter words stringing out and if you go near her and she's kind of got a fist made, like she's ready to hit, they use their needles to stab residents and it's all with the change of the drugs. It's just wound so tight. And at the same time, prostitution changed, 14 years ago, it was adult women seen as prostitutes. The court system sees prostitution as a nuisance. They don't charge the women, well prostitution is legal anyways, just solicitation is illegal in this country. Our laws are schizophrenic, but they didn't charge the man anything and so they let it carry on. With the drugs that came and the impunity that the men were acting under and they started to want younger girls. AIDS and HIV came in around the same time and the older women were more diseased because of drugs and because of prostitution so the men wanted younger girls. So the age of prostitution dropped to teenage girls, like in the early teens, around 16, 14. So about 5 years ago when it really moved into this area we are seeing a lot of 14-year-olds. But now the men are demanding children - and the kiddy strolls here, we are the prostitution capital of Canada, and we are second to Thailand and Bangkok for the purchasing of children for sex. And it's 2 blocks from this house and it's 2 blocks from that elementary school and I've seen it on patrol I have seen children on the streets. So because of the demand for clean girls, who they perceived as being non-diseased, the pimps are recruiting from schools, they are deliberately and actively recruiting from the school. At first they were recruiting from the poor neighborhoods. The disease, this disease has grown so immense that it's not just poor children now. Before the other parts of the lower main land could say well, this is the poor section, we're decent middle class people, it doesn't effect us. Well guess what, it has gotten so out of proportion that the girls being recruited into prostitution are from the upper class neighborhoods and I know because I have talked to their mothers. The parents come down looking for their children, they say, have you seen this girl and I say, I saw her last night standing on that corner. Well, that girl, she said, my daughter is 14. I've seen 12 year olds, I've seen 10 year olds there. I've seen a little girl with her pimp and she's holding a teddy bear, I mean that's enough to break your heart and that's how bad it's gotten. And they are also using the drugs to get the girls addicted so that they can satisfy the demand for younger girls and all of this evolution, I should say devolution, it feeds on itself and that's what happens.
Well, I'm overwhelmed.
I mean, if you have children, you know, what I mean, how could you not fight? How could you watch a child do that? They are recruiting 10 year old boys into drug trafficking because you cannot charge a child under 12 with a crime, so the child is caught with the drugs, the charge is only that they get sent home to their parents. So the dealers are getting money.
I know it's a challenge that everyone would be interested in. I mean it's a challenge not only for our wisdom in how to use police power and not only in the neighborhoods, but in the field of organizing.
Yes, well it's the only way we can do it, community organizing, community development. When I was first reading about it, first learning about it, it was more social justice kind of thing. I didn't ever think that it would turn into keeping your children from harm. I didn't think it would get that bad, right? But I suppose we were na´ve. How could it not be? With this war on drugs and this whole drug culture, if you really thought about it, how could it not go down that road? The world is a scary place today.
Can you think of any actions or tactics that you use that might be interesting for the people to hear about on street prostitution?
Well, it's a funny story, it's about the media, how to work with the media. In the nearby neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant they were having their protests and the police were working there and they were pushing it out of Mt. Pleasant, they needed to contain it over here. And the purpose was to turn this area into the containment area,
The red light district.
The red light district. So there was a media blackout, because media was one of our tools, we were shining the light on our problem, so media was one of our tools. And the mayor had a lot of powerful friends, i.e. Conrad Black, who controlled the media. He put a news blackout on street prostitution for the city, right, and I had a lot of sympathetic reporter friends and I was trying to get them to write stories and I called them up and they would say, I'm sorry, our editors have said no more stories on street prostitution, they will not accept any more stories on street prostitution, so you're out, and it was a conspiracy. I knew there was a news blackout so I had to get a way to get the story out. I devised a way to give them a story that was so yummy that they couldn't resist it, something that they couldn't refuse. I got a pair of tongs and an old bucket and I ran around the neighborhood, it took me four hours and I collected all the dirty condoms that were on our street. It didn't take me long. I collected 649 of them. I wrote a letter of protest to the federal government, addressed to the honorable Jean Chretien, and minister of justice, Allen Rock, begging them to address the situation by changing the federal laws and describing to them the consequences of the laws and what we had to put up with in the neighborhood. Folded into each letter was a sample of what we find on our streets, i.e. a dirty condom. I ran off these letters and I put them in the envelopes and I sent them to Ottawa and I didn't have to pay postage because it's all federal, right, you're writing to your prime minister and your minister of justice, so I didn't even have to pay postage. I called the t.v. cameras in, and I got about, oh I guess about a dozen or up to 20 of my neighbors and we all met in this rally and I had a wheelbarrow with all of these envelopes in it and there we were with the t.v. cameras, we marched down the street with this wheel barrow and all of these citizens and we went to the mailbox and we all took turns mailing the letters.
And did that get press coverage?
Oh, did it get press coverage! It got real press coverage, I mean it ran, it had a long shelf life and it was so yummy, eh, they just couldn't leave it alone!
So that's the answer to the question, how do you get news broadcast!
You give them a yummy story!
Well, thank you.
You met Jane Jacobs.
I met Jane Jacobs, it took courage, cause I had her book, she had a reading and you could come, so she signed my book and we started talking and I was telling her what I was doing here so that was a thrill. What happened was that she mentioned it in her talk, when she was talking about community organizing and community development. And she looked at me, she pointed me out in the crowd about what I was doing. Because I had made an accusation against the city that the city deliberately created this area and the mayor did, she mentioned that. What happened in the audience was one of the councilors who took umbrage at my interpretation of it. Afterwards she went up and she introduced herself and she said it wasn't true, and I happened to be sitting right beside Jane because I had gone up afterwards to say thank you, you know, like it was really nice to meet you. It ended up with Nancy Chiavario on one side saying one thing and me saying another, and it ended up in this verbal fight, a little catfight there. Right in front of Jane Jacobs! Everything Nancy said, I said, that's not true and she says, well, have you got proof, I says, I do, I have a letter signed by the mayor himself saying that it's going to be in your area and I'm not going to do anything about it, proof of containment.
That's pretty clear.
I have a letter.
Who would he send such a letter to?
Well, he sent it to one of the people in the community.
He just said, we're not enforcing the law there.
No, well we were organizing, right? And of course you know the prime thing about organizing, I told you that you give the power away, you don't become the only leader, you have many many many leaders. My thing was everybody was a leader and so we parceled it out, and so we got him to write that letter, and her to do something else, and we were all leaders. He wrote the letter, so the letter from the mayor came to him, which of course it should have. And there it was, signed by the mayor.
Saying that we've decided that you're,
Saying that in your area we're not going to do anything about it. We feel sorry for you, but we're not going to do anything about it.
Sounds pretty bold.
Pretty bold. So Nancy the councilor and I had this little thing right there! But I wasn't going to back down, I was right! I had the letter, I had proof, and she was in denial, she was trying to make the city look good, she was trying to say, oh, no, we don't do those kinds of things, oh no, we didn't do that, oh no, we're a wonderful city council. And I'm saying, no you're not, I've got proof, you deliberately destroyed my neighborhood!