Forest Lawn may not — fairly or unfairly — have the reputation of being the safest neighbourhood in Calgary, but people running restaurants in the area are stout in their defense of the culturally diverse area.
The southeast neighbourhood, dominated by 17th Avenue S.E., has had its days in the spotlight with a reputation for drug dealing and sex trafficking that put the police and the public on high alert.
In 2014, CBC reported that the “Calgary Police Service (CPS) has launched a new initiative along 17 Avenue S.E.” Authorities formed a “beat team” to secure the area “18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, on foot,” the CBC reported.
According to this year’s Community Crime Statistics report published by CPS, Forest Lawn experienced 185 social disorder cases in January of this year. In July that number jumped to 248. But that is nothing compared to the 677 social disorder cases recorded in July for the hip and trendy Beltline district in Calgary, an area bordered by 10th and 17th Avenues S.W. on the north and south sides and Stampede Park on the east side. On the other hand, one of Calgary’s wealthy neighbourhood, Bel-Aire, had only three recorded cases in the same month.
However, statistics vary and are perhaps not an accurate indicator of safety in the Forest Lawn area because criminal activity has increased and decreased in the past seven months. In a January to July timespan, non-domestic assault went from four cases to 10, commercial robbery from one to zero, street robbery from zero to two, non-domestic violence from four to zero, residential break and enter from six to two, commercial break and enter from three to one, vehicle theft from 22 to two, theft from vehicle from 12 to 20, and physical disorder from three to 11.
Carla Da Costa, the manager, chef and part-owner of MIMO, a Portugueserestaurant located on 49th Street and 17th Avenue S.E., said Calgary police officers are “very good at their job.” CPS members, she added, “walk around just to be on the secure side.”
“They keep our businesses safe and should anything happen, they’re already there to be on the scene,” said Da Costa on Jul. 26.
MIMO has been a part of the community for nearly 34 years. Da Costa, who practically grew up in the restaurant scene, started helping her parents run the family business at an early age.
“I think the first time I learned how to peel a potato, I was about four years old,” she recalled. “I used to grab people by their feet and sit on them and just tell them where to sit.”
“[My parents] travelled [to Portugal], got some recipes from all over and opened up a restaurant. So it’s not even just food from one area, it’s authentic food that comes from different parts of Portugal,” Da Costa said.
MIMO is not the only restaurant adjacent to the 17th Avenue construction zone to serve dishes inspired from around the world. Salsa on 35th Street is another family-run business, only with a different cuisine focus — Latin America.
“We try to make it homey,” said Blanca Rodas, chef of the restaurant owned by her brother and sister-in-law. “A lot of our customers come and try our food [and say], ‘Oh it feels like my mom made it.’”
Rodas said that although it’s been three years since their restaurant opened, they’ve already had culturally diverse customers walk through their doors.
“You’ll be surprised to see how many different cultures we are getting,” Rodas said. “Business is growing because of the reviews and the comments that people leave on the Internet.”
“The reviews speak for itself,” said Jenny Burthwright, owner and chef of Jane Bond BBQ on 20th Avenue and 36th Street.
“We see a lot of customers from all over the city,” commented Burthwright on her experience of being one of the newest restaurants near International Avenue, having opened in November 2016.
She said they have large numbers of “international folks travelling to this area,” adding that the diversity of ethnic restaurants is a plus.
“I mean you’ve got like African, you’ve got Indian, you’ve got Vietnamese, you got Jamaican, you got all the different cultures that have settled in this area.
“I believe in healthy competition and I think if you can draw peoples’ attention to the area, they’re only going to give me attention as well,” said Burthwright.
“It’s truly an International Avenue,” Da Costa said. “You come down here and it’s literally a walk into a world on one avenue. You can go to Asia, you can go to Lebanon, you can come to Portugal, you can go to Spain, and entering it and feeling the hospitality from one place to another is amazing.”
Michael Ly agrees. The night shift floor manager and nephew of the owner of the family-run Hong Kong International Supermarket said 17th Avenue has “become more diverse” in the past nine years since the supermarket opened.
“The location where we are right now is such a prime location because we are so close to downtown and we are also in a pretty good neighbourhood for what we want to distribute,” explained Ly. “The community we are currently in has a high Filipino, high Vietnamese, high Chinese population, so that’s what we are primarily trying to sell to.”
Ly explained that the majority of their products are imported from Asia. Hong Kong Supermarket specializes in selling varied and popular Asian food, utensils and other home supplies like the wok from China to the broom — walis tambo — of the Philippines. Although the supermarket specializes in products from China, Vietnam and the Philippines, they also sell items used in other countries like Indonesia and Korea.
When asked about the conditions the store might have experienced, considering the negative reputation that has dogged Forest Lawn, Ly answered, “That happens at like any grocery store, not just ours.”
“Doesn’t matter if you’re like at a different neighbourhood like northeast or if you’re in downtown, you’re going to get thefts regardless of what store you’re in. It’s just bound to happen,” Ly explained.
“We had people vandalize our property before and like destroy property but we call [the BRZ] and they pretty much clean it immediately.”
Ly was referring to the International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ), an organization whose stated mission is “to promote, improve and create a more pleasant community in which to shop and live.”
“The BRZ team has done substantial work and it’s been seen everywhere,” said Da Costa. “They’ve got committees, such as the Vandalism Committee, so if people are spray painting, especially on the avenue, they have someone going to clean it up as soon as they find out about it.”
Da Costa mentioned that the CPS beat team has worked “hand-in-hand” with the BRZ.
If anything “goes wrong, they’re always coming across the streets even at night time, making sure that everything is safe,” Da Costa said. “Doesn’t mean it’s always going to happen but they are there, kind of like our security guards.”
Indeed, even on horseback.
Four mounted Calgary officers chased down three would-be shoplifters on Aug. 17 after they allegedly tried to grab items from a grocery store on International Avenue near 28th Street. S.E.
Burthwright said Executive Director Alison Karim-McSwiney and the BRZ team are “doing a fantastic job.”
“They’ve included us in a lot of community events, which I’m excited about. I like being a part of that. I don’t just want to be a restaurant. I’d like to be a part of the community,” said Burthwright from Jane Bond BBQ.
“We are like a big family,” said Rodas, explaining that after her shifts at Salsa, she visits different restaurants in the neighbourhood. “We like each other and I like their food. I love to cook and I love to try different kinds of food.”
Although the community has been growing stronger through initiatives undertaken in the past few years, some cannot deny the negative image that has impacted the area.
“It’s unfortunate that people have like a stigma for this area,” said Da Costa at MIMO.“We get tons of people that come in once in a while, saying, ‘Oh, we never would’ve expected this place to look so beautiful. We’re kind of afraid to stay out late because we are afraid that something bad is going to happen to us.’ And because we’ve been here for 33 years going on 34, we have seen our share of crime, but what community and what neighbourhood hasn’t?”
“I think it’s unfair,” said Rodas of Forest Lawn’s reputation, adding she has “never had an issue” in her three years of living in the area.
“We actually get a lot of cops coming maybe once a week, twice a week to check on every location here so that we feel safe and it’s working.”
Burthwright said “the area is ready for change.”
“It’s a slow progress,” added Da Costa. “You can’t build Rome in a day.”
“We are taking a little longer to develop ourselves and create a new and brighter area,” she explained, “but what’s inside, people are so unexpectedly surprised to see great food, great people, and just a lot of ethnicity that just bounds together.”
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