Between an increase in drug use, rising crime and continued racism, Ottawa’s Chinatown has not recovered from the pandemic – in fact, according to at least one business official, things might be getting worse.
A community located along Somerset Street West between Bay and Preston streets, Chinatown is home to eateries, shops, markets and festivals that support and celebrate Asian culture. But Yukang Li, Chinatown BIA’s executive director, says the community faces “big challenges” that are straining local business.
Consisting predominantly of “mom-and-pop” shops and small businesses, Chinatown was hard-hit by the pandemic, Li said. Remote work policies decreased the number of government workers downtown and, as a result, any lunchtime or after-work traffic from those seeking Asian cuisine in Chinatown diminished.
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But beyond the typical pandemic challenges such as less foot traffic and increased labour shortages, Chinatown has also seen a rise in violence, crime and drug use and Li said his revitalization strategies can’t keep up.
According to the Ottawa Police Services 2022 Annual Report, Somerset Ward, where Chinatown is located, had the highest crime rate in Ottawa, with both violent and non-violent crime rates increasing from 2021.
Crimes against property, which include vandalism and theft, were the second-highest in the city following Rideau-Vanier Ward. Controlled drug- and substance-related offences rose by 16.2 per cent and were second only to Rideau-Vanier.
“Every week, I get complaints or reports from business owners about thefts, vandalism, burglary, trespassing … you name it, and lots of these issues are related to drug use,” Li said. “It’s really bothering us a lot because, given the current economic situation, businesses are already having a hard time and now, on top of that, the owners have to deal with these safety concerns.”
Along with other community organizations and leaders, Li has been focused on street beautification and “working towards a big goal, which is to draw people back,” he said. One of the initiatives was to install statues and figures from Asian legends to act as selfie stations for pedestrians.
The installations included two marble statues shipped from China of Qilins, a hooved creature from Chinese mythology. Li said the statues were “well-received” and became a hotspot for photos and selfies, but his optimism was quickly dampened.
“Not long after the statues were installed, quite a few got vandalized, covered with graffiti … kids shouldn’t see that kind of graffiti … some got damaged and some were even stolen,” he explained.
“It’s sad. This is a community, it’s public art, our team has worked hard with the city to get the statues all the way from China … it looks like all our efforts have not been respected,” he continued. “People steal them, but they can’t do anything with them, so I don’t understand what kind of mentality they had. This is certainly very disappointing, discouraging and heartbreaking for us.
“Many of the statues are our cultural heritage and no matter what the motives are behind those thefts or vandalism, for us, as a matter of fact, it’s hurting us,” he explained. “It’s our culture, our heritage, and those statues are the symbol of that culture. When they get vandalized, what do they say to us? It says that our culture is not respected, our community is not respected.”
Nik Sydor, who lives in Chinatown with his wife and two children, moved to the area in 2016. He said he loves the neighbourhood, but he and his family are considering moving due to the increase in drug use.
“It is now very common to see people injecting or smoking drugs in broad daylight in this neighbourhood. I love the neighbourhood and would not want to leave — I’d rather see things turn around,” Sydor said. “I do personally know people who have left because of the deteriorating situation, though.”
Like other community members, Sydor said supportive housing and mental health resources are needed, but that the solution “is a tough one” and “more needs to be done.”
“These problems require long-term solutions and I don’t think we can afford to simply let the situation in the neighbourhood continue deteriorating until then.”
From conversations with business owners and what he has witnessed firsthand, Sydor said the impact on local business has been tangible.
“These aren’t big chain stores we’re talking about. They’re small corner grocery stores and small restaurants … the kinds of small businesses that make for a ‘walkable neighbourhood,’” Sydor explained. “We like to shop in these stores, but it is uncomfortable going there when people are using and selling drugs right in front of the storefronts. I can’t imagine that’s good for these businesses.”
Stephen Mak is the owner of Oriental Charm Houseware and Gifts, a home goods store near the intersection of Somerset Street West and Bronson Avenue. As a resident, Mak has experienced some of the issues firsthand, including the attempted theft of his backpack, but the rise in crime has also impacted his business.
There are often needles on the sidewalk outside his store, Mak said, and the current situation is deterring new customers.
“Right now, there are no new people coming to Chinatown for that reason,” he explained.
“Because of the crime.”
Hobbiesville, a collectibles and hobby store on Somerset Street between Percy and Bay streets, has been a “hot target” for theft, said partner Edmond Georges. The store is about a block away from Dundonald Park, which Georges said can be a “riskier” area for drug use and crime.
Since opening during the pandemic, Hobbiesville has been broken into after hours and products have been stolen off shelves during the day, raising concerns for Georges when it comes to the safety of his staff and increased costs.
“We’ve been hit a few times, so it’s definitely a concern when it comes to protecting staff,” he explained. “But it’s also forcing our hand in terms of costs. We had to install metal bars, had to replace our glass every time it’s broken, and recently had to change all of our locks.”
During the pandemic, Chinatown saw a rise in hate crimes and racial incidents, Li said, including during the “Freedom Convoy” occupation of Ottawa in January 2022. He said he’s not sure if any of the crime and violence currently facing Chinatown is racially motivated, but said the incidents reduce the general feeling of safety in the neighbourhood, along with the rise in drug use.
“A big portion of visitors to Chinatown are ethnic minority groups and when they … see needles on the street or hear racist remarks to Asian or Chinese people, they’re scared and they will choose not to come visit this neighbourhood,” Li said. “And that hurts business.”
Nevertheless, Li said he is dedicated to bringing people back to the area and sharing Chinatown’s culture and attractions.
The Chinatown Night Market at the beginning of June was a “huge success,” he said, drawing in more than 30,000 people, and the Chinatown Bazaar, a small-scale local marketplace, will return at the end of July.
Li has been working with the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition (OMIC) to bring performances highlighting Asian artists to the community, and with Hydro Ottawa to install outlets for new street lighting, all in an effort to make Chinatown “a cultural landmark in the city.”
“If you look at Chinatowns around the world or business streets in Tokyo, Beijing or Shanghai, you can see the richness of culture,” he said. “We have that in Ottawa Chinatown, but it does not look as good as those streets. We need to make it beautiful and attractive for all backgrounds.”
Without safety and security, Li’s vision can only go so far.
“It’s something we still need to work on and I don’t think the BIA or any individual organization can do it alone; this needs support from the governments and stakeholder organizations,” he said. “Long term, safety is still top of my list. I need a safe environment for everyone who lives in or visits the community.”