Newton Revitalization

This video and article  Province reporter Glenda Luymes posted February 18, 2017. Read the article and view the original post here.

Daughter of slain hockey mom calls grassroots efforts to revitalize Newton ‘silver lining’ to tragedy

Each poem begins with the words “Dear Mom.”

Although her mother will never read them, Rhiannon Paskall writes poems to the woman who was killed three years ago in a crime that continues to impact not only her family, but the community where it took place.

“It’s my way of talking to her,” Rhiannon says, paging through her notebook during an interview at a Newton coffee shop. She orders tea, a nod to her mother and the many cups they shared before her death.

On Dec. 29, 2013, Julie Paskall was waiting for her son outside the Newton arena when she was attacked by a stranger who hit her on the head with a large rock during what appeared to be a botched robbery. Yosef Gopaul, a man with 29 prior criminal convictions, was arrested and eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison for manslaughter.

Three years later, Rhiannon still wonders, “Why didn’t he just ask for her purse?”

Rhiannon and her fiancé, Jonah, often visit Holland Park, near the Paskall home in Surrey City Centre, where a tree was planted in her mother’s honour. They always bring an extra cup of tea. The couple is planning a tea party for their wedding reception later this year.

“She’s a part of everything I do,” said Rhiannon.

The hockey mom has also become part of Newton’s story. The attack caused a significant public outcry over crime in Surrey’s most populous neighbourhood. In the months that followed, several community groups formed to address safety issues and the RCMP increased patrols in the area.

But police statistics show that despite those efforts, violent crimes in Newton rose eight per cent in 2014 and 28 per cent in 2015, due in part to a series of gang-related shootings. Violent crimes didn’t decrease until 2016, when there was a 15 per cent drop.

Many residents of Newton town centre — the area around King George Boulevard and 72nd Avenue — are frustrated by the area’s uninspiring mix of strip malls and vacant lots, which look much the same as they did three years ago.

Those who insist the community has improved focus on qualities that can’t be quantified, like hope and resiliency.

Since her mother’s death, Rhiannon has been drawn to projects and activities that bring fun and joy to the community. She’s become a member of Friends of the Grove, a grassroots group focused on a small wooded area behind the Newton transit exchange, a short distance from the parking lot where her mother was attacked. She learned about the group after they strung lights in the trees and invited her family to the lighting ceremony. She has since joined their bi-weekly poetry meetings.

Rhiannon calls the group “the silver lining to the black cloud” that has hung over her family since her mother’s death. While she doesn’t live in Newton, she wants to make a difference in the community that embraced her in the aftermath of the attack. “They gave me that sense of belonging and the opportunity to get involved.”

The group’s public art and community events — like carolling in the grove at Christmas — are designed to show that people care about making Newton a welcoming community.

“We’re really place-based,” Friends of the Grove convener David Dalley said. “In this digital age, I think we sometimes lose the importance of physical space.”

During the recent snowstorms, some Newton residents who couldn’t go out for groceries knew they could call Friends of the Grove for help, while those who wanted to help knew who to check in on as the snow fell. After the recent attack at a Quebec City mosque, several community groups, including Friends of the Grove, banded together to write messages of support for Newton’s Muslim residents and dropped them off at the local mosque.

“I think we are a much more resilient community than we were three years ago,” said Dalley. “We’re much more connected.”

Rhiannon often thinks about the cedar trees in the grove and the way their roots travel unseen through the earth. She imagines the roots of her mother’s tree in Holland Park woven with those from the grove.

“Surrey is a big city, but we’re all connected,” she said. “The roots of the grove run through Surrey, not just Newton, and we all need to care about our community. We want our community to be a community.”

Surrey is often called a “city of cities,” containing six distinct communities, including Newton, in a land mass larger than Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby combined. Divided by the old B.C. Electric rail line and King George Boulevard, Newton sprawls from roughly 120th Street on the west to 152nd Street on the east, and Colebrook Road on the south to 88th Avenue on the north.

The community is both geographically large — with multiple centres competing for business — and heavily populated. About 25 per cent of Surrey’s total population lives in Newton, which recorded a nine per cent increase — to 114,605 people — between the 2011 and 2016 censuses.

Longtime resident Doug Elford attributes some of the community’s crime problems to the location of a high number of social service agencies, including the Surrey parole office and Surrey pretrial jail, in the area. Homelessness, drug use and prostitution have made the streets unsafe late at night, he said.

“People are still afraid to walk out at night and that’s my measuring stick,” said Elford. “We need the city to actually invest in the neighbourhood instead of paying lip service”

The Newton Business Improvement Association is also frustrated by the lack of development, but that hasn’t stopped the organization from initiating several projects aimed at revitalizing the community and reducing crime, said director Philip Aguirre.

Formed a few months after Paskall’s death, the BIA runs a used-needle program, removes graffiti and garbage, collects shopping carts, runs a bike registry, conducts its own annual homeless count and organizes youth safety walks, taking teens from the local high school on tours to engage them in the community and listen to their ideas on making it safer.

The RCMP began 24-hour patrols in Newton after Paskall was attacked, but eventually scaled them back. The BIA has contracted Commissionaires, a private not-for-profit security company, to continue the daily security patrols.

Police join the patrols from time to time, in addition to participating in a weekly safety meeting that brings various community stakeholders together to share information and devise crime reduction strategies.

There was  a 29 per cent decrease in business break and enters in Newton in 2016, said Aguirre. According to Surrey RCMP statistics, property crime fell from about 8,700 cases in 2015 to 8,400 last year.

But like many, Aguirre feels like the really important changes are on hold, waiting for light rail transit (LRT) — the “silver bullet” that could make all the difference.

City planners hope that in the not-too-distant future, Newton town centre will be the terminus for Surrey’s LRT system. Metro Vancouver mayors have identified the project, along with the subway line along Broadway in Vancouver and the Pattullo Bridge replacement between Surrey and New Westminster, as regional transportation priorities, but funding hasn’t been finalized.

“The plan is pretty much done, but there hasn’t been major development in the plan area mainly because we’re still sorting out … whether we’re actually going to get funding for the LRT line,” explained Don Luymes, Surrey manager of community planning. “Until we have funding, we don’t know if we have a station, and until we have a station, it’s difficult to see redevelopment.”

The LRT station would transform the vacant lot owned by TransLink into a modern transit hub, with storefronts opening onto a wide platform. If all goes according to plan, city-owned land and buildings would be enhanced and revitalized, roads would be re-oriented to create a pedestrian-friendly community, and private-sector development would provide easy access to shops, entertainment options and green space.

“I think there’s a certain frustration in Newton about the pace of change,” said Luymes. “I think everyone would like to see active redevelopment, but the market has to be there for that to actually happen.”

In the meantime, the city planner applauds the work done by the BIA and Friends of the Grove to improve the area.

He pointed to the lights in the grove as an example. “Those little point of light really do help people to feel safer there,” he said.

It’s Saturday evening, and the Newton transit exchange is busy as people heading home cross paths with those heading out for the night. Across the street, bright signs advertise cheque cashing and payday loans. An ambulance passes, red lights flashing.

As a grey day grows subtly darker, a thousand tiny light bulbs ignite in the grove behind the bus loop.

Passengers disembark, and some walk through the trees. No one pauses to consider the lights twinkling in the treetops, but their soft glow holds the darkness at bay. The lights illuminate a picnic table, a wall of colourful murals and several large planters, waiting silently for spring.

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