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The revitalization of Riversdale: artists and young entrepreneurs embrace ‘the hood’

By in Features/News
As crime and vacancy rates slide in Saskatoon’s most notourious neighbourhood, young people see an authentic place to innovate and live creatively.

During the construction of the Two Twenty, thinking not much of it, Curtis Olson signed an email to his friend Grant Unrah with, “It’s good in the hood.”

He had no idea the phrase would take off like it did.

The next day, Unrah, a graphic designer, delivered a handful of buttons freshly pressed with the catchy slogan to Olson’s office. Within weeks, residents across Riversdale were wearing them.

“It kind of spread like wildfire for a bit,” said Olson. “It’s memorable and I think there is a real level of honesty to it.”

Olson, who runs the firm Shift Developments, officially opened the Two Twenty on Nov. 10 at 220 20th Street West. It is his fifth project in Riversdale, a neighbourhood that has historically been shit on for its high rates of crime and poverty.

The 20th Street building, formerly a furniture store in the 1960s and later Joe’s Cycle, was gutted by Olson and redesigned for office and studio space.

“For me, it’s the biggest [project] so far, and it’s a home for my business and a lot of my friends who are working here day in and day out.”

He said he worked closely with friends on the concept and design of the space, and spent essentially every day of the year-long construction on-site.

Now the top floor houses Olson’s office along with 21 additional office spaces including, for example, the Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council, a law office and a recruitment firm.

The basement consists of eight individual studios and is currently occupied by a print-making shop, a photo studio and a robotics firm, among others. There is also an open area that can be rented short-term for parties, art shows and performances.

Finally, on the main floor is Collective Coffee, which is connected to the building’s unique co-working space.

“People come in because they need physical space,” said Olson. “But what everyone in this building or community gets, over and above their own private office or studio, is that everyone shares all the amenities of the [co-working] space.”

Olson described the co-working space — which can accommodate dozens of people — as a “mixing ground” for tenants to cross paths and share ideas. The room features a small kitchen, office supplies, tables, chairs, couches and two private meeting areas.

Two Twenty

“Sometimes it’s busy, sometimes it’s quiet, and sometimes it’s Friday afternoon and we are all hanging out drinking champagne,” said Olson.

Renting a personal office or studio space at the Two Twenty costs between $300 and $800 per month, depending on size, and requires a one-year lease. However, for those not wanting an office or studio, but still interested in the community, monthly memberships are available and range from $35 for limited access to $200 for unlimited access.

Olson said a membership is fitting for anyone who often needs a place to work and conduct meetings, including small business owners, artists, freelancers, travellers and students.

He estimated there are between 60 and 70 people currently working out of the building, with about 15 members who do not have an office or studio and only use the co-working space.

“I actually see this as a really great place for grad students, people who are a little bit more independent and not as tied to a schedule. But that said, it could also be used by [undergraduates] who want to come in on weekends and work in groups.”

Aaron Adair is a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan doing a two-year masters of education curriculum. He is also a musician, and has been working on both school and music at the Two Twenty since July.

“I find that this place has a great energy,” he said. “Everyone here seems to be in a real creative push in whichever endeavour they are pursuing.”

Adair credits the Two Twenty for allowing him to bounce ideas off peers without the distractions of being at home or on campus. He also said he enjoys the eclectic food options in close proximity and mentioned he will soon be recording an album at a studio down the street.

Olson says he has witnessed Riversdale transform itself over the last five years, with once-vacant properties being snatched up and developed into rental units and new businesses.

“There is a creative energy of people doing really interesting things here that are filling the vacuum which has existed for years,” Olson said.

He pointed to both Village Guitar & Amp Co. and Hot Yoga on 20th as new businesses that have attracted young people to Riversdale, and he compared the recent revitalization of the neighbourhood to that of Queen West in Toronto.

“In five years this is going to be the most multi-cultural, diverse and inclusive community in Saskatoon,” he said. “And also a safe and rounded one too, where there is a healthy mix of affordable and new housing, and restaurants where you can get a cheap meal or an expensive one.”

Ward 2 city councillor Pat Lorje, who served Riversdale from 1979 to 1991 and was re-elected in 2006, called the Two Twenty an important milestone for the neighbourhood.

Oh, now the name makes sense.

“It really says that Riversdale is on the move and has always been a very unique part of Saskatoon. With this kind of approach to a co-working space, [the neighbourhood] is going to remain unique in a very positive way,” she said.

Lorje explained that places such as Cava Secreta specialty drink and wine store on 19th Street and the Paved Arts gallery on 20th are forcing the public to rethink their perception of Riversdale. She also raved about The Hollows, a new restaurant that recently opened in the former Golden Dragon building across from the Salvation Army homeless shelter.

“The food is fantastic. It was the kind of fine dining you would expect from a very posh dining experience in New York,” she said. “Without even really trying too hard, [Riversdale] is becoming a centre of excellence for both artists and young entrepreneurs.”

Christie Peters and Kyle Michael are the two young chefs who run The Hollows. They met in 2006 while working at acclaimed Vancouver eatery Feenie’s. Later, they cooked together in restaurants in both Amsterdam and San Fransisco.

“I always wanted to bring what I learned back here, so I told Kyle it was the land of opportunity,” laughed Peters, who is originally from Saskatoon.

She explained that The Hollows’ menu uses mainly seasonal vegetables and rare meats, and focuses on foraged and local ingredients.

With no investors, Peters and Michael signed a one-year lease to feel out the market. However, she says they have already grown accustomed to the neighbourhood and would like to stick around. She added that they are not concerned about the nearby shelter.

“People are just people, so you need to deal with each situation as it comes,” she said, “but we haven’t had any problems here yet and I don’t expect that we will.”

Randy Pshebylo is the executive director of the Riversdale Business Improvement District, and quite appropriately has a sign on his office door that reads, “Mayor of Riversdale.” For more than a decade, he has worked to eliminate many of the negative stereotypes associated with the neighbourhood.

“The simple fact is that we have [all the social services] in our area which provide service to every [neighbourhood] in the city.”

Ideally, Pshebylo says, places like the Salvation Army, the Friendship Inn and various church groups would be spread throughout the west side, rather than concentrated in Riversdale.

According to Saskatoon Police statistics, crimes in Riversdale against both people and property have been cut in half over the past four years.

“Our assaults are down eight per cent over last year,” Pshebylo said.

He claims the rise in safety throughout the neighbourhood is a result of the development of River Landing, the revitalization of 20th Street and importantly, the closure of the Barry Hotel in 2008.

And both Olson and Lorje passionately agreed — shutting down the Barry Hotel was a key turning point for Riversdale.

“That corner of 20th Street went from over 600 police service calls per year to zero,” Pshebylo said.

The dip in crime is directly related to the vacancy rate, he says. Since 2006, vacancy in Riversdale has fallen from 38 per cent to between 10 and 12 per cent, where it currently hovers.

“What we’re starting to see is people who are genuinely starting to care for the area. We have young families moving in again.”

According to Pshebylo, the RBID has anticipated increased investment into Riversdale’s old buildings for years but was caught off-guard by the rapid pace at which it happened.

“What I am continually amazed with, this past two years anyway, is the way the youth [are] looking at the place not for what it is, or for what my generation and older remember it as, but rather for what it can be. And for me, that is one hell of a ride.”

Photos: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf

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