Starting at 8:15 a.m. in the covered courtyard of Vic West elementary school, kids spread jam on toast or cheese on bagels.
Some warmly-dressed parents operate the toaster and hand out yogurt.
This is the new breakfast program, launched Oct. 4, thanks to a donation from HMCS Vancouver.
“It builds community,” says Muriel Southern, a Vic West resident. While her kids eat breakfast at home, they enjoy coming for a snack. The volunteer-run program also brings parents together, she said.
Every day, nearly 40 kids come early for a meal before school begins. Everyone is welcome.
“We are identified as an inner city school, which means there are some families with some needs, obviously,” said school principal Joe Cardle.
The school of 180 kids represents the full economic spectrum, as does the neighbourhood surrounding it.
Down the street, social housing intermingles harmoniously with starter homes and grandly-fixed up historic houses.
In decades past, crossing the bridge from downtown meant entering the ’hood. Residents routinely found needles in their yards. Today, poverty still exists but it’s under the radar. If any stigma lingers, it hasn’t stopped the masses from moving here.
Vic West was identified by the last census as the city’s fastest growing neighbourhood, by raw numbers. In a five year span ending 2006, a net total of 410 people moved in. A population estimate predicts well over 1,000 more will follow by 2016, due to the progress of several large-scale developments, such as Dockside Green, Railyards, BayView and Roundhouse.
Alongside this population growth, neighbourhood spirit has fluorished.
In 2005, the community association led the creation of a visions map, in response to the massive development. Instead of simply marking roads, it pinpoints community amenities such as historical sites, art installations, music cafes, and wildlife in the sea surrounding the peninsula. The process engaged hundreds of people and spawned many initiatves, such as the annual fall corn roast and the Vic West Art Quest.
Vic West also paved the way for community gardens in the city. At first, the idea was rejected because there were no policies to guide them, so Vic West resident and current Victoria MP, Denise Savoie, helped to write them. Now, there are three community gardens in Vic West, with a fourth on the way.
“It’s not really about growing a vegetable,” said Patti Parkhouse, leader of the Food Security Collective. “The main reason is for community building.”
The food-security group has led guerrilla gardening on boulevards and recently launched community dinners and kitchens. In September, ripe pears on a tree in Raynor Park prompted a gathering of people equipped with long poles, a tarp and a ladder. After the harvest, they met again to make several pear dishes together.
Last year, the community association faced an unexpected challenge when the YMCA pulled out of its Vic West location.
Taking over the facility as a community centre was a risk, admits association president Nan Judd.
While the move came with city funding for staff, it also depended heavily on the volunteer board.
“We’re essentially running a business,” said Judd. Building a dedicated group of volunteers to help run the centre is one of the next goals, said executive director, Suzette Delmage.
As the Y pulled out, the centre lost a needed day care. While Delmage doesn’t have the staff to replace it, she’s figuring out ways to meet a wide range of community needs, in part through partnerships. For instance, Music Explorers is a free class for kids thanks to instruction by a University of Victoria music group.
In the years to come, the City of Victoria plans several enhancements to the neighbourhood, resulting from its new Official Community Plan. They include revitalizing areas under development.
At first, the city wanted to plan the neighbourhood in two phases.
“We just clearly said no,” Judd said. “We want it all to be done together.”
Otherwise, she said, the result would be more piecemeal development, such as the high-end condos in the Songhees area, cut off from the rest of Vic West.
“It’s a deadzone,” said Parkhouse. “Everyone agrees it should have been mixed-use,” added Judd.
Big changes afoot
More than any other neighbourhood, Vic West faces big-impact land-used changes and development from all sides.
• To the East: A new bridge linking to downtown will significantly alter the gateway to the neighbourhood, ease the commute for bicyclists, and open up a one-acre section of land where the s-curve now sits. Thanks in part to pressure from the community association, city council committed to transforming this space into a park in October. Options for the park include city-wide attactions, such as an amphitheatre.
• To the South: The Victoria International Marina awaits the green light. Despite widespread opposition from the community, federal approval for the marina near Lime Bay Park is likely. The proposal also calls for two commercial buildings, including a restaurant and coffee shop.
• To the North: Enhancements are likely for Vic West’s other two bridges. The city plans to widen the Bay Bridge to better accommodate cyclists and pedestrians. The upgrade is on the books for 2011, but has been delayed. The Capital Regional District is also considering lighting the Selkirk Trestle bridge to brighten the way for commuters using the Galloping Goose Trail.
• Through the middle: The E&N Rail Trail is nearing completion in Vic West. The trail, hugging the rail line, will eventually connect the Johnson Street Bridge to Langford.