Detroit north

Crime, homelessness, guns: Surrey has it all. Its unlikely saviour: a Buddhist conservative.

Detroit north

A year ago, in a Red Scorpion gang hit, six men were found murdered in a B.C. residence that doubled as a drug den. Two were innocent victims: collateral damage in a war for guns, money and allegiances. It was the worst gangland massacre in the province’s history, but it didn’t happen in Vancouver. Dubbed the “Surrey slaughter,” the grisly, sextuple murder was precisely the kind of big-city problem the sprawling, postwar suburb of Surrey was created to escape—and is battling more and more these days.

Once, Surrey was a sleepy maze of crescents and cul-de-sacs lined by standard-issue ranch homes and split-levels. No more. Homelessness and violent crime are growing problems. Earlier this month, the suburb, named “auto theft capital of the English-speaking world” in 2003, recorded three murders within a single week. Its transportation hub, Surrey Central, was recently named B.C.’s “scariest SkyTrain station”: patrolled 24 hours a day by gun-toting police officers, it boasts the system’s highest crime incident rate. Surrey even has its own version of the Downtown Eastside: Whalley, famous for heroin, crack, sex work, and the constant threat of violence. Indeed, when, last year, Surrey didn’t rank on the Maclean’s “Canada’s 10 most dangerous cities” list, a Vancouver paper ran a story noting its surprising absence from the roll.

The growing problems on display in Surrey illustrate a wider North American trend: while falling crime rates in cities like New York and L.A. are seen as success stories of the past 15 years, experts say we’re priming our suburbs to become tomorrow’s ghettos by shipping our social issues to the fringes. In Canada, nowhere is this more visible than greater Vancouver, where a condo-mad, overheated real estate market has closed the door to all but a “truly elite market,” says Elvin Wyly, who chairs the University of British Columbia’s urban studies program. The rest? It seems they chose Surrey.

The Vancouver bedroom community currently boasts one of Canada’s most explosive growth rates. Its population—which increases by 1,000 every month—is predicted to surpass Vancouver’s within 15 to 30 years. But it has half as many police officers. The low cop-to-citizen ratio isn’t the only problem. Routine policing is more difficult in the suburbs: not only do Surrey’s police cover an area three times the size of Vancouver, drug dealers sell out of fenced-in, shrub-shrouded backyards, not exposed street corners. (It’s a common issue: in suburban North Memphis, police have asked that bushes be cut down so suspects can’t duck behind them.)

Many of those moving into Surrey are poor single parents, new immigrants or Aboriginal, notes a recent report by a community organization, Vibrant Surrey. (Nearly 40 per cent of Surrey’s residents are foreign-born, compared with a national average of 19 per cent.) Already, close to 20 per cent live in poverty, it says. But the city lacks Vancouver’s social services net, and its public transit.

The task of solving this growing tangle of problems has fallen to an unlikely candidate: Dianne Watts, a conservative Buddhist from East Vancouver, re-elected to a second term as Surrey’s mayor in November. In her first year on the job, Watts added 119 RCMP officers. Riding high in public popularity, she implemented a new crime-reduction strategy, targeting criminals with drug or mental health issues—a “paradigm shift” for Surrey, which had previously blocked the expansion of even emergency shelters, says criminologist Darryl Plecas. She is also tackling near-crisis level homelessness and weaning Surrey off of its addiction to strip commercial development and zero per cent tax increases.

But how to grow a real city from a suburb that has known only haphazard development? For decades, Surrey threw out the welcome mat to new industrial parks and cheap subdivision housing. Creating density there will mean actively discouraging builders in low-density areas like Guildford by increasing costs there, says Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University.

Watts is starting with a massive revitalization of the downtown core connected to Surrey Central (warts and all). She is encouraging developers to throw up four million square feet of office space in high-rise towers. The anchor is a new SFU satellite campus. Completed last year, architect Bing Thom’s stunning development integrates an office tower, a vaunted microbrewery and the new university buildings, which, last year, added 4,000 students into the city core. To that, Watts is hoping to add 2,000 city staff by relocating Surrey City Hall there from “the middle of nowhere.”

All of which was a tall order even before the financial disaster struck. Since then, two massive housing developments—linchpins to the slated redevelopment—went on hold after the developer filed for bankruptcy protection. A third, Quattro, Surrey’s largest mixed-use development, burned to the ground in a suspicious fire in October. Even if Watts gets the development off the ground, another question remains: will it work? After all, planners were once sure megamalls in central Winnipeg and Scarborough would spur revitalization of their cores. (At Winnipeg’s Portage Place Mall, a magnet for gang activity, security guards wear body armour.)

Watts has a folksy, if guarded, style. If she’s worried, it doesn’t show. She proved her mettle at a young age. Married at 18, she was hospitalized at 20; she’d endured months of physical abuse from her then-husband. (She left him soon after.) Eighteen years ago, she married Surrey businessman Brian Watts, with whom she had two daughters. She entered council in 1996. In 2005, fed up with mayor Doug McCallum’s approach to planning—of 560 development projects that went before council in his last three years, he voted in favour of all but four—she ran for mayor as an independent. She beat McCallum. But she faced a hostile council: at her first meeting, they voted to deny her the mayor’s seat on the Greater Vancouver Regional District board—which she calls a stinging rebuke to her authority. (It was reversed following a storm of public anger.) Today, six councillors are part of the centrist party she created, Surrey First; all but one are women.

“Development at any cost,” says Watts, whose office features a giant picture of the female Buddha (there is such a thing), was “eroding our quality of life.” Championing a new suburbanism, she talks the way Vancouver politicians have for 20 years: of densification and light rail, concessions from city developers. “We raised the bar on development. No more strip malls. No more sprawl.” In Surrey, that’s like screaming Revolución!