Little Yellow House: Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood
By Carissa Halton
For many people, moving into a new house is an adventure full of excitement, rich with possibility.
For Carissa Halton, moving into a new house in Edmonton’s Alberta Avenue neighbourhood might have also come with some sense of danger. The area, we’ve all heard, has problems with crime. We think of the inner city. Boarded up houses. Needles in the alley.
What we don’t generally think of are all of the reasons that Halton writes about in her book of essays, Little Yellow House: Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood. There is a strong sense of community that doesn’t seem like it could exist anywhere else.
“My intention with the book was really to explore how you go from so many people saying, ‘You’re going to move when you have kids? It’s not safe for your kids to go to school there …’ to our experience, which was almost opposite to what people predicted it would be,” she said. “As a writer, I’m always very curious about tensions and exploring contrasts like that.”
The year was 2005 and Halton and her husband Mat had been house-hunting for at least a few months. Alberta Avenue drew their attention for several reasons, not the least of which was ultimately pragmatic: selling prices were considerably more affordable than in most other neighbourhoods.
Halton also had some nostalgic pangs of remembering how her grandparents grew up in that neighbourhood too. She didn’t come from Edmonton herself so those visits were always special in her memories.
Then there was their personal connection to the current residents. They had both worked in non-profit organizations that had many of those people as clients.
“Both of us worked with people who were living in vulnerable situations. In some ways, of course, before we moved into the neighbourhood we knew many of the people who lived there. Some of that was very assuring.”
Assurance does not mean that everything ends up on a positive note. She recalled the death of one area resident several metres close to their house, though that tragedy ended with a touch of absurdist comedy to it.
Recognizing the value of the connections that she was developing with her fellow Alberta Ave-ites, Halton received an Edmonton Arts Council grant so that she could devote some time to producing the book. In an ironic twist, she ended up taking some private writer's retreat time at St. Albert's Star of the North Retreat Centre to do so.
She said that she needed the space in order figure out where to begin and how to get to the end too.
“I didn’t really know which stories I was going to write when I started. In many ways, they evolved from the things that made me laugh to the things like me having to put a pee-soaked shirt on my head at the store to things that made me sad like Danny’s death and his sister’s attempt to reconcile the final years of their relationship with him by sending [his ashes] into space.”
One person whose experience touched her so deeply that she had to include was a young boy who lived across the street but stole money from her on a few occasions.
“In many ways, it was a small theft. He stole cash that equalled about $220. For me, I wanted to work through that crime. In my mind, everyone talked about crime as though our bodies weren’t safe. Yet my experience was often that those small petty crimes are really what can break our relationships with each other. That’s what it ended up being: a book about relationships and finding them and losing them and how do you make healthy relationships in a community that other people don’t perceive as healthy.”
It’s books like this that remind us all, especially in block party cities like St. Albert, that community is more than about special events that happen once a year. It’s about connecting to people often and throughout the year. Doing so can and does result in some wonderful experiences.
Halton will make her début at Edmonton’s LitFest at noon on Thursday, Oct. 11 at the CBC Center Stage, 10062 102 Ave. Admission is free. Halton will then take her book on the road, or at least to the street. Her walking talk and tour of Alberta Avenue happens from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18 starting from OTTO Food and Drink, 11405 95 St. Tickets are $12 for that. Finally, she will appear for A Brunch of Writers along with Mike Barnes, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Trina Moyles among others. That happens from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Matrix Hotel, 10640 100 Ave. Tickets are $45. Visit www.litfestalberta.org for full details on these and other author events.