Recently, a young couple purchased a house we renovated in the West End. During one of our phone conversations, Jamie wanted to know more about the history of their newly renovated home. I told them I would do some checking.
Shortly after moving to Winnipeg, I remembered that house as a “bad” house. It was a haven for gangsters, roaches and other miscellaneous pests and rodents. It was just another over-crowded, scummy rooming house. I remembered neighbourhood people crossing the street to avoid the house. I remembered late night noise, mid-day chaos, police cruisers, ambulances and fire vehicles. There was a general and perpetual dark cloud over that house.
Checking into it further, I discovered dozens of police incidents at that address over the years. From assaults to weapons offenses, narcotics and liquor offenses, missing persons, wanted persons, to sexual assaults. I wondered how he’d react to the information he requested.
Some people get a little freaked out if they live in or near a place where bad things have happened. The activities and memories associated with some houses are so bad that kids in the neighbourhood will warn me when they see me around the house. “Hey mister, that house is haunted, be careful.” I usually tell them, “Don’t worry about it. Our Spirit is stronger than any spirits hanging around this house. We specialize in this kind of stuff. We’re kind of like ghost-busters.”
Some of the kids, particularly those who have seen the movie, do a bit of a double-take. A few have actually asked, “So how do you do the ghost-busting?”
I explain that we usually start by clearing out the old stuff and fixing the house. In many ways, by the time we’re done with a house, it’s not physically the same house anymore.
The first thing we usually do is gut the building. Tiny rooms are reconfigured to bright open spaces. We reframe the old bedrooms and all the walls are insulated. All the mechanical systems are changed – heating, plumbing and electrical. The windows, roof, doors, floors, cabinets, appliances and fixtures are usually all brand new. Newly dry-walled arches, new wood trim and fresh paint brighten the whole house.
We look for people who take pride in their work, and we frequently visit the buildings to pray for the workers and the building itself.
But after the building is gutted and completely renewed, it’s still just an empty building. For that house to become a home, it needs people who live there with the same pride and hope we showed in the renovation process.
Two neighbourhood drug dealers recently walked past one of the buildings we’re renovating. One asked, “So when can we start renting in here?” Figuring he must have a sense of humour, I responded, “Why would we rent to you? We’re working to actually clean up the building.” He smirked in response. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I think even those guys actually have a little respect for the hard work we do on the buildings.
While I get mad at those guys, I wish they’d be open to a little ghost-busting in their personal lives. The joy of renovating bad buildings pales in comparison to seeing a bad guy change his ways. But we’ll take our opportunities as they arise.
The other day I got a call from Habitat for Humanity, asking if I would pray at the groundbreaking of their newest infill projects in our neighbourhood.
It was a large gathering – neighbours, media, politicians, donors of labour and materials as well as several of the families who will eventually live in the homes. We celebrated the donations and cooperation between governments, corporations, churches and individuals. We prayed for the workers, the buildings and the future homeowners.
Looking at their faces, I sensed their excitement. They were doing more than building a new house. They seemed aware that they’re writing a new chapter in the history of that little chunk of Winnipeg.
I thought back to the young couple that purchased one of our renovated homes. As requested, I recounted the police statistics and anecdotal reflections on the bad history of their address. Jamie’s response was “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” His attitude reflects that of many others who are living in – and moving into – our neighbourhood.
We don’t have the power to erase or re-write past history. Old news accounts and public perception of our neighbourhood linger on. But it’s exciting to participate in closing the book on the demons of the past.
In our own small ways – with bricks and mortar and one person at a time – we have the privilege of changing the course of history in the West End.