The Surrey stigma: The city we love to hate

Photo by Ben Derochie

By Kelly Thoreson

“I heard that Surrey was not the nicest place. It wasn’t a place you wanted to go to,” said Ella Sargent, a sixth-year kinesiology major at SFU. “The ‘ghetto’ is a bad word for it, but it is something along those lines.”

The legend of Surrey is common in the Lower Mainland, and SFU students are guilty of spreading the word: Surrey is not a nice place. Any number of reasons are given for this assumption, such as gang violence, shootings, ‘dirty’ girls, or ‘thug’ guys, to name a few. But is any of this true?

Surrey has gained a reputation for being a dangerous city — a reputation that isn’t completely unfounded: the ‘Surrey Six’ shootings in 2007, the ongoing gang wars, and the recent murder of SFU student Maple Batalia are just a few examples of high-profile violent crimes that have occurred in Surrey. According to a report by the Police Services Division of the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety, Surrey had an overall higher crime rate than Vancouver between 2001 and 2010. However, the difference in crime rates isn’t that significant. Certain crime rates, such as those for property crimes, are actually quite similar between the two cities.

Gang violence in Surrey has also escalated in the past few years. In an interview with The Vancouver Sun, Corporal Drew Grainger reported, “We have certainly seen a spike in gang violence, particularly in the last month in Surrey. There is no denying that. This comes in waves and we are in the height of another gang cycle of increased violence, unfortunately.” Grainger also indicated in the interview that he didn’t believe the public should be too worried about the increase in gang violence because “very few innocent bystanders are struck down by this kind of violence.”

So the myth about Surrey being plagued by gang violence might have a kernel of truth to it, however, you probably won’t get shot in Surrey unless you give someone a reason to shoot you (such as joining a rival gang). Chelsea Henry, a first-year kinesiology student who transits from the Burnaby campus through Surrey to her home in Langley, explained Surrey’s ‘safety’ issues as a matter of time and place: “There are parts of Surrey which are a little sketchy — like where the Surrey Central station is,” Henry said, “but it is only really sketchy at nighttime.”

Surrey Central is located in Whalley, a neighbourhood notorious for being the ‘bad’ part of the city. However, for a number of years the City of Surrey has been on a mission to gentrify the area and transform it into a downtown core, with some success. The combination of the SkyTrain station and SFU’s Surrey campus has been central to cleaning up Whalley. A new public library recently opened in the centre, and it will be joined by Surrey’s city hall in the future. These institutions have helped to make the walk between the SkyTrain station and the SFU Surrey campus likely the safest in Whalley.

It is a good thing that SFU Surrey is located right at the SkyTrain because, if it weren’t, it would be a lot more difficult to access. At 317 square kilometres, Surrey is the largest city in the Metro Vancouver area and more than double the size of Vancouver — yet it has a marginal amount of transit resources due to its suburban design. In a letter published last July on the blog City Caucus, Surrey mayor Dianne Watts addressed the transit issue: “It’s been 17 years since Surrey has seen an expansion of rapid transit, despite the fact that our population has more than doubled. Currently, our vast city is so underserved by transit that for most people it’s not a viable option.”

The city, while admittedly in need of transit service, is still not as dense as Vancouver — a factor which makes Surrey less walkable and transit-friendly. However, Surrey is rapidly growing, with the city’s website claiming it gains approximately 1,000 new residents per month. If the city succeeds in its plans to generate a downtown core and draw businesses, perhaps Surrey will become dense enough to facilitate a more easy-to-use transit system.

In order to become a denser city, Surrey will need to do something about how it is designed. Despite the City of Surrey’s motto, “the future lives here” Surrey is a suburb to its core. It is plagued with parking lots, food chains, and big box stores. Even if Surrey develops its transit system and becomes more densely populated, it will remain unfriendly to pedestrians (and therefore also to transit-users).

Surrey’s suburban quality really comes to the forefront when trying to find a fun activity to do. The only real nightlife is Mirage, and movie theatres are sparce. Plus, people are growing really tired of eating at Boston Pizza and shopping at the Wal-Mart Super Centre. Aside from its renowned selection of South Asian restaurants, Surrey doesn’t have much to offer.

Despite any personal feelings or thoughts you may have about the state of Surrey’s crime, transit, or entertainment situations, the SFU Surrey campus is a jewel in the city that you can be proud of.

SFU Surrey stands apart from the other campuses for a number of reasons. First, it is one of the most beautiful campuses. Similar to Woodward’s, SFU Surrey is made up of exposed wood, smooth concrete, wide windows, and splashes of colour. What sets Surrey apart from Woodward’s, however, is the abundance of student spaces. There is an abundance of lounges, seating, and “team rooms” available, and students at Surrey are actually sociable while they are using these spaces. Narula claimed that this is one of her favourite parts about the campus. “There is a close-knit community at SFU Surrey,” she said. “Not to be biased against Burnaby — I love that campus — but I love SFU Surrey in terms of community.”

There is more to like about Surrey than just the SFU campus, however. The new public library has received a lot of praise, and the city boasts a number of beautiful parks. Plus, it is next door to White Rock, where a stroll along the boardwalk always makes for an enjoyable day trip. Even if the Surrey of today doesn’t satisfy you, it is growing rapidly and may eventually steamroll Vancouver as British Columbia’s business centre. Surrey is already attracting businesses, and there is a developing trend of a reverse commute of workers from Vancouver to Surrey. “It’s got a bad rep,” admitted Carlos Suzara, a first-year sociology major from Surrey. “But Surrey’s not that bad. When you stay here for a while and really get to know the people and the diversity of people, it’s great. It’s a big city, and I heard that it is going to be the next downtown.”