Bounded by James Street South, Main Street East, Wellington Street South and the base of the Niagara Escarpment; what most Hamiltonians affectionately refer to as “the mountain”, Corktown is one of the original four neighbourhoods of Hamilton, ON, Canada; the other three being Beasley, Central and Durand. Part of lower (below the escarpment) Hamilton, Corktown is a true downtown community.
Although the Irish had been settling into Barton Township since 1790, the neighbourhood of Corktown is said to have been settled mainly by Hamilton’s Irish immigrants who came to Canada in two later droves.
At the beginning of the first major wave, Sir Allan Napier MacNab; a politician, employed Irish immigrants to build the grand Dundurn Castle (completed by 1835) on the foundations of the brick house that was previously the home of Richard Beasley; the namesake of another Lower Hamilton neighbourhood.
As the Scottish held the upper class status of early Hamilton (MacNab was Barton Township’s most prominent Canadian born of Scottish descent), the Irish were often employed by the Scots.
It appears that MacNab paid the new settlers with plots of land in the area that would become known as Corktown, and would be dominated by the Irish for most of the 19th century.
The first wave really began when the Irish fled the Potato Famine of the late 1840’s. The seaport city of Cork, Ireland, was one of the busiest points of embarkation and is presumed the inspiration of the name Corktown.
Toronto’s Corktown shares pretty much the same origins as Hamilton’s neighbourhood.
Easily, the majority of Irish immigrants in this wave were desperately poor. This was especially true of the Irish-Catholics who were subjected to England’s discriminatory penal laws in their homeland since the 17th century. As the best real estate in the fledgling City of Hamilton (incorporated in 1846 out of Barton Township) had already been surveyed, claimed and settled the latecomers ended up crowding into Corktown’s poorly built and rented shanties where the cycle of life was highly challenging but not defeating.
I can imagine how bitterly cold the winters must have been. Snow would blow and build up high around doors. After tending to a few possessed livestock during the day, and planning the future with neighbours a family would have to hunker down in front of a fireplace or a wood stove; if they could afford one, and fall asleep for the night. Young bellies no doubt went hungry many times. There weren’t many with wealth and education to stop and think, I wonder how the people in that area are faring? Sincere considerations for the impoverished were probably seldom raised, and when they were it was probably even less likely that such contemplations lead to real action to help those in need.
Springtime would come and as the nearby escarpment would thaw Corktown would flood for days or even weeks. Back then, there were no means of redirecting the heavy runoff. Portions of streets that crested higher than the flood waters still became muddy and nearly impossible to pull a small cart through. Clothes were always mucky. Viruses would proliferate and children would become ill. Fathers who were able to land jobs would perform 16 daily hours of heavy labour while being as sick as dogs. Young mothers who worked as servants for the wealthy, had to leave their 12-year old daughters at home to milk the cows, clean up after the geese and take care of the younger ill siblings, perhaps the enfeebled grandparents too.
While “the mountain” would be lush green and beautiful in summer, the neighbourhood would be rife with the mixed smells of cow manure and outdoor cooking in the intense heat of the day. Moments of silence would be broken by the sounds of birds chirping, men chopping wood before nightfall and horse bridals jingling as wagons pulled sale items to market in the morning, and returned with supplies in the evening. Every now and then, some drunken sluggard would holler out in the night for nothing, prompting someone to go and shut him up by delivering a swift right-cross. The best part of late summer evenings, for some, may have been being a pint-sized 6-year old and falling asleep on father’s chest while the familiar hickory smell of his briar wood pipe soothed the senses.
Autumn would come with the promise of more work for some as farmers hired extra help for the harvest. By the second week of October, the orange, red and gold colours of leaves would inspire poets and painters with the warmth of what used to be known as “Indian Summer”. By the third week, all the leaves would be rotting on the ground, children would have played in the first snowfall and a bitter wind would cramp the fingers of the workers who toiled on the farms; forewarning that another hard winter was just around the corner.
According to Bill Freeman’s book “Hamilton: A People’s History”, a couple altercations of intolerance surfaced amongst the Irish. The Hamilton Spectator newspaper is said to have reported in 1848 that a Corktown man had publicly cried out “God Bless the Pope”. In immediate response, someone else began throwing rocks and then a man was shot in the chest. During an Orangemen’s Parade in the following year, 150 men walked Hamilton’s streets armed with firearms and swords. The Catholics prepared to defend themselves with pitchforks. Happy times!
Approximately 400, 000 Irish citizens sailed to Canada in those hard years. Early Hamilton is said to have had a population of roughly 9, 000 citizens, Irish and otherwise. While thousands of Irish immigrants only passed through this area, on their way to the US, many settled here as unskilled labourers, domestic servants for the elite and religious clergymen.
From 1871 to 1901, there was a second wave of approximately 3, 500 Irish immigrants annually to Hamilton.
Many of the immigrants worked for the TH&BRY (Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Railway); which they would, back then, call the “Theebree”. Many of the old train overpasses that run through the area still have the defunct company’s initials inscribed on them. The former TH&BRY terminal has become the Hamilton GO Centre, a Government of Ontario commuter bus and train station and a significant landmark of the neighbourhood.
Eventually, many were able to acquire training to become construction workers, marine dock workers, police officers and city council employees. The Irish contributed to the growth of the new Canadian city as hard working but grossly underpaid citizens.
Contemporary Corktown is a dense community of Victorian era houses and 1960’s high rises. St. Joseph’s Hospital and the 33-storey Olympia Apartments are prominent features of this neighbourhood. The semi-modern multi-floor dwellings of the area are responsible for much of Hamilton’s built up skyline. It’s all of those old row houses; however, that helps Corktown retain its late-1800’s and early 1900’s nuances. Those old places are occupied by establishments of the John Street business area, and the pub district of Augusta and Young Streets.
The newest major architectural addition to Corktown is the Chateau Royale, a 14-story residential condominium located on James South near Augusta. This tower opened in 2006 after being converted from the Undermount Office Complex.
James and the Claremont Access—branching off of Wellington, are the major thoroughfares to and from the downtown area and Hamilton Mountain. If you drive on one of these motorways to or from “the mountain”, then you are traveling on the edges of Corktown.
Other than the pubs, there unfortunately aren’t any historical or cultural parades, festivals and art shows in Corktown that draw in people from around the city or elsewhere. To try and get a sense of the modern social constitution of the community, you have to dig.
In terms of demographics, you’ll find all kinds of people living in Corktown today, although the area appears to be mainly Caucasian with some poor, a large middle class and a slightly modest number of affluent residents. Cultural backgrounds are presumed to be mostly Irish-descent and Scottish-descent.
Corktown fills two Statistics Canada 2006 census tracts in which:
- The largest age group of residents is between 25 and 29, and the second largest group is of 15 to 19 years of age.
- The residents’ population density per km/sq is approximately 7, 500.
- 77% of the residents are Canadian citizens.
- 60% of the residents are non-immigrant Canadian citizens.
- 66% of the residents are Canadian citizens over the age of 18.
- 43% of the residents are born outside of Canada. For the most part, these are people who are now, or have ever been, landed immigrants in Canada. Also included in the first generation are a small number of people born outside Canada to parents who are Canadian citizens by birth. In addition, this statistical group includes people who are non-permanent residents (defined as people from another country living in Canada on Work or Study Permits or as refugee claimants, and any family members living with them in Canada).
- 99% of the residents speak only English.
- 70% of the residents are Caucasian.
- 10% of the residents are Chinese, the largest visible minority group.
- .002% of the residents are Japanese, the smallest visible minority group.
- 42% of the residents; in the ages 35 to 64 group, have not obtained any postsecondary certificate, diploma or degree; they are the largest statistical group having some form of formal education.
- 60% of the residents stay employed so long as there are no layoffs, recessions, labour disputes, illness, disabilities and aren’t fulltime students; they prefer to work.
Are the residents accepting or at least tolerant of all others? I think that probably like anywhere, some are and some aren’t. I don’t think anyone can really gauge which way the needle sways but I’m of the presence of mind that some percentage of the majority are tolerant. All one can do is go to Corktown and see what it’s like to interact with the people there. That’s right, the acid test.
The nicest experience I can remember having while interacting with a stranger in Corktown was early one January morning in 2010. I was standing at the corner of John Street South and Jackson Street East, waiting for the lights to change. I had my camera in my right hand and at my side with its strap tightly wound around a couple fingers to keep it secure. I do that if I don’t wrap the strap around my entire wrist. Some street photographers go to some extent to remain inconspicuous in order to capture truly candid moments in city life, especially when those moments involve human behaviour. I’m one of those who don’t try to be so surreptitious. I certainly don’t wave my camera about but I also don’t really try to conceal it when I’m walking around.
A woman walked up behind me and stood there contemplating for several seconds. I could almost feel her searching for friendly sounding words to say to someone she had never met. “If it were me,” she finally spoke, “I’d be afraid of dropping the camera.”
I chuckled and replied, “I hope not!”
“I hope not too!” she agreed with a grin.
“So what are you photographing?” she asked.
“Urban photography,” I generalized to avoid giving specifics.
“Get anything good?”
“Not yet.” That’s how it goes. Some days I’m able to capture one or a number of interesting moments, and then go on for weeks without seeing anything that I think is worthy to shoot.
She laughed and said, “Good luck!”
The walking signal illuminated and we crossed the street and went our separate ways.
There was another occasion when I walked past some residences on Augusta Street. A man stood perplexed at the foot of his walkway, looking at a fake snake that some prankster had placed on one of his ornamental garden rocks. He wasn’t sure if the snake was real or not, and didn’t know what to do. I picked it up and turned it over to show him that it was merely made of cheap rubber. He threw his head back and laughed as I put the toy back on his rock. That was my good deed for the day.
As for my worst experience in Corktown, well, I have yet to have a bad one that I could say is definitely linked to the majority temperament of the people there, and I keep going back. In fact, Corktown is an area that I pass through twice almost every day.
The Hamilton Police Service regards the city through three patrol divisions. Corktown is located well within Division 1, which is surrounded by Sherman Avenue, the border of the Dundas and Ancaster communities, the mountain brow and Hamilton Harbour. Division 1 is further broken down into four sectors for the police. Corktown occupies one quarter of the western half of the Sector 4; also known as South Town.
“The Durander” is the seasonal newsletter of the Durand Neighbourhood Association (Durand is on the western side of James Street South). The DNA reports a summary of crime statistics for Durand, Corktown and Stinson combined. Typical crimes for these areas include robbery, break and entering, automobile theft and theft from vehicles. For most years, robbery usually has the lowest numbers (between 40 and 80 per annum) while thefts from vehicles usually have the highest numbers (between 300 and 500 per annum). “The Durander” reports never seem to discuss violent crimes such as assault, rape and murder but they do occur.
Late one night in September of 2008, a 22-year-old man of the Corktown area was stabbed to death for being a Good Samaritan. He was well-known in his neighbourhood for being a genuinely gentle, kind, helpful and respectful soul, and at the time of his murder he was trying to protect an elderly woman in his apartment building from being robbed by a 31-year-old intruder. The police learned that after the initial struggle, the good intentioned 22-year-old made his way out of the building in search of help for himself while dialing 911 on his cell phone. Through his horror, he explained the severity of his situation to the 911 operator, and expressed that he believed he was dying. He collapsed at the doorstep of another neighbour who continued to give directions until paramedics arrived. This man died a hero in every sense of the word. Fortunately, the police arrested the thieving murderer in short time.
In May of 2009, police discovered that a 22-year-old man; with the mental ability of a 12 to 15-year-old and suffering from severe epilepsy, had been kidnapped from the streets and held captive in a filthy third floor apartment on Aurora Street for three weeks. A 19-year old woman and three males ranging in age from 16 to 29 had tortuously beaten and sexually assaulted the man for nothing other than their own sadistic pleasure. They burned his skin all over his body with cigarettes and a square-shaped hair flattening iron. They broke his nose, smashed one of his eye sockets, fractured his skull and knocked out some of his teeth.
These crimes were absolute horrors. Where they isolated cases or are such occurrences commonplace for this neighbourhood?
Out of the 9 Canadian cities with populations between 500, 000 and over, surveyed by Statistics Canada in 2005, Hamilton overall ranked 8th for homicide. Annual reports from the HPS indicate that Hamilton seldom reaches 10 homicides in a year. Aggravated assaults and sexual assaults of a wide range do appear to be high, however. Both groupings of assaults appear to be mostly associated with domestic occurrences and intoxicated belligerence in public bars. In consideration of these facts and that Corktown is a population of only 7, 500 out of the sprawling city’s 500, 000, the aforementioned occurrences were isolated. Corktown doesn’t seem to be an area frequently troubled by violent crime.
Bad-guys and bad-girls are known to do all sorts of bad things anywhere in this city, of course. While it is difficult to obtain official and accurate crime statistics for any given Hamilton neighbourhood, however, there is an impression that Corktown is not a high crime area. I’ve also never heard anyone say at the street level that there is too much or too little policing in Corktown. Mind you, I really haven’t talked to too many in the area about how they feel about Corktown crime. This silence does seem to indicate; nevertheless, that the residents are quite satisfied with their area. I guess that time will tell if this perception is accurate or not.
In 2012, for the Hamilton Police Services Board’s 2013 budget meeting, Police Chief Glenn DeCaire’s presentation showed that in 2011, 10 per cent of Hamiltonians overall felt unsafe in the downtown areas, 11.7 per cent were undecided and 78.3 per cent expressed complete satisfaction with downtown safety. It was actually the statistics of policing success and continually falling crime rates, amongst other considerations, that motivated members of the HPSB to reject the Chief’s request for a 5.25% budget increase for the city’s 1, 500 cops and services.
So What’s Next?
Business is doing well in Corktown, and the area is saturated for living space.
There are a couple public parks in this neighbourhood; Corktown and Shamrock, but the layout of the land prevents the addition of any more green space. That is, unless any of the expansive privately owned parking lots in the western parts of the area were to be converted.
I do see potential to modernize either or both of the existing parks; something similar to the updates that were made to Victoria Park in the Strathcona neighbourhood. I think some changes could be made to make them ideal places for annual festivals, art shows and to get more people to see the area and add a new aspect to commerce.
Other than plans by city council to improve and stay on top of local motor vehicle traffic concerns, there are no publicized official plans to create additional growth in Corktown. I guess it’s left up to the locals to dream up ways to affect change if they think it’s needed.