Bounded by the CN Railway tracks north of Barton St. East, James St. North, Main St. East and Wellington St. North, Beasley is one of the original four neighbourhoods of Hamilton, ON, Canada; the other three being Corktown, Central and Durand. A part of lower (below the escarpment) Hamilton, Beasley is a true downtown community. It is an incredibly fascinating part of town; highly underestimated, and a major reason why I decided to extend Hammer Home from just ten images per area to unlimited.
This neighbourhood is named after Richard Beasley, (1761-1842); a soldier, political figure, farmer and businessman. David R. Beasley, a direct descendant, published a book on the entire life of the neighbourhood’s namesake, titled “From Bloody Beginnings: Richard Beasley’s Upper Canada”. Richard Beasley is described as living during a tumultuous time in North America, having been wealthier than most in his time, owning some black slaves and having built a grand home in Burlington Heights (now the site of Dundurn and Harvey Parks in the Dundurn area) in 1790. Mounting debt later forced Richard to sell his land to Sir, Allan MacNab who built Dundurn Castle (which exists today as a tourism and Canadian/Hamilton heritage site) where Beasley’s home once stood.
My limited edition fine art print of a hand-made 1842 map of Hamilton shows the perceived location and surroundings of the homestead simply labeled “Mr. Beazley” in the unknown cartographer’s handwriting. Yes, the cartographer clearly spelled Beasley with a “z” instead of an “s”. I’ve been to Beasley’s grave in Section 15 of the Woodland Cemetery, which is in the neighbourhood of Dundurn A. It’s only a couple kilometers from where he used to live. It has a nice polished black headstone.
Richard Beasley is remembered for many controversial things. One being that he swindled Mennonite settlers in Waterloo Township (also known at that time as Beasley Township) out of land they thought they had purchased from him. Between David’s book and one by Mable Dunham titled “Grand River”, it is described that when the Mennonites discovered that they didn’t have irrefutable title to the land Beasley sold them (and never would so long as the debt-ridden Beasley couldn’t pay off his mortgage to Six Nations leader Joseph Brant) a Mennonite settler named Sam Bricker came to Hamilton “to confront Beasley with his dishonesty”.
In Mable’s 1945 book, Beasley confessed his deceit. According to Dave’s 2008 book, however, Richard Beasley does not admit to any fraudulence in his memoir. A visit by Mennonites upset by rumours that they had been ripped off is; nevertheless, mentioned by Richard. Beasley informed Brant of the disagreement, and Brant publicly dismissed the rumours and vouched for Beasley’s integrity through a newspaper ad. Beasley is described in David’s book as going on to work with the settlers to straighten out the predicament.
Although most of Hamilton’s buildings aren’t elegant enough to make highly sought after fine art landscape photography prints to hang on a wall, the city has a wide range of old and new architecture. When you stand on the escarpment and look down at the business and residential centre, you see a hotchpotch of architectural styles. Most are old, and are highly favoured because of their age and how they are icons of Hamilton heritage. Even new large-scale building projects that are proposed seem to be more likely to get approval from the citizens and historical interest groups if they do not seem too modern aesthetically. The downtown landscape is dotted with a lot of red and brown brick buildings of various sizes.
The skyline is not nearly as spectacular as Toronto’s or New York City’s but it is nice, nevertheless, especially when all lit up on a clear summer night. I can remember hearing, back in the early 90’s, someone from Vancouver expressing how they were surprisingly impressed about that. Commerce Place, the local Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce headquarters, bordered by James St. North, King St. West and MacNab St. North, is probably the most modern-looking large-scale addition to the city’s skyline. Architectural recladding projects have also been completed for a couple of the large downtown locations, such as the First Place building and the Art Gallery of Hamilton, to make them safer and/or aesthetically more up to date.
Downtown Hamilton does have its share of rundown, slummy-looking buildings and warehouses though. They can make for good urban decay photography, and they attract American film-makers and television people who want to re-create similar areas of New Jersey, New York City, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco in their productions. In general, however, those buildings are just plain demoralizing to the citizens. Citizens have complained extensively about the physical conditions of the downtown core. It seems that many of the large older style buildings are possessed by property owners who live in well-kept homes in Toronto and other areas near that city, and really don’t care about the upkeep of their Steeltown real-estate (City Hall and provincial Ministries that regulate and enforce building codes and the Heritage Act don’t seem able to do enough to force the property owners to clean up their affairs either).
Once proud buildings that were erected in the nineteenth century are now dilapidated to the point of being unsafe eyesores. Some are still occupied by residential and/or business tenants while others have been unused and boarded up for years without being rightfully demolished or restored. Many are too degraded for the expensive renovation that would be needed to save them. It’s not just the foundations and overall structures that are unsafe; the electrical wiring is outdated and in serious need of upgrading, mold has grown in with the potential of making people sick and some of these old buildings have been built with friable asbestos. Many of these heritage significant buildings are or used to be in Beasley.
A prime example of a Hamilton landmark being run into the ground was the Tivoli, an old Beasley neighbourhood building that became a popular movie cinema. Originally built in the 1870’s with stores on the ground floor and a carriage factory on top, it was turned into the Wonderland Theatre in 1908, and then renamed the Colonial in 1909. In 1913, it became known as the Princess, and opened as a theater or vaudeville playhouse in 1924 under the name of the Tivoli. From then, movies began to be shown in it. The Tivoli was the first, or third, cinema in Canada to show films with sound. The first time I ever saw Star Wars was there.
Famous Players Theatres sold the Tivoli in 1988, and the new owner ended film screenings there in 1989. The space had been leased to a number of theatrical groups in subsequent years. Hollywood actor/film directors Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez filmed part of their most unpopular docudrama “Rated-X” in the Tivoli back in 1999.
At least one of the theatrical groups that leased the building sunk a lot of money into renovating the structure that they didn’t even own. That’s really something because it’s popular opinion that the extremely wealthy music retail enterprise owner wouldn’t spend a dime to fix it up; even though he told the city he would when he bought the theatre from Famous Players. It has been said that he even tried ways of getting the city to pay for it all.
On June 29, 2004, a section of the Tivoli’s south side wall had collapsed. Fortunately no one was in the building at the time. The city found the remaining roof and supporting structure to be deteriorating and unsafe to the public. City Hall was faced with the decision to arbitrarily condemn and rip out the remaining weakened portions of the structure. Appropriately, so the story goes, City Hall stuck the owner with the $560, 000 cleanup bill. Indignant, the owner tried to sue the city, and was able to get most of what was left of the Tivoli demolished before the LACAC (Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee) succeeded in having the old landmark remnants declared as a Canadian heritage site.
Not much of the original building is left now, and the ruins became one of many lingering blights on the face of the downtown core. The non-profit Canadian Ballet Youth Ensemble purchased the remnants, and began working to come up with the upwards of $12 million (eventually $15 million) needed to build a new theatre that is, at most, in honor of the old Tivoli.
In 2008, the Heritage and Urban Design group prepared and published three optional architectural renderings for exploring the potential of site re-development of the James Street North portion of the demolished theatre. Each design featured old and modern aesthetics that complimented each other, and maximized space. It was presumed by some that the new owners would have to bring in other arts groups in order to rebuild the theatre, and keep it going.
Yes, Beasley has the Lister Block. For anyone who may not know, the original Lister Block was a five storey building built in 1886. It was named after its original owner Joseph Lister who was a merchant, clothier, member of the city’s Board of Water Commissioners and a school trustee. The Lister was one of the first buildings to have an elevator at that time. It burned down in 1923 but was rebuilt and reopened by 1924. The rebuilt version has a lot of nostalgia attached. Many things went on inside but I find that people who remember what it was like in the 70’s and early 80’s still reminisce about the almost elitist Vic Tanny’s health club that operated there. Due to financial difficulties as a consequence of City Council diverting cultural attentions elsewhere, such as the escarpment, tenants were evicted and the Lister closed in the early 90’s.
Back in 1994, a group of local artists led citizens in protesting the eviction of Lister Block tenants out of fear of the block being demolished. As honourable as they were, the artists were powerless. The evictions were upheld but the building, nevertheless, was never torn down. Instead, it simply remained derelict for many years afterward while heritage factions, city councilors, the owner and the Province argued over what to do with the vacant piece of architecture. The Lister was left to go to ruin; a colossal eyesore in the heart of downtown Hamilton, and precisely in the midst of the city’s burgeoning James St. North art community. The only users were homeless juvenile squatters who severely vandalized the site from the inside out.
In July 2007, the Liberal provincial government stepped in to provide $7 million in restoration money for the Lister but the sudden realization of exponentially rising construction costs, higher finance costs and design changes forced the city to drop the renovation plans in January 2008. The province didn’t rescind its $7 million offer but the money wound up in limbo. In April of 2008, two floors of an adjacent building that was part of the Lister Block complex collapsed. The entire building had to be promptly demolished, leaving the main Lister Block eyesore still standing. After striking a reported $25-million deal with the city, the current owners began carefully renovating the old icon in 2009.
Just as the Lister began to get a facelift, Beasley’s Century Theatre at 12 Mary Street began to give up its ghost. The Century first opened as the Lyric Theatre; another vaudeville playhouse, in 1913. After Boston, MA’s Keith Vaudeville Circuit purchased the property in 1914, movies were eventually screened there.
20th Century Theatres took the building over at some point and refurbished it in 1922 and 1940. After the second remodeling, the venue was renamed Century Theatre. They seemed to have taken care of it; remodeling again in 1967. The movie house was sold to Famous Players Theatres in 1979. After the showing of “Lethal Weapon 2”, the Century’s doors closed in 1989.
Although unused for 20 years, the last owner of the Century was working with the city’s Heritage Committee to transform the site into a 59-unit condominium with the original building facade in place. In early January 2010, however, the roof — said to have buckled somewhat in 2000 and left to steady deterioration since, collapsed and took down most of the floors below it. The walls cracked and bulged from the forces and threatened the safety of anyone who passed by. After an emergency assessment, the city had no choice but to order the owner to demolish everything that was left, including the beloved facade.
Beasley is predominantly an old residential neighbourhood in which some of the homes are rumored to have been converted from very old military barracks. Any barracks that may have existed (rumor still unfounded) are survived by the armory (built in 1906) which continues to be in full operation by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, also on James North.
The Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HDWC), better known as the “Barton Street Jailhouse”, has remained an iconic fixture of Beasley ever since it opened in 1978. The HDWC is a maximum security detention centre operated by the Ministry of Public Safety and Security. It is reportedly capable of holding 405 to 414 male adults and 118 young male offenders (16-17 years old). Its red-bricked citadel appearance, even though it doesn’t even sit on a hill, almost looms over Beasley’s northern end. Many bad boys of Hamilton and other cities of the province of Ontario wind up there as if it’s party-central. I wonder how many are actually from Beasley.
Although there aren’t as many as some would like to see, there are still some buildings in this neighbourhood that are connected to local and national heritage.
Roots in Slavery and Routes from Slavery
There is a little church in Beasley that is recognized as a positive historic symbol of Hamilton’s, even Canada’s, connection with multiculturalism. To understand the importance of this little Church on John Street North today it helps to, again, take a look at Canadian history.
I mentioned above that Richard Beasley was a slave owner. For us to understand what kind of a man he was to be this, it makes sense to take a look at how psychologists profile slave owners:
A slave owner, regardless of race or any other demographic is an unscrupulous person who derives pleasure from, 1) dehumanizing another human being in order to, 2) assume ownership of that person as though they were some inanimate property, beast of burden or a pet to be used for, 3) whatever it is that the slave owner himself or herself is unwilling to do (enduring harsh labour and forced sexual acts are exploitations that are the most commonly meted out against slaves but there are others) themselves or defile out of some crass antisocial notions of entitlement and superiority. Typical of a true antisocial personality, a slave owner expects his or her enslaved victim to be passive; accepting and even liking the abuse or neglect, while at the same time despising it and the slave owner just enough for the owner to recognize the servant’s discomfort in order for the owner to acquire senses of euphoria, power and authority over the slave.
Some slave owners abuse their slaves by providing limited, insincere and conditional acts of kindness and generosity which only appear to have value on the surface. Others rely mainly or exclusively on sheer physical and psychological brutality. In any case; the prime motives of any slave master are, again, to establish a most corrupt and immoral dominance over another person, have the person perform tasks or endure treatment that the owner will not, delight in the person’s suffering, and prevent their access to any effective means of advancing themselves in a timely and dignified manner.
Slave owners and advocates of various types of human slavery still exist all around the world today but in the US, Caribbean and South America, the plantation slave owners of the 1600’s to 1800’s are often referred to as “slave masters”, and wealthy Southern US masters were known to hire supervisors called “overseers” who were often just as cruel to slaves as the actual masters and slave traders, if not actually worse. This is where people learn about the verbal abusing, intimidating, whipping, hobbling, raping, dragging, mutilating, maiming and other torturous and murderous treatments of African American slaves.
Growing up I encountered people — not many, some white, some black, some native Canadian and some of Southeast Asian descent who insisted that African slavery never existed in Canada. They argue that the only place in North America where it occurred was in the US, and that Canada instead became the final destination of black slaves who escaped that tyranny through the Underground Railroad. I haven’t heard many make that argument in quite some time. It could be that everybody knows better now or that even fewer people really care about the facts of this part of Canadian history and what it means for this land today and tomorrow.
The reality is that they’re right about the latter part of their argument. It’s the former part that’s not quite right. I’m not an expert on Canadian history. I just research what has already been proven so that I may understand better who I am, and where I stand in this truly beautiful country. There are many books, websites, arts organizations and other sources to reference to find the truth of this matter, all the while keeping in mind that “history is written by the victors.” Just one out of the many highly reliable resources on this subject is the Archives of Ontario under the Ontario Ministry of Government Services. Without a doubt, African slavery did exist in Canada as it did in the US. It was however, abolished in Canada in 1834; 31 years before it was abolished in the US.
It is believed that the first black slaves of Canada were brought to this country by French slave owners in or about 1608 but it was in 1628 that British slave traders brought the first black slave here directly from Africa. He was reportedly just a young boy from Madagascar who was renamed Olivier le Jeune, and sold in New France (a part of the colony that is now within the modern-day provinces of Ontario and Quebec).
By 1689, slavery was considered a legal trade in New France by the plethora fur traders, missionaries, and farmers who had settled along the St. Lawrence Valley. The population of this area consisted of more than 11, 500 colonists at this time. By 1759, approximately 4, 000 recorded slaves (2, 000 of which were ‘Panis’; captured Native Americans of modern-day Nebraska’s Pawnee Indian tribe) lived in captivity in New France.
After the American War of Independence and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United Empire Loyalists, consisting of soldiers and civilians, were evacuated from New York and resettled in other colonies of the British Empire, most notably in the future Canada. It was during this migration from the US, that the slave population in this country grew but the population of Negroid slaves reportedly never got to the extent it was in the US allegedly because slavery was generally unsuited to Canadian agriculture or commerce, and most of the blacks who settled in Nova Scotia after the Revolution were set free. Slavery itself, however, was still regarded as a legal trade, regardless of promises made by the British at the end of the American Revolution.
Slaves in the British colonies generally worked as personal servants or on the wharves. A few settlers had many slaves, but more than 20 was considered unusual.
So, now it becomes clear as to how Beasley became a slave master, and why this fact stands out just a little in Canadian history. He would have been one of a scant number of Caucasians in this part of the country who actually owned slaves. The unpopularity of people of wealth and or nobility owning other human beings around here, and the slave trade seems to have become social and political issues of some importance during Richard Beasley’s time. He lived to see the problem challenged in slow but progressive steps quite early in Canada’s history.
The Imperial Statute of 1790 was enacted allowing new settlers to bring slaves into what was unofficially called Upper Canada. The statute required, nevertheless, that the slaves be adequately fed and clothed. Canadian seasonal climates do differ considerably from those of the southern US after all. This statute also ensured that at the age of twenty-five, any child born to a slave mother in Upper Canada will be set free. That seems to have gotten the ball slowly rolling because by July of the following year a slave named Mary Postell took her slave owner, Jesse Gray, to court, twice for stealing her children. The court failed to find Jesse Gray guilty as charged, but he did sell Mary and her daughter to someone else.
The British colonial Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada (Lower Canada forming out of much of New France) were officially established in 1791. On June 19, 1793, John White of Upper Canada’s Leeds and Frontenac Counties introduced a bill to prohibit the import of slaves into Upper Canada. The bill was passed and Upper Canada became the sole British colony in the world to legislate for the abolition of slavery.
By 1800, some of the other British colonies of early Canada followed Upper Canada’s lead. While slavery in Canada had technically become illegal it wasn’t enforced until the British Imperial Act of 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire (32 years before it was abolished in the US). This Act prevented new slaves being bought, sold, or traded but it failed to free individuals who were already enslaved. It became the agenda of England and its dominions to award “gradual emancipation” to the existing slaves. The British Imperial Act also did nothing to end racial segregation in Canada (through her documentary “The Little Black Schoolhouse”, Sylvia Hamilton [no relation to me that I’m aware of] reveals that the last segregated school in Essex County, Ontario closed in September of 1965, and that one in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia lasted until 1983). This is where Richard Beasley leaves the story, and the Underground Railroad comes into play.
By 1793, the first Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the US. George Washington was President then. This Act gave slave owners and agents the right to track, arrest, kidnap and keep fugitive slaves anywhere in the United States of America. This brought about the creation of the Underground Railroad in the early 1800’s.
As many know today, the Underground Railroad was a clandestine network of former slaves and white abolitionists, like the Quakers, who aided fugitive slaves in escaping to freedom in the free states and Canadian colonial provinces. Although railway terminology is used, much of numerous human smuggling routes through the eastern and western US had little, if anything, to do with the existing railway networks.
The first major wave of fugitive slaves to Canada was between 1817 and 1820. Underground Railroad terminals in Upper Canada included almost any port on Lake Erie and the Niagara River. Amhertsburg, Sandwich, Windsor, Owen Sound, St Catharines, Toronto, Kingston, Brantford, Collingwood, Prescott and the future city of Hamilton, on the western tip of Lake Ontario, were also terminals.
As to be expected of any people yearning to fulfill a sense of belonging, blacks who came to Upper Canada, migrated to settlements that had a high concentration of black inhabitants. These settlements inevitably arose out of severe and systemic racial discrimination from white Canadians, which was still quite prevalent despite years of effort by some whites to change laws with regards to race and trade. The establishment of these communities was also as a way for blacks to protect each other from American bounty hunters who didn’t recognize the sovereignty of the Canadas, and disregarded the existing laws here. The bounty hunters made many attempts to capture runaway slaves on Canadian soil to return them to southern US plantation owners.
By the 1830’s, most Negroid settlements were primarily along the Detroit River and shores of Lake Erie. Other popular Upper Canada areas of settlement included London, Dawn, Strathroy, Woodstock, St. Thomas, Brantford, Wilberforce, places along the Thames River, Niagara Falls, Drummondville, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Chatham, Windsor, Toronto, St. Catharine’s and the future city of Hamilton. Smaller settlements were located near Barrie, Guelph and Owen Sound (approximately 30, 000 African-American slaves made it to the Canadas through the Underground Railroad between 1840 and 1860). Six of these many and widely spread black communities became firmly rooted in the future province of Ontario by the 1850’s.
Most of the Hamilton-based community became known as “Little Africa.” This enclave, a few kilometers south of Beasley, occupied a portion of the Niagara Escarpment where Concession Street is today (back then Concession was an arterial road below the escarpment that is now called Aberdeen Avenue) and by 1840 it was inhabited by 80 blacks.
In the US, a second Fugitive Slave Act was passed by US Congress on September 18, 1850. Taking over from the late Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore had been President since July 9th of that year. The prime difference between this Act, and that of 1793 was that Federal Marshals and other law enforcement officials anywhere in the US, even the free states, now had a legal duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave. All it took was any Caucasian’s sworn testimony of ownership or a written affidavit for capture given to a Federal Marshal, nothing more. Any law enforcement official, who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave, would be fined $1,000. That’s a lot of money for the average person to lose today in the US or Canada. Imagine how much bigger such a legal fine was as a motivation back then for someone to dehumanize another human being, strictly on the basis of skin colour. There were other legal provisions for the inhumane treatment of blacks imbedded in the 1850 revision. The Underground Railroad was at its height between 1850 and 1860.
“Little Africa” grew to a population of 200 but the inhabitants began moving away. Most are presumed to have returned to the US; possibly to fight in the American Civil War (1861–1865), to reestablish connections with relatives left behind and own land after slavery was finally abolished there by President Lincoln. During this time, following several constitutional conferences, the Constitution Act of 1867 brought about Confederation, officially creating “one Dominion under the name of Canada” on July 1, 1867. The village of “Little Africa” faded away by 1880.
A Little Church in Beasley: A National Treasure
There continued to be blacks living in other parts of Hamilton nevertheless; including lower Hamilton. This is where a little church of the Beasley neighbourhood begins to have an impact on local history.
In the US, as with most American national organizations, the Methodist Church became divided over the issue of slavery. Both slavery advocates and abolitionists produced doctrines and cited Biblical scriptures to argue their positions.
Initially, during the annual conference of 1780, the Methodists surmised that slavery was against “the laws of God, man, and nature”. It still took years after to commit church leaders to this decision. In 1783, reverends from the Baltimore Conference were threatened with suspension if they didn’t set their slaves free. By 1784, the same was required of all Methodist clergy and congregates but the backlash to this order was so hostile that the policy was deemed unenforceable, even though it was never stricken from the Book of Discipline; the law and doctrine of the Methodist Church that has continued to be updated and republished every four years since the 18th century.
Rev. Richard Allen is considered the founding father of the AME Church. It was racial discrimination that inspired him and other black parishioners to pull away from the whites of Philadelphia’s Methodist Church, and establish the Bethel African Methodist Church in 1792. This all-black denomination grew rapidly. Soon, AME churches were established across the US, and foreign missions, a publishing wing and numerous churches were set up in Canada West (formed out of the former province of Upper Canada in 1841 to be the western portion of the new United Province of Canada). The St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church of Barton Township (pre-Hamilton) was founded circa 1835 by Rev. Josiah Henson under the auspices of the AME body that was established in 1816 in the US.
Two doctrines came into being within America’s Methodist Church as the slavery dispute intensified in the 19th century. As slavery was generally advocated in the southern US, Methodist congregations in that region were also proslavery while the Methodists of the northern states initiated antislavery movements. This Methodist infighting carried on into and through the American Civil War (1861–1865).
Even in Canada, then, the congregation of St. Paul’s was exclusively black. As a seemingly unwritten rule, whites wouldn’t go there and blacks wouldn’t be allowed to worship the same God; through the same religion, in another church that was considered for whites only.
Originally, this AME church in Beasley was located on Rebecca Street; a little east of John Street North, and it was constructed out of logs. A modest clapboard church was erected nearby at 114 John Street North in 1848, mainly by former slaves who had escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad. The AME congregation relocated to this new building in 1879. This church was remodeled with a Gothic Revival brick exterior by 1905, and still stands in this form today.
The Reverend John C. Holland remains one of the most prominent figures in the history of this church. The 5th of thirteen children, he was born on Christmas Day in 1882 and aptly named John Christmas (often shortened to Christie) Holland by his mother Henrietta. Henrietta and her husband Thomas John Holland arrived at the Hamilton terminal of the Underground Railroad in the mid-1860s.
I’ve heard that the actual terminal used was the basement of the AME’s clapboard church. Unfortunately, the church has never responded to my requests to verify if there’s any truth to the rumour. So far, no historical body in Ontario has identified the actual endpoints of the railroad in Hamilton to me either. As facts remain that the Underground Railroad was hardly related to any railway system and didn’t physically have routes underground, it seems unlikely to me that the basement of the church was an endpoint of a tunnel dug through the Great Canadian Shield.
John C. Holland was part of what might be considered a successful family of blacks in his time. They operated their own hay and feed business located on the corner of Gore (now known as Wilson Street) and Mary Streets (this intersection is currently the site of the Wilson Medical Centre, Beasley Park, private residences and the Downtown Hamilton Mosque), also in the neighbourhood of Beasley. John’s father Tom encouraged all the boys of the family to excel at school, and work in the family business while continuing to hold down an after school job elsewhere.
The Hamilton Spectator had been founded in 1846; 36 years before John’s birth. Selling copies of this local newspaper on the corner of King and James became young John’s extra job. Historical sources suggest that his first serious experience with Canadian race hatred occurred while selling papers from his usual spot on the north-west corner (nearby Central neighbourhood) at age 11. From then on, he had to courageously defend his spot each day. It is said that through public indignity his faith in God strengthened, as did his commitment to at least Hamilton’s Negroid community and his church.
I know that street corner very well. I’ve done a lot of people watching and photography there. I can imagine being there in young John’s time as he sold the newspapers. At that time, there was a three story building there with an additional partial floor of office space above. I can see John on hot and humid summer days trying to find shade beneath one of the large window and doorway awnings that would overhang the street. People are walking to and fro, not unlike they still do.
I see white kids and some adults walk up to him there, hollering at him, pushing him around and trying to harass him into taking a swing at them so that they can feel justified after gang-beating him to a pulp in broad daylight. I know exactly the epithets and accusations he must have heard.
Other whites, who would think it boorish to accost him in that way but were still repulsed by the sight of this dark-skinned boy on the corner, probably insulted him by staring him up and down without a word.
For life, he would be forced to endure baseless assumptions about what he and his kind do or don’t do, and what they are intellectually capable or incapable of. There’d be opinions of where they’re from and where they ought to go.
I can feel the anger that likely welled up inside him. I have felt it many times, the frustration of living as a decent human being and contributing citizen while none of that is enough. As long as your hair is kinky, and your skin is a shade of brown there will always be those who will never accept you or your right to be on this earth. They’ll assume the worst of your character, and they will gladly subject you to the vilest ill-treatment. No one else, least of all among their kind, will rise up and come to your defense. You are on your own in your fight.
Honestly, sometimes that frustration gets so bad that you even think about retaliating violently against your tormentors just to make them go away. Knowing that this is just as wrong, however, and that such reactions would only make your life worse; being what you are, dishonourable and put your soul in jeopardy with God makes you continue to hold your resentment within your chest. I know from personal experience that the internal conflict to resist that defensive impulse and endure the harassment was enough to make me cry on site like a baby sometimes.
Could you fill those shoes? How do you think you would fare if you were in young John’s place? If you are a victim of blind hatred, regardless of your demographic, under these circumstances your viewpoint of the city; of the entire country, is bound to be considerably different from the viewpoints of others who aren’t subjects to such inane bigotries. It should be understandable if such a victim becomes resentful, and it should be highly respected when such a victim doesn’t retaliate through a return of such contempt. At best, it would be foolhardy to fail to appreciate that such a victim can still find it within himself or herself to adhere to forgiveness of their enemies, and recognize that not all members of the dissenting cultures are as wicked. At worse, it’s downright inhuman.
I can imagine that young John Holland may have occasionally shouted back at his tormentors but being the type of person he reportedly was, I can sense him feeling ashamed for defending his own humanity in any way less than a controlled and dignified manner. I can imagine him thinking, right in the next instant, “Why did I do that?” and praying, “God, help me to overcome this burden. Don’t let me slip into the worthlessness of spirit as they have. Help me to rise up and be better, smarter and stronger than this.” I can imagine that at even a young age, his reliance on God to mold and direct his life had to be strong.
As a Negro in North America he was born into this, and regardless of how long or short he lived, or how smart or backward he may become he would die in it too. It was up to him to allow God to help him find a better way. At some point, as I did, he must have learned to feel sorry for his enemies because they were clearly only raised to be impudent, pitiful and soulless; not to have minds and wills to be people of respect.
I can also see that every now and then there would be other whites, special ones, who could see a worthy human being and greet John with sincere kindness as they bought papers or simply passed him by without hampering him in any way. I’m sure he noticed the suffering that even they received from their peers for being compassionate and civil to this boy or anyone with brown skin. I can feel the hope that he tried to have for the whites build within his heart, helping him to be able to see a brighter tomorrow for them, for him, for other blacks, for all.
As an adult, the Reverend Holland played a pivotal role in keeping St. Paul’s open when the congregation was faced with financial difficulties during the Depression years of the 1930’s. The difficult decision in 1937 to break away from the AME body resulted in the formation of a non-denominational church, renamed in commemoration of the previous minister, Reverend Claude A. Stewart. To this day, this little church in Beasley is known as Stuart Memorial.
Stewart Memorial hasn’t been the only church with black congregates in Hamilton. Before John Holland’s time there was Paola Brown, the city bellman and town crier. This was a black pre-Hamiltonian who made public pleas for integrating schools. A clearly outspoken sort of activist, he is believed to have become — for a while, an unofficial leader of Barton Township’s black community. Although integration continued to be unpopular, the Union Mission on the escarpment seems to have had black and white members. Erected in 1860, the Union Mission was both a church and school situated on the south-side of Concession between East 22nd and East 23rd Streets within “Little Africa”. Many illiterate black refugees learned how to read and write there.
Occasionally, as a kid in the 70’s and after I returned to Hamilton in the late 80’s from British Columbia, I attended the Hamilton Church of God at 24 Poplar Avenue off of Concession Street. This was the church of my grandmother; then headed by Pastor John Clark. Although open to worshippers of all races, the Protestant congregation was not just majority black but predominantly Jamaican. In the early 90’s the congregation relocated to 1338 Stone Church Road East where it remains today. 24 Poplar Avenue became home to the Sacred Heart Parish soon after.
I’ve always taken issue with the fact that in our modern times, there continues to be churches where people apparently go because things like race and ethnicity are presumably unwritten but still conscious considerations in their decision making. Hamilton still has majority black, white and Asian churches. Some churches have begun trying to change things through the True City movement, a unified effort to improve all aspects of living in the City of Hamilton by being “open and welcoming to everyone”. Stuart Memorial has been a nondenominational place of spirituality for generations.
I never became a member of Stewart Memorial Church but the city acknowledges that this fellowship represents the longest surviving predominantly black congregation within Hamilton. The first Canadian-born black Olympic medalist Ray Lewis, and the Honourable Lincoln MacCauley Alexander, have been long-time congregates. Lincoln Alexander had also been Honourary Patron for many years.
The history of Stewart Memorial also attests to the importance of this little Beasley neighbourhood church as a social centre for Hamilton’s, even Canada’s, community of African descent. The church has been designated an historic site by the Ontario government.
Apart from the historical commemorative plaque from the city and the Ontario Heritage Trust, there is a bronze memorial plaque mounted on the front of church. This plaque designates the edifice as the first Canadian Masonic Lodge of Prince Hall Masons on October 21, 1961, and signifies a connection between the church and the Prince Hall Masonic Order (the Rev. Richard Allen is recognized by the order as having been one of its Freemasons). It’s even conceivable to me that one or more of the founders of this AME church could have been Freemasons of that order but I really can’t say for sure. There could be a fascinating adventure to be had just from exploring this hypothesis. The Prince Hall Masonic Order is an African-American, Freemasonic fraternal organization with profound history and heritage dating back to 1775.
In 1953, Reverend Holland was named “Distinguished Citizen” of the year for his community work which benefited citizens of various races and backgrounds. He was the first African Canadian to receive such recognition. The award was presented in 1954 by Mayor Lloyd D. Jackson (the Jackson Square shopping mall now occupies the corner where John Holland sold papers). Reverend Holland died that same year. In 2003, the late Reverend Holland was inducted into the city’s Gallery of Distinction.
Annually since Hamilton’s 1996 Sesquicentennial celebrations, the John Christie Holland Award has been given to citizens to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African Canadians to the social, cultural and economic prosperity of Hamilton.
Another Church in Beasley: Another National Treasure
In 1835, around the time that the St. Paul’s AME Church was founded, Christ’s Church Cathedral was constructed. Between 1848 and 1872, the wooden church on James Street North was gradually renovated into the stone gothic cathedral it remains to be, and it continues to be the second oldest Anglican Church in Canada.
Since the dawn of the twentieth century, the parish of Christ’s Church has asserted its arbitrary position on blessing same-sex couples and performing same-sex weddings, starting with the union of a lesbian couple in 2003. These are not merely acts of tolerance but full-blown acceptance of all God’s children; in all of our forms, without any approval from the diocesan synod. Although the diocesan synod did begin to approve blessings of same-sex unions in 2004, the Anglican Bishop has withheld his consent to solemnize gay marriages.
Like the Presbyterian denominated Centenary United Church in Hamilton’s Central neighbourhood, Christ’s Church is recognized as a prominent, gay and lesbian-friendly (not to be mistaken as an exclusively gay) parish of Anglican/Episcopalian faith.
The demographics of Beasley today are quite mixed. The area is home to more than 5, 000 residents from 41 countries, has a well-established and still growing gay community and is still majority Caucasian. According to the 2012 Neighbourhood Profiles report prepared by the Planning and Research Council (SPRC) and including Beasley, 39 per cent of residents identify with a visible minority group. This is nearly three times higher than the city’s 14 per cent average; quite the concentration. Unfortunately, poverty might be the second most common thing the inhabitants have with each other; the first being human.
On the streets, this is one of Hamilton’s neighbourhoods that are occasionally referred to as a ghetto. It isn’t a ghetto. Canada doesn’t have urban ghettos. This country has neighbourhoods of impoverished people, and Beasley’s one of them, but the level of squalor isn’t low enough to warrant the designation of true inner city ghettos.
To set facts straight, to create a ghetto a politically dominated group, which typically but not necessarily includes people of certain racial or other ethnic characteristics, is forced, coerced or tricked by a politically dominant faction into physically occupying specific geographies with little or no resources or opportunities for improvement. Such oppressions have not occurred in Canadian cities apart from concentration camps established in WWI for Ukrainians and Austro-Hungarians, and in WWII for Japanese Canadians, German Canadians and Italian Canadians.
A ghetto has to have conditions so rife that its inhabitants have absolutely no power whatsoever to reverse the upheaval in their midst. The residents of poor Canadian neighbourhoods like Beasley have or can acquire, if they really want it — even if it’s initially with great difficulty, the means to reduce or eliminate the social and economic pressures that hold them in check. Upon obtaining such social, economic and even legal power, the residents have options to physically abandon, as individuals, or collectively improve the area they occupy.
The closest thing to a ghetto in Canada just may be a native Indian reserve, which are always beyond the peripheries of municipalities, but you will not find a true inner-city ghetto anywhere in this country. Even the concentration camps of Canada’s past, as disgraceful and pitiful as they were for existing in the first place, were rural based.
Beasley has been stated as being the poorest neighbourhood in Hamilton, and supposedly one of the poorest in the nation. I can’t verify this claim; I haven’t seen the official statistics for it but at best, only a modest population of “shrinking middle class” residents is believed to live here. The SPRC reports that a whopping 57 per cent of Beasley’s total population lives on incomes below the poverty line. That’s nearly three times higher than the entire city average.
Shortly after leaving the neighbourhood of Landsdale — an adjacent area with a reputation that is slightly better, in the early 90’s, my then girlfriend and I lived in a high-rise apartment complex in Beasley for six months. For us, it was like a stopover during our efforts to move on to better times in life. During that time, the building we lived in had a shooting and a woman leaped off of her balcony to her death — dismembering her body on other balcony rails as she fell. We had to call the police on a man; a neighbour who we could often hear beating and strangling his wife in their own apartment, and at the end of some months building tenants would physically grab my girlfriend in the lobby to let her know that welfare cheques were in. They assumed that we were on public assistance like them. They had no idea that we both work for a living and, therefore, don’t wait around for postal delivery people to bring us government cheques. There were other unpleasant things but nothing we couldn’t get through during what we knew was destined to be a short stay.
Certainly, some have taken on the challenge of improving their living conditions by joining the BN4N or BNFN (Beasley Neighbour for Neighbour) neighbourhood association. This committee serves its community as an information resource through its Our Beasley Neighbours web site, ever popular Facebook community page and Beasley Badger newsletter. BN4N will also hold and coordinate community events and workshops for residents and public service professionals. BN4N is always looking for new recruits.
Even though many local factions have worked very hard for many years to pump millions of dollars into preventing Beasley from slipping deeper into urban decay, and they continue to do so, it seems as though there are still many Hamiltonians who are quite willing to write all of the inhabitants of this neighbourhood off. In talking to them, when they think of criminals and other unruly denizens, the people of Beasley are some of the citizens automatically associated. When Hamiltonians think of the homeless and stereotypical welfare bums, the residents of Beasley again come to mind. When superficial-thinking citizens look for examples of unattractive, unimaginative and untalented people, the folks of Beasley are some of those again considered.
The biggest concern of other citizens seems to be about the efforts by city council and organizations like the HRPR (Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction) to obtain and direct money for social assistance and development into an area critiqued as being a sponge for handouts. It’s commonly accepted that not everyone in Beasley, and similar neighbourhoods, is a senior citizen, homeless or has a disability so severe that they can’t work an honest job. It is felt that good money is being thrown at people who can’t or simply won’t break their mindset that they should get off of public assistance plans, quit drinking, drug using, playing video games, gambling, moping around and get a job.
People look for assumed signs of generosity abusers. A female presumed to be on welfare that also has one or more screaming children in her midst is often suspected of “having babies just so that she can get a bigger cheque”.
Once I overheard a conversation between two women getting out of a sedan in which one practically had an apoplectic fit right there in a public parking lot in Beasley over some people’s use of the welfare system. “. . . And what about all these young girls having babies and getting on mother’s allowance because they won’t keep their goddamned legs closed!” she sounded off. “You always hear about how they’re struggling to make ends meet with one child, and yet they go and have more!” It wasn’t the first or last time I heard such a statement but it was the first time I heard anyone have such a meltdown about it in a public place.
People even point to the plethora digital TV dishes posted on nearly every house and apartment building balcony with the assumption that every one is an indicator that someone on public assistance lives there. “If all these people are so hard done by, and aren’t getting enough,” I heard one man say, “then how is it they can all afford all this digital shit?”
There is a strong perception in this city that welfare users are generational. How much of a problem it is, I don’t think anyone has actually studied it. I have noticed, however, that it’s easy to randomly find citizens who know of at least one family where long-time or perpetual use of the welfare system has been exercised by two to three generations of family members, as though it were a family business, with no end in sight.
Keep in mind, however, that some who have found ways to fraudulently live reasonably well on Ontario’s welfare system are from more affluent parts of the city. Like an Ancaster couple that was brought up on welfare fraud charges in 2008 after allegedly collecting $26,000 in undeserved ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) cheques over the previous four years while living in a house worth approximately half-a-million bucks. Such people make life extra difficult for those who actually need the public assistance.
From personal experience, during that spell of living in this neighbourhood and since, I’ve met many from Beasley who truly fit the negative stereotypes while I have also met twice as many others who are some of the most thoughtful, respectable, intelligent and assiduous down-on-their-luck individuals I have ever met and worked with in this town. Most people who live in this 42 city block part of Hamilton do not live like lazy bums or wild animals. The people of Beasley should never all be written off, and while many will continue to ignore this place, I remain a little connected to it.
Working a blue collar job north of the Stipley area, since leaving Landsdale, I have passed through the heart of this neighbourhood almost every day for literally decades. The layout of the land, which in my opinion affects the subculture of the area, hasn’t changed much. Within the first ten years of what people used to optimistically call “the New Millennium”, I saw a Beer Store be erected on Barton Street. That’s right across from the HDWC. For a neighbourhood reputed to be severely poverty stricken and rife with malice, I’m not sure if that was an okay idea. Certainly revenue is generated for the city and the province, and these are positive things, but does it do the Beasley community any good? I suppose a majority of the residents didn’t object if they were notified that this establishment was moving in. For many, beer drinking is a satisfactory break from all their worries; as the song says, and I guess it doesn’t really matter where you stick a beer or liquor store. If people are determined to drink, they’ll find a way to get it. Like call up a local cab company and ask them to deliver a case or bottle of something deleterious. That’s a routine I’ve seen some Beasley residents exercise.
As Hamilton is home to the largest miller of dry mustard in the world, Beasley had the honour of hosting the Mustard Festival every Labour Day weekend of early September from 1998 to 2010. This event always drew a crowd of approximately 15, 000 spectators who enjoy good Blues and Jazz music, and real good food.
The downtown core between Main St. East, and King William St., from Mary St. to West Avenue is dubbed Hamilton’s International Village because this is where you’ll find the largest multicultural shopping, dining and entertainment experiences in the city. It is within the International Village where the Mustard Festival used to be held.
As an artist, I think the best cultural aspect of Beasley is that the heart of Hamilton’s artist community exists there. Many visual and performance artists have taken up residences and opened up businesses on James North, inadvertently turning the district into a small and Canadianized Soho or Greenwich Village. Artists who also have shops on James North have created the Art Crawl. Every second Friday of every month, all of Beasley’s and Central’s art and culture venues on James Street North hold open houses, sidewalk sales and public gatherings to promote themselves and Hamilton artists in general. It’s a pleasant experience to walk down James when these stores are open, and everyone is checking out the art scene. Most of the negative stereotypes of Beasley cease to exist at that location. By September each year, the event transforms into Supercrawl.
In 2009, a group of artists and community organizers started Supercrawl. It was their intent to see the monthly Art Crawl include the performance arts, particularly music, in a huge way by literally taking over James North for a three day cultural experience for all.
It is King Street that divides lower Hamilton into north and south, and James that splits the entire city into east and west. Although James North and John Street North are key arteries directly in and out of the downtown core, not much of Beasley is actually part of the downtown core. The core and International Village are the prime foci of the highly successful downtown BIA (Business Improvement Area) association.
Gore Park on the corner of King St. East and James St. South is the bustling heart of all of downtown Hamilton. The closest thing I can compare it to, is a cross between NYC’s Financial District crossed with the east and west external sitting areas of the NY Public Library, and Yonge Street in downtown Toronto all mixed together on a smaller scale. If you have the time, and somehow many do, you could spend hours there just watching the Steeltown do its thing. If you enjoy people-watching, Gore Park is a place to be. Day and night, you will see a wide assortment of people. Just give it time. It always seems most colourful and beautiful to me on sunny summer days.
Gore Park is where a drunken unprovoked homeless man called me a nigger at the top of his lungs, just because he felt like it. This is also where I was approached by a Christian street missionary who told me that I’m, “screwed!” because I openly objected to his accusing Catholics of not really reading the Holy Bible; not following the right path to God. He also called me “The Devil”. I’m not thanking him for saying any of these things but for telling me that he’ll pray for me. I could always use more of that. In fact, he was shouting his promise at me as he stormed off but nevertheless, I’m still praying for you too, mister.
When you read the long and nutty history of this sliver of land, you find that Gore didn’t easily become the park it is today. Throughout the 1800’s, there were territory disputes, arguments about what to do with the strip once it finally left private ownership and became possessed by the city. There was even a time when the citizens, who were almost solely responsible for the land’s preservation, were barred from using it by a city council that suddenly saw value in it due to fixing it up for Hamilton’s first visit by British royalty.
While business is picking up, and encouraged in other parts of Hamilton, especially above the escarpment, the downtown core is still the economic hub of the city. I think that the physical location and setup of Gore Park has something to do with that. The park encourages people to crisscross it to-and-from the various small shops, restaurants, banks and other offices. This is absolutely necessary, as many of the small businesses of Beasley and the BIA actually have to compete with aggressive, popular, big name franchises that have moved into Hamilton’s peripheral big box shopping plazas.
While the HDWC is at the north end of Beasley, the central headquarters for the Hamilton Police Service — formerly the Hamilton Wentworth Regional Police, is nearly at the tip of the south end on King William; a short distance northeast of Gore Park. It too is a big operation. The HPS regards the city through three patrol divisions. Beasley is located deep within Division 1, which is surrounded by Sherman Ave, 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. Beasley occupies the eastern half of Sector 3; also known to the HPS as Down Town. The neighbourhood of Central occupies the western half.
The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics and Statistics Canada keeps track of crime rates in this country. For a large North American city, Hamilton does pretty well at keeping its hostilities down. It’s a prime, well-vocalized reason why some citizens say they are glad to live here. When Ontario crime statistics drop, it’s usually due to a noticeable decrease in criminal activity in Toronto (aka: “The Big Smoke” and “Dodge City North”), Hamilton, Ottawa and St. Catharines-Niagara. Still, if you want to find trouble in the streets of Steeltown, you can find it.
No one will put Beasley in the same light as Tenderloin, San Francisco or Morris Heights, Bronx, NY. Not even close. East of the downtown core is considered by the local authorities and media, however, as having the highest amount of crime related to drugs, prostitution and street gangs. It’s caused some of the residents of the areas to vocalize and editorialize their disgust. Some are disgusted with the crime, some with the perceptions of their neighbourhoods and others with both. Many citizens share the impression that Beasley is the area with the most crime.
Hamilton’s most notorious crack house, to date, used to be in Beasley at 193 King Street East. It was a multi-level apartment building and tavern called the Sandbar, and was the site of two crack cocaine related murders, stabbings and numerous drug charges over a number of years. It had been raided five times by the police. Drugs and guns were seized on most occasions, and drug dealers were busted every time but after each raid, the place was open for business again within days, sometimes within hours. According to the police, this hellhole was run by a New York-Jamaican posse. To posse members, being raided and arrested was just part of business. They were far too prepared and resourceful for what the local constabulary could throw at them. It is fated, however, that all things in this universe eventually come to an end or change into something else.
On March 7, 2006, the Sandbar owner’s $10,000 bank account was surrendered to the Crown as instruments and proceeds of unlawful activity under the Remedies for Organized Crime and Other Unlawful Activities Act (a.k.a.: “Civil Remedies Act”). The property was frozen under provincial civil asset forfeiture legislation, and the Crown took temporary control pending the outcome of forfeiture proceedings. On March 28, the court ordered forfeiture. The Sandbar has since been no more. By chance in 2010, I met a source who told me that since the Province turned the building over to City Council there have been some interested buyers in the property but they ran into unspecified obstacles with the city. Hamilton’s police had begun using the building as a tactical training facility. This seems to have ended now.
December 2008 saw an interesting development in the city’s war on drug subculture. After the Police Chief Brian Mullen presented a report to the Police Services Board on Hamilton’s crack cocaine trade, Mayor Fred Eisenberger suggested the Steeltown’s need for a drug court to Canada’s Justice Minister. At the time, the police had a list of 80 crack addicts who were known for committing multiple crimes to support their drug habits. The chief made reference to a 2005 EnMark Associates study on Hamilton drug addiction which stated that there were more than 6, 600 users who sought treatment for addictions in 2004. Seventeen per cent of those addicts used crack cocaine and 10.5 per cent used regular cocaine as their primary drugs. The HPSB report goes on to say, “The problem for these users was that the available supply of treatment opportunities could not support the growing demand for these services. Residential treatment beds were also found to be under funded and in a critical shortage.”
Also noted by the Chief, who was an advocate for establishing a Hamilton drug court and retired by the end of 2009, was the fact that between 20 and 30 crack houses were operating throughout the city. It was made clear to the HPSB that drug addiction isn’t just an impetus for Hamilton crime but also a severe cultural dilemma that is beyond the scope of the Hamilton Police Service. To date, the drug court has not gotten off of the ground.
In 2009, the HPS stated to the media that averages of eighty different crack houses are in operation at any given time in Hamilton. Most of them were still presumed by many — neighbourhood residents and not, as being in operation in Beasley. They call Beasley “Crack Central” although some crack houses have been raided and shut down in other more modern and affluent suburbs. Of course, drug dealers are not always stationary.
One summer night in 2009, my wife saw a shell of a woman hand over cash to someone in a van for a little plastic bag of something on Wilson St. between Hughson and Mary Streets. When the woman dangled the little baggy in the air as she chatted with the van occupants, a hand shot out of the cab and forcefully pushed her hand down. If you know Beasley’s geography at all, then you also know that this transaction occurred within spitting distance of the central police station.
The future is a topic that I usually favour more than the past or present. So, what of Beasley’s future? Where is this neighbourhood going in X-number of years? Not everything can be measured in order to devise a method of solving problems and determining success but the effort must be made whenever possible. So what is Beasley’s, the city’s or any other concerned faction’s — including my, means of measuring success or failure for Beasley’s future? If there aren’t any means, there probably should be some. If some exist, are they the right ones or even enough?
Poverty has statistically been a major concern for the entire city for literally decades. It is a fact that Beasley has the lion’s share. As poverty is a concern for the neighbourhood, overcoming it must be an objective; likely the top priority. Is anyone measuring or will anyone measure the success of reducing neighbourhood poverty between X-year to Y-year in relation to what resources are being exploited to reduce that burden? While the SPRC does generate specifics for dissenting areas of town like Beasley, the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction (HRPR) and Hamilton Food Share seem to be doing so on behalf of the city at large. Apart from quantifying and strategizing, the latter two factions also seem to be tremendously struggling with leading the fight against poverty, but hey, no one ever said it would be easy. We have to be realistic about this.
It’s really hard to tackle Beasley’s poverty issue as a problem contained to that geographic area. To get on top of the problem across the city, the following issues have to be addressed:
- An insufficient amount of jobs that provide a living wage;
- An insufficient amount of jobs available for citizens with limited education;
- The expense of better education being beyond the reach of many citizens;
- The lack of opportunity to allot adequate time to obtain a better education;
- Learning disorders and social disorders;
- Addictions, compulsions and greater mental illness.
For the first point, there is nowhere in Beasley to establish enough businesses that can overcome that challenge. I can’t leave out the fact that for many years now the city at large has been weak in attracting such investors to any part of Hamilton, let alone Beasley.
The second point relates to the fact that most of the jobs that have come to Hamilton since 2000 cannot be filled by the average citizen. The SPRC reported in 2012 that 16 per cent of Hamilton’s total population of more than 500,000 has not earned any kind of educational certificate diploma or degree. City Council’s Downtown Hamilton Profile report of 2011 indicates 25 per cent of the 8,512 residents only living in the true downtown parts of Beasley, Central, Corktown and Durand are completely uneducated. While these numbers are quite high for these populations, the SPRC says that a colossal 34 per cent of just Beasley’s 5,630 inhabitants totally lack education. That’s 1,914 residents; about 40 per cent more than the average population of most lower Hamilton high schools. Since the year 2000, heavy industry in Hamilton, which might have supported these people has declined substantially. Healthcare is now touted as the city’s largest industry. The average citizen in Beasley doesn’t stand chance at finding a job at that education level.
Point three should be obvious.
I think point four is often overlooked by experts. Citizens who are not subject to the restrictions of the third point because they are holding down one to two fulltime or part-time jobs that may allow them to afford better education, often can’t devote the time to fit in that schooling. Not everything is available as a night course. Many correspondence courses will not get you hired in a job with higher earning power. Many higher education hopefuls are mature students that have to care for children and/or the elderly, and cannot afford to adequately pay someone else to take up those torches while they’re off studying. I believe that for the most part, it will continue to fall on citizens to figure out ways of managing time for education upgrading but I’m hoping that the establishment will also find ways of helping citizens to accomplish their goals in this matter because it is obviously very important for everyone’s future benefit.
The fifth point is largely covered already but I would like to also mention just who it is that makes up the majority of the unemployment rate in this town that directly resonates with Beasley. The Canadian Labour and Business Centre said in their report of February 2005, and relying on Statistics Canada Census data, that recent immigrants in Canada experience higher unemployment than the Canadian-born population. At 66 per cent, language difficulties is the largest barrier that foreign-trained immigrants face in obtaining employment, however, when it comes to being able to speak either of the official languages — English or French, or neither, 89.9% of immigrants and 84.9% of recent immigrants speak English. The vast majority of public and private sector managers and labour leaders consider hiring foreign-trained workers, as a way of addressing skill requirements, as an unimportant objective. Perhaps it’s just as well because recent immigrants to Hamilton have been determined by analysts to have lower levels of education than recent immigrants to Canada overall. On the other hand, one can see how the Hammer can get bogged down with unemployed immigrants who can’t afford to get the education they need, if they want to upgrade themselves.
The last two points are absolutely huge factors affecting the city’s and no doubt Beasley’s poverty crises. This photo essay is ill-equipped to discuss the details but I will most certainly jump on them in other posts of this project. I’ll say this; I presume that just these two last points will significantly affect Beasley’s future for generations to come.
Rundown and potentially unsafe buildings in Beasley are another concern of citizens. Are the proper efforts being made to improve or eliminate the rundowns? Is or will anyone measure the success or failure of property and environment levels from one year to the next? I can happily say that the downtown renewal programs initiated back in 2001 are beginning to show some success despite there being a long way to go.
What is being done to combat Beasley’s real or imagined criminal reputation? In 2009, a source advised me that the HPS was presumed to be understaffed. At any given time, each of the city’s sectors had no more than four marked patrol cars on active duty within them. I can’t verify any of this but if true, this suggests that a neighbourhood with Beasley’s character could possibly benefit by having more officers in cruisers from other sectors. For example, as the neighbourhoods of Durand, Corktown and Stinson — all within Sector 4, are presumed to have lower incidents of crime then perhaps just one cruiser could be taken from Sector 4 to operate in Sector 3. If Beasley is as crime-plagued as many assume, then could such a move be a helpful piece of a larger strategy to improve the neighbourhood? I expect that a proper study would have to be conducted to find out. But maybe more cruisers really aren’t necessary. At that time and since, I’ve personally observed a reasonable volume of “beat cops” and “bicycle cops” patrolling Beasley and Central, in addition to the cruisers. Even though their presence is only noticeable during the daylight hours, I seldom find these uniformed officers on as much active duty in any other neighbourhood of the city.
Here’s the trick with Beasley being perceived as a dangerous neighbourhod, and I’ve brought this up before in the Corktown photo essay. In late 2012, Police Chief Glenn DeCaire presented statistics to the Hamilton Police Services Board’s 2013 budget meeting showing that 10 per cent of Hamiltonians overall felt unsafe in the downtown areas – not just Beasley, 11.7 per cent were undecided and 78.3 per cent expressed complete satisfaction with downtown safety. Additionally, his statistics of policing success and continually falling crime rates, amongst other considerations, actually prompted members of the HPSB to reject the Chief’s request for a 5.25% budget increase for the city’s 1, 500 police officers, services and intentions to hire more cops. At a 2013 Town Hall meeting with the public on his request for a budget increase, the Chief even acknowledged that the success wasn’t even completely due to good police work. His statistics also came from studies that the HPS conducted with other city departments, like the Traffic Operations and Engineering Services that also have direct impact on public safety. The Chief was sent back a couple times to reassess justifications for an increase and come up with budget hike proposals that were more agreeable to the HPSB, and subsequently City Council, for approval.
You can’t say that Beasley doesn’t have problems with crime and safety, it does, but there isn’t any evidence to say that “the hood” is as dangerous as it is feared by many to be. It’s still just a neighbourhood of mostly poor people, not a hoard of hardened criminals on every corner. Reputation and area self-esteem will have to be significant agenda items for the Beasley Neighbourhood Association to seriously tackle well into the future with city officials, and I know that they have already begun working on that.
For any real problems clearly identified in Beasley, is being or will it be continually measured to see if the money and human involvement committed to addressing the issues are successful, static or just not working? I think that if we find ways of doing these things effectively, then Beasley will have a better tomorrow and its reputation will also improve; so will Hamilton’s overall.
There are already some nevertheless, who are quite ready to state that the Beasley of today is not as scary as others make it out to be, and they’re right. I just know, as they realistically do, that while there are some positives to Beasley, it is a hard knock life for the people there (again, no Ghetto Anthem necessary).
Please, don’t forget about Beasley.