Surrounded by the CN Railway tracks north of Barton Street West, James Street North to the east, Main Street West to the south and Queen Street to the west, Central is one of the Hamilton’s original four neighbourhoods; the other three being Beasley, Corktown and Durand.
There really isn’t much to tell, historically, about the neighbourhood. Most of Central’s history is wrapped up in those of the Beasley, Corktown and Durand areas. Presumably transformed from 1700’s agricultural lands and heavily forested wilderness, the neighbourhood seems to have simply started off in the 1800’s as mainly a residential area interspersed with some small office buildings, a few small factories to the north and the city’s financial district in its southern portion. What remains of the original southern part, architecturally, is almost entirely gone due to urban renewal projects, neglect by property owners and a lack of enforcement of property standards. Archived historical aerial photos from the Hamilton Public Library show this clearly but the area’s stature as the seat of the city’s financial district and downtown core has increased and lasted for at least a century.
The HPS (Hamilton Police Services) regards the city through three patrol divisions. Central is located deep 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. Central occupies the western half of the Sector 3; also known to the HPS as Down Town.
In the summer of 2005, I saw two men get into a brief fight in broad daylight on the busy corner of James and King. One hit the sidewalk fast while the other started taking his boots to him. A third man who was with them watched the skirmish with a vacant stare in his eyes, while two women told the fighters to hurry up and get out of there before the police showed up. The whole thing took no more than twenty seconds to transpire before my eyes, and then they all strangely left together as though they were all good buddies and nothing happened.
One of the important ways the HPS appears to control the little crime that does occasionally surface in Central is through a network of closed-circuit television cameras positioned around the city’s downtown core.
Thanks to mad bomber IRA terrorists, England’s citizens got used to the idea of having approximately four million cameras watching everyone’s every move. The first such surveillance system was installed by London Transport in 1961 but by 1996, however, every major city of the UK, except Leeds had CCTV systems in their central areas.
The idea of the Steeltown, which is not rife with guerrillas or even Torontonian trigger-happy thugs, following the UK’s example was enough to get Canada’s Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski expressing his deep concern in 2002 when the Hamilton Police Services Board announced it would be pursuing a two-year pilot project to deploy CCTVs in the downtown area. After being hailed as a huge success, the HPSB and HPS continued the CityCam project which has also become part of the HPS’ contribution to revitalizing the rundown downtown core.
Protecting the Future: A Safety and Security Audit of the Downtown Improvement Project Area; is a 2007 study that was submitted to the Downtown Cleanliness and Security Committee by R.A.L. (Richard A. Loreto) Consulting Limited. This controversial report was written by John Kousik, a consultant who local media said had been a Windsor, ON police chief. He had certainly also held positions as the Assistant Director, Director of Operations and Police Chief of the Montreal Urban Community Police Service. At the time of the evaluation, he had become an associate of the R.A.L. security management consulting firm based in the Mount Hope area; later the east Stoney Creek mountain area.
The report identified 32 residential and lodging home facilities, six emergency shelters, three addiction treatment centres, two halfway houses, a Corrections Canada parolee halfway house and a brain trauma centre all in or within close proximity to the downtown core. City Council was advised to make downtown Hamilton feel safer by sending some of these services for the city’s most vulnerable citizens elsewhere. The report didn’t clearly recommend where to send them or more importantly, what to do about those people who need those services. I can only imagine the core suffering worse than ever if the people who are in desperate need couldn’t get the help they’ve already come to depend on being there. Public deliberation of the report began in January of 2008.
One of the 66 recommendations of the evaluation that would certainly affect the James and King intersection was to discourage street people and panhandlers by getting rid of the grass in Gore Park. Until January 2011, this public park; fully intended to be a place where people can peaceably assemble, was a transit hub that is part of the Beasley neighbourhood, and located beside Central. Some wisely felt that this recommendation needed more consideration but the suggestion to expand the HPS’ CityCam CCTV operation to all of downtown was an idea that many quickly warmed up to.
It’s fascinating to me that Canada, by and large, was a major opponent to totalitarian control and monitoring of citizenry right up until the early 90’s but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of us have become accepting of governmental surveillance of our streets in order to feel secure. George Orwell warned that this sort of thing could happen. Apparently, while we’ve always known all the reasons to not allow governmental surveillance of our streets, we are also discovering legitimate reasons for it, and delicately trying to make decisions to control the immediate risks in the hope that our choices won’t result in future abuses or erasures of too many of our fundamental rights and freedoms.
Another recommendation from that report was to change the downtown core patrol officers’ schedules in order to put more beat cops on the street at high activity times. I recall the police presence in the downtown core as always being noticeable but it did seem to me that police activity, at least at the James and King intersection, had increased during the hours between 3pm and 6pm beginning in 2008.
In the summer of 2008 I watched and photographed as a mountain bike riding police officer question what might have been a vagrant sitting on a park bench at the corner of King and James. The man had been drinking from a colossal bottle of wine, right there in front of Jackson Square. This is not an outdoor restaurant patio, so such public drinking is an offence in these parts. The man tried to keep his bottle concealed in a big fancy shopping bag but it was no use. The police probably saw everything from the CCTV camera attached to the street and traffic light standard on the southwest corner of King and James; directly across the street from where this occurred. That camera, I know, can be trained directly on the bus stop and park benches of the northwest corner of this intersection. The officer drained the bottle into a nearby garbage can, wrote up a report and moved on. The corrected pedestrian and his companion, who had not been drinking, also vacated the area shortly afterward.
A little more than a year later, I observed another cyclist police officer writing a different man a $90.00 ticket for drinking a can of beer in the exact same spot. Unfortunately, on this occasion, I did not have my camera with me. Immediately after the cop left, the man tore up the ticket and pulled out another can that he had hidden in his coat pocket. He popped the tab and started drinking on site. A young man and possibly his girlfriend who also watched from nearby sat down beside the offender and shared a hearty laugh at the law. The old man handed the can to the younger guy who happily took a gulp before getting up to board the bus that arrived.
An onlooker waiting for the bus, never met him before, approached me and asked in his disgust, “Can you believe that?”
People trying to get away with what they know they shouldn’t, and being obnoxious about it is a part of the human condition that comes as no surprise to me. So I said, “Yeah . . . I can!”
A minute later, the same police officer returned with another cop while the man on the bench had the can to his head. What may have happened was that the police officers who occasionally watch those cameras throughout the core (the HPS advise that the CCTV network seldom has live operators watching the live recordings) alerted the cop on his cycling beat that the public drinker had shredded the ticket—which of course is illegal by itself, and began sucking back another can. The recidivist was immediately arrested and taken away. I should add that he was no longer laughing.
A couple weeks after that episode, an inebriated man—looking to be in his mid-twenties, approached me and some other stranger at that same corner, trying to sell us a single bus ticket for $2.00. At the time, the Hamilton Street Railway’s actual cost for a ticket was $1.85 each. No sale for him I’m afraid. With heavily slurred speech he said, “I don’t know how you people can stand living in Hamilton!” He stumbled back a step and then forward again, looked straight at me and asked point-blank, “Do you really like living in this fuckin’ place?”
I said, “Yes.”
“It’s gross!” he said. Absolutely disgusted with me, the poor soul just shook his head and staggered off.
Four days before Christmas 2009, I’m back at the corner of King and James. Some five-foot-nothing, unkempt, barely able to stand and gangly girl came out of nowhere approaching nearly everyone in sight with, “Did you steal my drugs? Do you have my drugs? I think someone stole my drugs.” It was blatantly obvious that this girl was a hardcore addict. I felt so awful for her. She asked a lady near me, “Have you seen my drugs?”
With a shake of her head, “I don’t touch the shit!” was the woman’s blunt reply.
As the girl awkwardly walked away from the corner, I overheard another woman say, “I can’t understand how people let themselves get that way!”
Now, I mentioned panhandlers above. Yes, there are plenty of broad daylight hustlers in Central; throughout the entire core in fact, and in their greatest concentrations along King Street. Some are quite persistent. They’ll ask you for “spare change” one day, and even if you don’t give them anything, they’ll ask you again the next day. Some will beg from you again within the next two hours of the same day if you pass them twice in your travels in as much time.
I really feel for some of these panhandlers as it’s obvious that some have learning and social disabilities so severe that there’s no way they’d be able to hold down a job in this society. That’s if they even get hired because some of them don’t have the look that many employers feel comfortable having around themselves. I fear these people are destined to be forever destitute in this first world nation. They are not the archetype of poverty in Hamilton but they’re definitely the stereotype. Then, there are those panhandlers who appear to be capable of doing something constructive but simply won’t.
You see some panhandlers getting ticketed by the police under provincial law, even though it’s clear that those penalized will never be able to pay the fine (the word on the street is that $65.00 for soliciting seems to be the average penalty issued). Maybe it would be better to point them in the direction of a Salvation Army or somewhere else they might be able to find food, shelter and maybe something more they could really use if they really want it.
Are there aggressive panhandlers in Hamilton? Not in my understanding of the word “aggressive”. When I hear the term “aggressive panhandlers” I think of those that I’ve heard about and actually seen under the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto. Some of them are known to have actually pushed, shoved, and stricken Torontonians; even citizens who gave the spongers exactly what they wanted.
Oh yes, there was also that high-profile tragedy in which several Toronto “street kids” mobbed two men at an ATM on Queen Street West just past midnight on August 9, 2007. In the attack, 21-year old panhandler Nicole Kish; who had asked 32-year old Ross Hammond for $20 from his bank account, stabbed the man four times after his friend fled the melee. To be clear, that murder really wasn’t so much the result of aggressive panhandling as it was the panhandler’s impulsive, reckless and angered reaction to being dismissed by her victims in a highly insulting manner when she had asked for the money.
I don’t hear of such reports in Hamilton; the occasional mugging in other parts of town by actual thugs sure but not aggressive panhandling. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, it means that it doesn’t seem likely. In this town, panhandlers are sometimes ignorable and sometimes forgivable. For most, they’re a nuisance but only very rarely do they become a real hassle.
My worst experience with a Hamilton panhandler is when, and this was only one time, a guy approached asking for “spare change”. I refused, and did so politely. When I went to continue on my way, he stood in my path in a pressing and persistent manner and demanded, “C’mon, you’ve gotta give me something!” That was his crucial mistake. “Gotta?” I don’t think so. I have no problem giving to the needy when I’m in the position to do so, but his behaviour rubbed me the wrong way. He left me no choice but to set him straight.
There was no scuffle. No one laid a finger on anyone. Neither he nor I brandished weapons, and not a single threat was uttered. There certainly was, nevertheless, some brief and creative dialogue between us. You see some of these men and women all the time on the streets but I’ve never seen this particular guy again. This is Steeltown; the Hammer. Don’t try stuff like that around here.
There’s a genuinely blind man that I’ve seen for years throughout the core, especially in Central. I know that many citizens have seen him, and will know exactly to whom I’m referring. I don’t know if he has a permit to busk in this city, and I really don’t care. I’ve never been crazy about accordion music but when I step by him and hear how beautifully he plays “How Great Thou Art” I have to give him something. In my mind, this is not a panhandler. He’s a talented individual, an artist, who works honestly for a living; a real Hamiltonian.
My mentioning eyewitness occurrences of unfortunate despair in the streets may only help to encourage the notion that Hamilton is a wasted town. In March of 2010, while shooting the brick-pile; all that’s left of the demolished old Century Theatre of Beasley, I was approached by a man named Keith (no last name given) who claimed to be a property manager in the area. According to him, all of the aforementioned despair is why there are many people, who have lived on the escarpment for ten years or more, who have refused to venture into the downtown areas in as much time. “It’s a situation of, ‘Not in my backyard’”, he said in explaining that people don’t want to have to deal with or merely see the disaffected. Purporting to be a bit of a Hamilton history buff and having been somewhat involved with local politics, Keith suggested that fuel was added to the fire when the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital (HPH) was closed in 2000.
The HPH, which used to be often referred to as the OH (Ontario Hospital), existed on the mountain for decades on the northwest corner of West 5th Street and Fennell Avenue East. It was the replacement for the original OH; the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane, which existed from 1876 to 1956. The old OH and the HPH took care of Ontario’s mentally ill, and treated many people suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction. The provincial government closed the HPH in 2000 and transferred authority of the facility to St. Joseph’s Healthcare System. The facility was renamed the Centre for Mountain Health Services, and then the St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, West 5th Campus.
Many of the outpatients, including the drug addicts and high-risk alcoholics (high-risk meaning that mental illness or psychological and sociological disorders are key factors to their substance abuse) were transferred to special housing and treatment units in and around the downtown core while planning got underway for the rebuild of the West 5th Campus. According to Keith, these hospices are required to clear out their occupants by 6am each day. You see many hold up outside the drug treatment clinics around the core by 6:30am, waiting for the clinics to open by 7:30am and 8:00am.
After their sessions at a clinic and spending time being chummy with others in their boat, a bunch will spend hours trying to connect with family members, report to probation officers and other social workers, and some will even seek work through temporary employment agencies. These occupants are still under a curfew to return to the shelters by 9pm. This almost daily routine is said, by Keith, to be why the volume of panhandlers, vagrants, outpatients and loiterers appears to be at its peak in the downtown core between 2pm and 6pm. This weekday trend was also of note in the 2007 report by R.A.L. Consulting Limited.
In reality, nevertheless, the perception that Hamilton is a rundown town due to the presence of the less fortunate is a misconception. It’s neither true for all of Hamilton nor for Central (I have mentioned some of Central’s far more endearing qualities above). If it were true, most of my photos about Central or the city at large would wind up depicting these conditions. This has not happened, and as much as I’m for promoting this city I’m not afraid to acknowledge some of its more controversial aspects.
Yes, you’re probably more likely to see such public human degradation in certain lower Hamilton neighbourhoods than any on the mountain but most of these neighbourhoods below the escarpment have very little squalor, if any. Even in Central, if you pay attention, you’ll find that the loiterers, con artists, taggers, drunks, addicts, mental outpatients, panhandlers and homeless are very much the minority. They only seem to be prevalent because they stand out so much with their behaviours and appearances that observers easily forget to recognize that the vast majority of citizens are going about shopping, working, banking, conversing, texting, etcetera right in the same space and time. They’re doing and being all the things that a presumably well adjusted member of society is expected to do and be.
In the efforts to revitalize the downtown core, Police Chief Glenn De Caire began deploying 40 uniformed officers in the core and revolving to other lower Hamilton areas in May of 2010. These “Frontline officers”, many of them on mountain bikes and on foot were tasked with spotting and curbing the social activities that have been associated with the low morale of these parts of lower Hamilton.
Despite continuing efforts by the HPSB and the rest of City Council, there has yet to be a total cessation of drunks, panhandlers and aimless but usually non-threatening adolescents loitering on the Central neighbourhood side of King and James—where there isn’t any green grass, on a nearly daily basis. Revitalization of the entire downtown area can’t be an easy job. After all, it consists of most of the oldest, poorest and most neglected neighbourhoods in the city. Central does not look like a slum but parts of it do still need some housekeeping.
Hamiltonians don’t pretend to be perfect. We know when and where there is need for improvement but we don’t simply suck it up and live with our flaws. Many of us actually do strive to improve ourselves. Good points and bad points, Central is still an important part of this city; home sweet home.
Finding Our Way
As with most things, you only get what you give. If Central or this entire city, for that matter, is to improve it simply requires citizens to honestly care enough about the place and its people to actually initiate that improvement; even if it’s only small things that we do, and we all need help from time-to-time.
In October of 2008, while waiting for my wife to come around with our car and pick me up downtown, a blind woman with a seeing-eye dog walked by me on King Street. I recognized that her guide dog seemed to be confused about where to lead the woman. I couldn’t quite make out what the lady was saying to her dog but it seemed that she was gently asking her dog to remember and be sure of where to go, while trying to reassure the animal that she was grateful that her partner was trying his or her best to lead the way. I watched the pair stop beside a Canada Post truck, and the woman tested the edge of the curb with a few sweeps of a foot and her cane. I noticed that she realized that her face came mere inches away from the side of the parked truck by hearing her own voice rebound off the vehicle’s metal body and back to her. They moved on.
They next repeated their error by the side of a parked SUV, then a car, another truck, another car and then walked further. I felt so stupid just standing there watching them try to get to where they were going when I could have helped. From all the stories I had heard of and personally witnessed of people trying to do right by a stranger, only to get burned for it in the end, I cynically convinced myself that if I was to try to offer help, then I too might wind up penalized for trying to be some kind of self-righteous nuisance.
The woman and her dog stepped into a driveway to an underground Jackson Square Mall parkade. A car pulled in from the busy downtown street just then and was forced to halt there halfway off the road while the woman and her befuddled companion tried to figure out where to go next. I took one step to go to their aid and then saw another citizen who was observing the situation quickly get involved. Still a coward, I held back to let this woman help the blind lady while I just stood there disgusted with myself.
The struggling pair was helped to the other side of the parkade entrance and out of harms way. The woman who helped began walking towards my direction while periodically stopping to look back to see if the confused pair were alright. They clearly weren’t.
I’m not usually so apprehensive in these types of situations! I thought to myself that I should be as thoughtful. That could be me in that predicament someday. Smarten up and do something useful! I walked up to the lady who momentarily assisted the blind woman and asked her if the blind lady needed help. A stupid question as I already knew the answer but this lady told me that she thought the blind woman had said she wanted to cross at the intersection of King and MacNab.
Finally coming to the rest of my senses, I caught up to the blind woman and her dog just as they were making it to the proper intersection. Worried that I may frighten her, I stayed back several feet and asked the woman if I could help. She told me exactly where she wanted to cross, that she needed to catch a Barton (Street) bus, and that there was supposed to be a lamppost there with a small metal box. She was spot-on and didn’t know it. She passed her familiar point by only a few feet. I wrapped a hand on the top of the metal electrical fuse and traffic light switch panel for her to hear, and watched her head suddenly turn and lock face-on with the box where she was receiving the sound from. Her face lit up like a kid in a candy store. I said something like, “You’ve made it. You’re exactly where you need to be.”
The walking signal illuminated and I told the woman that it was safe to cross. My wife was coming about just then, and I had to quickly get into the car before the traffic started up again and we became a hindrance to other drivers. I could see a Barton bus parked at the MacNab St. bus terminal and I told the woman that if she just walked about 200 to 300 feet, she may catch her ride. She thanked me graciously and we parted. That’s the first and last time I ever saw her. I’m grateful to the woman who helped the blind lady. Through her actions, she motivated me back to my much more responsive self again.
It is far more consideration and conduct like this that Central needs, that all of Hamilton needs, in order to move into better straits.
I’m not inclined to put King and James on par with New York’s Times Square but I wonder if there are any valuable lessons that Hamilton can learn from the latter’s transformation. Hamilton is a small country town in comparison to “The Big Apple” but I think there is some value in observing the mistakes and successes of major world cities like NYC. The accomplishment of establishing a clean and modern Times Square is due to the efforts of three mayoralties; those of Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.
Up until the mid-90’s, Times Square was considered a magnet for crime, seamy sex shops, peep shows and drug addicts who shot heroine into their veins in plain sight.
In 1980, Koch and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) cooperated to use eminent domain in order to launch an aggressive and ambitious urban redevelopment of the West 42nd Street and Times Square district. The project required soliciting interested public agencies and private developers that were approved officially by NYC and 42nd Street Development Project, Inc. (42DP), a wholly-owned subsidiary corporation of the ESDC, to carry out the plan (the Project Plan). The plan itself, of course, was approved by 42DP and the NYC Board of Estimate. Here’s a summary of how it all went down with a comparison to the hub of the Downtown Hamilton Business Improvement Area (BIA):
- Decrepit buildings of Times Square and West 42nd Street were taken control of and condemned. There have been poorly maintained buildings in Hamilton’s Central and Beasley neighbourhoods that have desperately needed to be usurped by the city for either renovation or demolishing and some have met that ultimate fate by collapsing on their own, fortunately without endangering the lives of residents or homeless squatters inside.
- Under Dinkins and Giuliani, rezoning laws were passed after a study was submitted and reviewed showing that the sex industry was clearly harming, initially, residential areas of Queens near the Queensboro Bridge and, potentially, the West 42nd Street and Times Square area. The sex trade has never really been a major problem for Hamilton’s King and James district. King Street East, and actually part of the Beasley neighbourhood, has had only one seemingly very quiet adult cinema for many years. The only strip club in the downtown district, Maxim’s of 95 King East (formerly Bannister’s, a dive that was raided in 1989 for being part of Hamilton’s cocaine market; it also became the subject of a 1993 arson investigation), was purchased by City Council in 2008 and converted into public housing.
- Disney obtained a low-interest loan from NYC to renovate the New Amsterdam Theater on West 42nd Street. Called “the crown jewel of the new Times Square” by some, the updated theater soon attracted world renown entertainment businesses to the revitalized district such as Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, MTV Studios, ESPN and other media companies. In contrast Hamilton accomplished, in and since the 90’s, the opening of a King Street Bingo gaming centre. The core’s bingo hall; technically in Beasley, is even seen by some Hamiltonians as a significant threat to the mental, social and financial wellbeing of many downtown residents who suffer from addictions and compulsions.
The first time my wife and I saw Times Square was in late 2002 just after much of the transformation had been completed and Michael Bloomberg had taken over as NYC’s mayor plus what was left to do of the Project Plan. We even saw “The Lion King” play at the Amsterdam Theatre. It was hard to imagine that district was ever the den of iniquity it actually had been in the previous two decades. We couldn’t understand why downtown Hamilton, beyond being very short on capital, couldn’t get over its own longstanding image problem which has always been far less severe than what Times Square is known to have had. After seeing what I’ve seen in NYC, I can only see great potential for Hamilton’s core.
Of course, if downtown Hamilton were to embark on a revitalization project as grand as the one for Times Square, the city would have to be very mindful in this day and age of adhering to the new proprieties of urban planning. Take Toronto’s Younge-Dundas Square revitalization as an example. Like Hamilton, this area was not nearly as rundown as Times Square once was but it needed some fixing up.
Beginning in 1998, as part of Toronto’s Yonge Street Regeneration Project, their City Council expropriated and demolished a city block of rundown commercial buildings near Younge and Dundas Streets to begin construction of the square. The square had its grand opening by 2003 and instantly became used for popular cultural events. The massive nearby Eaton’s Centre was redeveloped, a new cinema complex was added and a modern venue to house three major television stations; one being Citytv, was erected. Texas-based Clear Channel Communication’s version of Times Square’s JumboTrons were introduced along with many more features and attractions. Although this project has proven to be a profound commercial and cultural success for Toronto, there have been some legitimate criticisms that Hamilton or any city looking to modernize should keep in mind:
- A lot of contemporary and attractive buildings were erected when downtown Toronto’s green space could have and probably should have been expanded. Gore Park is actually part of Beasley, the park just abuts Hamilton’s Central neighbourhood. It’s not likely that any of the existing buildings will ever be expropriated for the sake of creating more green space. If that were the case, I think one option might be to introduce more contemporary architecture that have gardens, parks and other green spaces infused, like on the roofs or in courtyards of broad facilities of no more than four floors in elevation. In 2012; nevertheless, $65,000 was spent on a Gore Park Revitalization pilot project to make the space more pedestrian-friendly, safe both night and day and maintaining Victorian era park aesthetics and local heritage. Municipal heritage, however, became at stake as the city’s most prominent commercial real estate firm had already begun its quest to demolish a number of Victorian era buildings on the southern edge of the park that same year. The intent was to build a new condominium in their places featuring a grocery store and a multi-level parkade (no infused green space).
- Although Toronto’s original intent was to create a contemporary social gathering and recreational place for the public, it seems to have become a place to be exploited by already thriving conglomerates instead. As Central has always maintained the financial district for all of Hamilton, it doesn’t seem practicable to strip that away from the downtown core. If the success of the rural and escarpment shopping and business centers ever do prove to be downtown Hamilton’s undoing, the City should probably have a plan to quickly adapt the core to a people-friendly standard so that it doesn’t become a typical inner-city wasteland.
- I really like Time Square’s and 42nd Street’s bright, enormous and attention-getting street ads but advertising in Younge-Dundas Square has proven to be overwhelming for Torontonians who want more subtlety and less pressure from North America’s “buy more, buy now and get sexy” commercialism. Urban advertising in Hamilton’s core has never been grandiose or overly in-your-face (graffiti has long been seen as the prime despoiler of the city), and I suspect that most Hamiltonian’s who live or work in the area would prefer to keep it that way.
By late 2012, the Province of Ontario began considering locations around The Golden Horseshoe where the establishment of a casino might be possible. That is, something far more substantial than the bingo hall. The downtown areas of Hamilton and Burlington became contenders. While City Council considered the studies of the Provincial government, representatives of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association, Downtown Hamilton Mosque, The Commons Church Community and Living Rock Ministries composed a letter that was sent to Ward 2 Councilor Jason Farr expressing their opposition to any potential plans to establish a casino anywhere in the downtown area. Their argument was that since the living conditions in the core neighbourhoods were still economically disadvantaged; particularly that of Beasley (a Statistics Canada Code Red neighbourhood in which many residents struggle against poverty and are at higher risk for addictions and compulsions), they feared that the efforts to improve the livability of the core under the preferred Downtown Secondary Plan would quickly and irreparably derail in the presence of a casino.
Slightly before these representatives of Beasley forwarded their concerns, opposition to the prospect of a casino being set in the core had come from Hamilton’s periphery. The owners of Flamboro Downs; a Half-mile horse racetrack located in the constituent community of Flamborough, legitimately feared that a provincially endorsed casino would detract a tremendous amount of business away from their rural $4.5 million per annum operation, and cost many jobs.
While the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s (OLG’s) lease with Flamboro Downs was ending by March of 2013, Hamilton councillors wanted the OLG to look into extending its lease at Flamboro Downs until the city could hold a referendum during the 2014 municipal election. Despite a flurry of public forums on the matter, in which there was a perception of only a slight majority against establishing a casino anywhere, Councillors wanted hard facts as to whether residents wanted a casino or not.
Hamilton overall is a big North American city that still has a fair amount of small town appeal, and many citizens want to maintain that nuance. It’s a question of, at what cost can it be sustained?
The Business District
Today, as is the case with Beasley, many of the small businesses of Central are forced to compete with major label US-origin franchises that continue to open up in big box shopping plazas of the escarpment’s sprawling suburbs. Even Central’s largest and well-established Lloyd D. Jackson Square Mall has to contend with the trendy features of those other shopping sites. Popular features include:
- Easier access to parking;
- No parking fees;
- No vagrants;
- No publicly intoxicated panhandlers;
- No thugs who carouse in front of store entrances and get into loud vulgar arguments, beatings and stabbings — even though those are rare for Central;
- Cleaner and brighter interiors and exteriors;
- Modern stores and restaurants with larger spaces;
- Slightly greater product variety — I’ve shopped in the peripheral stores and they often don’t have what I’m looking for;
- Slightly better customer service and cheaper commodities — Wal-Mart is all over suburban and rural Hamilton now; as well as
- Impressive popular entertainment spots like the Silver City cinemas — although the cost of going to these places has become prohibitive for smart people who need to budget.
Although Central still helps to hold the city’s economic hub in the downtown core, this neighbourhood has a lot to fight for.
We The People
Hamilton is a city like most others in North America, in which its citizens of diverse backgrounds are still trying to refine relations between each other. There are successes and there are failures, and both certainly show in Central.
In the spring of 2006, I entered the Jackson Square Mall one afternoon and witnessed a fleeting but certainly hostile racial altercation. I was on my way to the gym. I saw five black girls – I’m guessing they were all around the age of 16 years old, walking down one side of a hall. They were loud, obnoxious, obviously well aware of their rudeness and clearly proud of it as they sauntered shoulder-to-shoulder, taking up so much of the hallway that many people had to divert their paths excessively just to go around them.
An elderly white woman who was walking toward the direction that the girls were coming from was unable to give these supposedly regal juveniles their treading space and she politely, though timidly, said excuse me to the lot so that she could get by. Instantly, the girls took set on the woman with vulgar verbal abuses in public. I heard one shout out, “I don’t have to move for you! Who do you think you are? Slavery days are over, bitch!” and she marched on with her friends cackling boisterously.
The lady was clearly beside herself. Unable to say a word against her ill-treatment, she watched the girls trek on down the hall and disappear around a corner to an adjacent hall.
The girls never laid a hand on the lady but I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken much for the spectacle to become a truly violent and tragic event. From start to finish, that mess also took place in mere seconds, and then the world just went on rotating on its axes afterward.
In my mind, the AGH (Art Gallery of Hamilton) is one of the most interesting cultural aspects of Central. The architectural recladding project that took place between 2003 and 2005 did much to remind citizens that one of southern Ontario’s largest galleries is in their own town. I’m really glad for this. The drawback, I find, is that it didn’t reduce the gallery’s reputation of being a snob’s paradise in the minds of some Hamiltonians.
Hamilton’s Gay Pride Parade and festivities, if finances permit, occurs in June. It certainly adds plenty of colour to the streets, and draws in out-of-towners. This event is an important follow up to the National Day Against Homophobia of May 17.
My wife and I went to watch the 2006 Pride Parade. Somehow we missed the incident when dozens of men, said to have been celebrating a victory for Portugal in a World Cup Soccer match, came out of a bar only to verbally abuse and assault some of the parade revelers.
The HPFI (Hamilton Pride Festival Inc.), on the other hand, did take some reverse discrimination flak from some citizens for their excluding representatives, LGBTQ or not, of Canada’s military from participating in HPFI’s 2008 parade because some members of the local gay community saw Canada’s military as an aggressive oppressor to gay rights and personal freedoms. Many of the heterosexual population saw the decision has highly hypocritical of the LGBTQ community that has fought for years for equality.
While there have been serious cases of harassment and discrimination against gay men and women who serve Canada, and it had to take a 1992 federal government decision to allow homosexuals to serve openly in our armed forces, the military did, proactively in 2005, implement an official policy directing its military chaplains to solemnize marriages for gay or lesbian military personnel (Canada’s first gay military wedding occurred on an airbase in Nova Scotia – officiated by the base’s Anglican chaplain, some time shortly after the federal government’s same-sex marriage bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons in May 2005).
I want to say at this point, that we shouldn’t kid ourselves either. While tolerance appears to have increased since 2000, homophobia remains pervasive in Canadian heterosexual society overall, not just the military.
It is said that the military was also excluded out of concern for any parade watchers and participants who came from countries where the Canadian military had controversial missions, namely Afghanistan. It was feared that the presence of military personnel or vehicles may offend those onlookers. Many citizens didn’t accept HPFI’s justifications.
It should be noted that some members of the LGBTQ community also spoke out against the decision, claiming that it was not made in the best interest of the LGBTQ community. The exclusion of the military from Hamilton’s Pride parade in ’08, after being allowed to participate in previous years, was taken as a slap in the face as Canadian soldiers, LGBTQ or not, were actively and proudly serving and dying in Afghanistan for both Afghan and Canadian rights and freedoms.
The Hamilton MardiGras Carnival is another summertime cultural event that begins with an authentic Caribbean style parade that either dances its way up James Street between Central and Beasley or straight up Bay Street through Central (the same routes used for Hamilton Pride Day). If you like France’s, Rio’s, New Orleans’ and Toronto’s versions of celebrating Mardi Gras, then you have got to see Hamilton’s.
One week after Toronto has Caribana, a bigger version held in August, the carnival is held in the Steeltown, again provided there is sufficient funding. Many of the people that help to put on Caribana participate in the organizing and setup of Hamilton’s carnival. Although it’s smaller in scale it’s no slouch, and some of the best street photos I ever take are during the parade. More colour is added to the city, and plenty of out-of-towners drop in. The event itself also draws in spectators and party people from both cities and localities in between.
Although some people feel it’s a “black thing”, this Carnival is actually open to anyone of any colour, ethnicity or whatever. Some who aren’t black or even Caribbean by birth that have realized that they are welcome to join in, and are not afraid to reach out to neighbours whose differences are only skin-deep, partake in the affair and have a great time. It doesn’t matter what you are, what you look like, who you are or where you’re from, everyone gets to literally dance and sing in the streets.
Yes, unlike Toronto’s parade, spectators are still welcome to physically become part of the procession. The city has not yet resorted to holding people back on the sidelines with 8-foot high fences, or any fences at all. The parade alone is a lot of fun but it terminates in Bayfront Park of Hamilton’s North End West Neighbourhood. That’s where the main festivities begin and are held for an entire weekend.
Demographically, Central is diverse and mainly Caucasian. There are places around the city where Italian-Canadians are concentrated but a portion of James St. North known as Jamesville, probably has the largest group. Such neighbourhoods are typically called “Little Italy’s” in North America but this Jamesville population has been dubbed “Little Racalmuto” because most of the Italo-Canadians there are said to be descended from immigrants from the Sicilian town of Racamulto. Inadvertently, Racamulto officially became a sister city of Hamilton in 1986. “Little Racamulto” today is heavily populated by Italian and Portuguese residents and entrepreneurs.
In consideration of sports and “Little Racamulto”, is Hamilton a soccer town? The short answer is YES! There are enough fans of European origin and descent, just from Central, to make it so. I don’t think anyone in this place has bigger soccer fever than our large Italian population. Just advancing into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Euro tournament is enough to get the Italians into the streets with large flags, honking car horns, cheers, singing and dancing. Should they win either the Euro or FIFA cups, all the city can do is reroute all automobile traffic away from James St. North for hours and hours. They seem to have inadvertently kicked off a tradition in which most nationalistic supporters of any team that wins the Euro or FIFA cups will converge mainly onto James Street to make a lot of noise (perhaps trying to out-celebrate the Italians and rub their successes in the noses of the Sicilians).
A “Chinatown” is a neighborhood, consisting mainly of Southeast Asian and Malay Archipelago immigrants and descendants of culturally and stereotypically isolationist mindset and behaviour, within any city that isn’t located within the actual nation of China. I’ve read and heard here-and-there that Hamilton has a “Chinatown”. I can’t agree with this notion. A seemingly densely packed Southeast Asian business community has been slowly growing in Central; in the northern part of “Little Racamulto”, for many years but it’s still very small and not so much an ethnic enclave as some may assume. Hamilton’s Southeast Asian immigrants and descendants comprise only four per cent or 20,200 inhabitants of the municipal population. They appear to have always been spread out pretty evenly across the entire city.
Of course, Central shares the “Art Crawl” with Beasley on the second Friday of every month. That is a major cultural plus for either neighbourhood. Where would I like to see the “Crawl” go? I’d like for it to become so popular that all of James Street, from King William to Barton, has to be closed down to automobile traffic, from 3pm to 10pm, every time the event occurs. Just like when there are World Cup Soccer triumphs.
Central is an interesting area architecturally. It holds an abundance of old Victorian row-houses. Many of Hamilton’s earliest white settlers were United Empire Loyalists who were granted land by the British after the American Revolution. Most of them came from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. This is probably why much of the old architecture of the city resembles that of the northeastern US. This neighbourhood also has the city’s greatest concentration of skyscrapers. Hamilton’s first skyscraper, the Pigott Building, is right on Central’s southeast corner.
Unfortunately, Central shares Beasley’s handicap of having a plethora improperly maintained and derelict buildings which occupy spaces on arteries, for many years, as eyesores. This is a clear-cut hindrance to the city’s efforts to revitalize its downtown core.
The northernmost portion of Central, nearly got a facelift. In the fall of 2009, the “Toronto/Golden Horseshoe Bid” for the 2015 Pan-Am Games was won, ensuring long-awaited opportunity and finance to Hamilton for refining downtown infrastructure and erecting a new multi-purpose sports stadium, international-calibre velodrome and 50 meter swimming pool, and launching the city’s reputation as a partner in Canada’s new era of sports leadership.
The target locations for these facilities were the lands between Bay and Queen Streets, and Barton and Stuart Streets. This approximately 70,000sqm (753,500sqft) area is known as the Tiffany Block to City Council because Tiffany Street is just east of the center of this district. The area of century old and rundown looking warehouses, garages, scrap yards and modest homes sits right beside the CN Marshalling Yard. Once these properties were obtained by the city and the new sports venues and grounds had been completed, Central would have looked like, at least, 1.4 billion bucks.
By the time of the Pan American Games, most of the GTHA (Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area) Regional Transit Plan might have been completed with an LRT (Light Rail Transit) station that might have been set up on Caroline or Hess Streets, enabling spectators to visit the city by landing within a 10-minute walk of the Pan-Am Stadium. It was, without a doubt, destined to be a huge transformation for this neighbourhood.
After the Pan-Am Games, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats CFL team was set to move into the newly built 15,000 seat arena. The Pan-AM Stadium was expected to then expand to 25,000 or 28,000 seats. The 34,500 seat but seriously aged Ivor Wynne Stadium, which has been the Ti-Cats’ home for approximately half-a-century, would have been left behind in Hamilton’s Stipley neighbourhood a few kilometers to the east.
Between 2009 and January 2011, the public endured a flurry of arguments between City Councillors and Ti-Cat administrators about where the games facilities, especially the stadium, was really to be built and what would be the fate of the Ti-Cats if their demands weren’t met. Eventually Ivor Wynn was slated for upgrading, and it became unlikely that any part of the hard-won “Toronto/Golden Horseshoe Bid” would change the face of Central Hamilton.
In the end:
- The old stadium was completely demolished for the construction of the new stadium in Stipley where the soccer games were slated to be held;
- The Town of Milton’s got the velodrome that would host the track cycling competition of the Pan-AM Games;
- An aquatics centre featuring two internationally sanctioned 10-lane, 50-metre pools went to Toronto’s York University and Toronto Scarborough Campuses;
- York University’s stadium went on to host the other athletics competitions; and
- The municipal and provincial government were unable to get that LRT project started on time.
Yes, it seems the entire city totally lost a lot of opportunity but could Hamilton really have afforded the expense?
What Tomorrow May Bring
So where does this place go from here? From all of my wandering around, talking and listening to people, learning viewpoints, researching and photographing this city, I can see a bright future for Central Hamilton. The area will have to; however, overcome the considerable aforementioned challenges to get there.
Apparently much of the industrial lands of the Tiffany Block are actually owned by US Steel/Canada (since purchasing the former steel giant Stelco which was the original land owner). I’d like to see some agreement be established between US Steel and the city to clean up and modernize the district. I don’t know how likely that’s going to happen. I don’t have much faith in it, and even less that US Steel will revitalize the area on its own.
Back in 2005, the city completed its Secondary Planning Process for the West Harbour area which could have some positive revitalization for Central and the western portion of the North End neighbourhoods. By the end of 2012, the West Harbour Secondary Plan was approved by the Ontario Municipal Board for residential, commercial and recreational improvements. So, there is indeed some forward thinking and action going on.
Now, action on the West Harbour Secondary Plan is geared to making Central and neighbouring areas more vibrant for at least the residents but not everything is about aesthetics. For any Hamiltonians who may read this photo essay, I think there is something that should be considered about Central’s future, and even that of the city at large. People who live in lower Hamilton basically have two very legitimate concerns:
- City Council continues to encourage major new business and growth for the mountain and rural areas which creates sprawl and diverts economic potential away from the urban core; and
- The neighbourhoods of the core have lost too much heritage architecture and public space since the 1960s, sending traditionalists scrambling to save what’s left by invoking site declarations under the Ontario Heritage Act.
The city desperately needs more business but those modern businesses will not be able to function in either the 19th or 20th century edifices that exist in the core. So, those enterprises will not move in from out of town. The only places left for the city to make attractive to new businesses are on the mountain suburbs that border on the periphery. While the city undertakes the downtown revitalization plans which really don’t do much to encourage business development in the core, how is City Council or we citizens going to ensure that sustainable jobs, affordable housing, public services and economic prosperity will stay in the core where many will continue to live?
It’s important to contemplate this question realistically for the future as this is where approximately one third of area residents are unemployed and live in poverty. This area has the fastest growing age group; seniors citizens, according to the 2012 Profile of Hamilton’s Downtown Area published by the Social Planning and Research Council (SPRC) of Hamilton.