So now I’m going to tell you about what I’ve observed from touring the neighbourhood of Gibson. The area is named in honour of John Morison Gibson (1842-1949); a politician and Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Ontario. He was one of Hamilton’s “5 Johns” who brought hydroelectric power to Hamilton from their Dominion Power and Transmission Company plant, at DeCew Falls of St. Catharines.
Not too much history to speak of I’m afraid. The area seems to have started coming together circa 1900. A time just after Hamilton’s legendary steel industry was born along the lakefront just north of this neighbourhood in the late 1800’s. Gibson was one of the city’s fastest growing communities by 1910; giving residents adequate housing within walking distance (five to twenty minutes) of their coveted factory and dockyard jobs. Heavy industrial labour jobs that made it possible for the men to support their families, and kept the City of Hamilton growing into the late 70’s.
I can envision the twenty and thirty-somethings (some in their teens) kissing their wives or parents goodbye as they step out the door in the mornings to go off to toil. By evening, they return grubby and smelly. Voices hoarse and gravelly from the amount of carbon and soot they may have inhaled without respiratory protection. They pat their kids on their heads, as that’s about as much physical energy they have left to show affection, before they eat dinner and fall asleep. Tomorrow, the cycle begins again – rain or shine, but does anybody care?
The Lay of the Land
We know Gibson today as a 1.105sq.km (.45sq.mi) neighbourhood blocked in by the CN Railway tracks along its northern edge, Main Street East as its southern border, Wentworth Street North to the west and Sherman Avenue North to the east. Its sister neighbourhoods of Stipley and Landsdale lie to the east and west respectively. Chemical plants, steel mills, scrap yards and recycling facilities still dominate the Industrial Sectors and neighbourhood of Keith that are north of the CN Railway.
Using Statistics Canada’s 2001 Census data, the Hamilton Niagara Haldimand Brant Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) reports that 52.5% of private dwellings in Gibson are owned and 47.5% are rented. The gap for the city of Hamilton overall is much larger at 65.2% owned and only 34.8% rented. This appears to be a reasonably good indication of the area’s continued blue collar existence.
It looks like most of those houses that were built in the early twentieth century are still around. Gibson is a suburb with 64.9% of its dwellings built prior to 1946 as compared to 20.7% for all of Hamilton. For anyone who has resided in them for the past 50 years, give or take a decade, they should have a lot of equity. These old dwellings must be real estate agents’ and property owners’ money-making dreams. Provided they’re well maintained that is, and the neighbours aren’t disagreeable. A crack house here and an illegal multi-dwelling housing unit there with unsavory tenants is all that is needed to devalue a classic turn of the last century house next door. Taint much of the neighbourhood in fact.
Beyond these characteristics, Gibson is not an architecturally significant area. Some easily overlooked landmarks include a Catholic high school, school boards, a campus of Mohawk College, an old bank and Woodlands Park. There is a large old Westinghouse building near the park but it has been boarded up and unused for decades; but does anybody really care?
Gibson shares many social characteristics with Stipley and Landsdale. Demographically, Gibson is a neighbourhood with a fairly even mix of poor and “shrinking middle class” residents. The races and ethnicities of Gibson are diverse but mainly Caucasian. The CCAC reports that 5.3% of Gibson’s residents have a citizenship other than Canadian. Immigrants make up 23.2% of residents with 15.3% of them being born in Portugal, the most common place of birth outside Canada. 8.3% of people in Gibson speak a home language other than English or French — the official languages of Canada. Polish (1.6% of the Gibson population) is the most common home language other than English in Gibson. A low 2.6% of residents are reportedly unable to conduct a conversation in one of the official languages.
Like Stipley, perhaps a little more so, there is a small but noticeable Italo-Canadian population. It is commonplace to see a group of city workers and public works vehicles gathered at an Italian social club on Sherman North many mornings, just before fanning out across the city.
A Caribbean population seems to be slowly increasing in the area. This population is also tiny, but the presence of dark-skinned faces and sounds of West-Indian accents certainly stands out.
Gibson is one of several neighbourhoods in lower Hamilton that has a tough reputation, and is a reason why the city nicknames itself “the Hammer”. It’s not exactly a bad reputation but it’s not all that positive either. While many Hamiltonians of other neighbourhoods simply do not think of this area at all, some seem to assume that most of the inhabitants of this place are criminals and other unruly denizens. Personally, from years of passing through this neighbourhood and working with individuals who have lived there, I wouldn’t say most.
It seems to me that much of Gibson’s character comes from its parts north of Barton Street; parts abutting the neighbourhoods of Landsdale, Keith (part of Industrial Sector B) and Stipley that have their own harsh histories and characters. Between Barton and King Streets, the character is a little more moderate. South of King, the neighbourhood is even less rugged in appearance.
During a bus ride in April 2008, I saw a motorcycle rider get knocked down by a delivery van turning onto Barton Street from Milton Avenue. This is in the northern part of Gibson. The city bus driver who had a front row seat to the accident got out to go check on the victim as I dialed 911 on my cell phone. I heard the impatient passenger that was sitting right beside me say, “Who gives a fuck! Let’s go!” Even though not everybody in this neighbourhood is so uncompassionate, that attitude exemplifies the stereotypical character of Gibson.
Barton Village is a segment of Barton St. East that is shared between Gibson and Landsdale. Many businesses on Barton between Ferguson St. and Sherman are members of the Barton Village BIA (Business Improvement Area).
The BIA focuses on the “Triple Bottom Line”, (community, environment, and economic implications) in order to make decisions that are meant to create value across each of three bottom lines, and therefore move this part of Barton closer to the BIA’s vision for a sustainable community, and meet Ontario Provincial interests.
Association members work with Hamilton City Council in developing and implementing local solutions. Their mission is to create an attractive business district that extends to the local residents through the creation of safer, cleaner and more aesthetically attractive districts with positive results in the quality of life for the neighbourhood residents. BIA initiatives aim to retain and attract businesses and investment in these parts of Gibson and Landsdale.
Funding and scheduling permitted, the Spring Fling carnival is held in late May in Woodlands Park. Similarly, in July of 2008, the BIA held its first Barton Village Good Times Celebration but it seems they haven’t been able to make that an annual event either. Like Spring Fling, the newer festival also features midway-style rides, games and food.
If you’re looking for Gibson’s restaurants, the most established ones are in Barton Village, on King Street East and on Main Street East. Many get great reviews from customers but some are mainly held to scathing criticism.
It seems Gibson used to have a fledgling neighbourhood association but it may have been one of the least known of its kind in lower Hamilton, and ended up dissolved long ago. I guess nobody really cared. It would probably help if the association set up a modern public oriented web site like those of Beasley, Landsdale and Stipley. The introduction of social media has certainly garnered considerable, continual and beneficial attention and feedback for the Beasley neighbourhood Association. For residents who care, there’s a valuable lesson to be learned there.
Life in the Shadows
This is one of those areas of Hamilton that is actually more fascinating to observe after dark than during the day; strangely fascinating because of its overt dangers and other goings on that are typical taboos for any community. As a photographer, I’m always reminded of Brassai in these conditions; how he would walk through the night streets of Paris, France in the 1920’s and 30’s photographing what most have always considered to be the underbelly of society.
On humid summer nights, several prostitutes can be seen strolling along Barton St. or holding up at corners attracting strangers who drive average to fine automobiles. They don’t all look like the pretty young things portrayed in movies and TV shows. I don’t think you’ll find Julia Robert’s down-on-her-luck but still happy hooker here. River Phoenix as “Mike” in My Own Private Idaho or Theresa Russell’s portrayal of “Liz” in Whore appears closer to reality but both are still a little too glamorous.
Some of these women are rail thin. They look like a gentle breeze could knock them over. Despite one or two of them being dressed to thrill on the nightshift, it’s blatantly obvious by the looks on their faces, the vacancy in their eyes and the way they carry themselves that they’re coming apart and can’t wait to score some cash for their next fix. If you walk by them or if they walk by you, you can’t help but notice that the ladies either smell of much too much perfume or tobacco. Perhaps they even carry the odour of some other drug that they may have already been indulging in.
You can tell the hardcore heroine and crack addicts just by the way they walk. Their knees come up high, and their feet fall back to the ground quickly but lightly. Their necks and shoulders are held gingerly but their arms swing widely to and from with their gait. Narcotics have very much affected their nervous systems. The resultant twitchy peculiarities of their motor skills cannot be concealed. They move about like marionettes on strings.
A couple of them have flashed my wife at different times; clearly in defiance of propriety.
As my wife waited for the lights to turn green at the intersection of Wilson and Sherman one evening, she observed what she believes to be a prostitute hanging around and watching the cars that passed her by. My wife doesn’t like to be ogled but she felt she couldn’t take her own eyes off of the woman’s public demeanor. Evidently also not liking to be gawked at the woman returned my wife’s stare, dropped her pants and underwear right there at the curb and sunk one of her own hands into her crotch in a vulgar display of assertiveness and indifference. Her indiscreet form of self-expression, however seems to betray a deep and pitiful sense of self-loathing that one with a conscience can only wish they had the ability to take that woman’s personal pain away.
For decades until March 26, 2012 under the Criminal Code of Canada prostitution, that is, paying for sex from anyone above 18 years of age was neither illegal nor decriminalized. Many connected activities, however, were illegal which made it difficult to practice prostitution unopposed by the authorities.
It’s really something to try to understand the difference between illegalization and decriminalization. Illegalization simply meant that prostitution would be judged as a crime, and any violation of the prohibition would be met with penalties. In decriminalization, on the other hand, an act like prostitution would not be seen as a crime but it may still be subject to regulation; such as, the licensing and regular medical testing of sex workers.
The latter is similar to how liquor is currently licensed by individual provinces instead of prohibited, as it was into the 1920’s. It was the procurement or solicitation of prostitutes in a public place, exchanging sex for money, goods or favours with anyone under the age of 18, operating a brothel, getting caught in a brothel, brining someone into the country to work as a prostitute and taking or sending someone outside of the country to work as a prostitute that was flat-out illegal in Canada.
Panderers are directly responsible for much of the abuses and murders of sex workers, and infecting their own families with diseases contracted from prostitutes. Due to these facts, it has been said that the law has been focused mainly on catching and penalizing the Johns. There are arguments; however, insisting that it’s the prostitutes who generally receive the brunt of interference from law enforcement. Through decriminalization, the authorities could still penalize prostitutes in roundabout ways by applying other laws, such as solicitation, that stymie the practice of prostitution.
For me, understanding the semantics of solicitation goes way back to my high school law class. My professor Mr. Ferguson, who was a great orator and quite enthusiastic about legal teachings spent a liberal amount time explaining solicitation in Canadian law. Due to a Criminal Code amendment proposed in 1978, solicitation specifically has to involve someone interacting with another “in a public place” and in a “pressing or persistent” manner. For example, and even taking prostitution off the table, if someone approached you on a city sidewalk and handed you a brochure that talked about, say, world peace, and you refused to take it while trying to move on and that person deliberately moved right into your path in a continued attempt to try to get you to take the pamphlet, then that person would be guilty of solicitation.
These have been commonly but unofficially referred to as Canada’s anti-prostitution laws. It is laws such as this, ahem, and variations thereof, that the authorities used against prostitutes to some success for decades in this nation. Hindering prostitutes but never stamping them out totally. Legal experts say that related laws that prohibit communication for the purpose of prostitution were usually summary offences that at most lead to fines.
In October 2009, three women in Toronto challenged the Criminal Code by arguing that prohibiting solicitation endangers the very lives of prostitutes at the hands of rapists, murderers and other thugs by forcing them to seek customers on the streets; of course this was done in a way that didn’t make solicitation so obvious. The campaigners called for the decriminalization of prostitution and the right to open brothels where prostitutes could work in a safer environment. Eleven months later, the Ontario Superior Court Judge presiding ruled in their favour. Judge Himel, however, also imposed a 30 day stay on the decision to allow Crown Attorneys, lawyers, and other interested parties an opportunity to give their two cents.
In the end, the campaigning sex workers won but the federal and provincial governments began a new effort to rescue Canada’s prostitutions laws.
For just the province of Ontario, where the core fight to decriminalize prostitution was being waged, sex workers who were proponents to the effort won their biggest victory when the Ontario Court of Appeal dissolved some of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws in March 2012 under the conclusion that the laws place unconstitutional restrictions on prostitutes’ ability to protect themselves.
This made Ontario’s sex workers able to establish organized (could infer “nionized”) brothels or “bawdy houses”, hire drivers, bodyguards and support staff and conduct their business indoors while “exploitation” by pimps and madams remains illegal.
What remains illegal is the procurement or solicitation of prostitutes in a public place, exchanging sex for money, goods or favours with anyone under the age of 18 and taking or sending someone outside of the country to work as a prostitute. These are Canada’s official anti-prostitution laws. The judges of Ontario’s court have deemed that they are allowing sex workers “a reasonable limit on the right to freedom of expression”.
It’s now a question of if the laws of the Criminal Code of Canada will also be bent in the other provinces and territories. With precedence set that the Criminal Code is, to some degree, unconstitutional on these matters; specifically the protection under the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms to “life, liberty and security of the person”, it seems likely that the other regions will follow Ontario’s example, and the Code itself will be amended by the Supreme Court for its national purpose.
I noticed that up until March 2012, whenever a police cruiser was spotted en route in Gibson, some would quickly disappear while a few would nonchalantly hold their positions. Perhaps that was a giveaway as to who are actually undercover cops, were informants or had some protection from certain officers against dangerous tricks.
Therein lays one of the bigger concerns about prostitution. The inebriated buffoons — a different kind of “John”, who stagger up to the girls looking for a little attention; even worse are those strangers who pull up to the curbs in their various motor vehicles. You know that they’re only looking for easy victims for whatever malice they want to unleash upon the supposed weaker sex. They are a reason why some prostitutes didn’t hide from the police. They’re allegedly why three women, who decided to continue their careers as sex workers, took Ontario legislators to court in an effort to legalize prostitution that is specifically practiced under the shared control of prostitutes and the government.
I find the behaviour of these men in the vicinity of prostitutes, at best, more fascinating to observe than the prostitutes or the prostitution. So many of them seem to act exactly the same; they’re so predictable. They often drive by paired up in some car, their heads turning with eyes transfixed on the women. And that expression; they all have the same juvenile and sly facial expression with a cheesy ear-to-ear grin. One turns to the other and says something probably asinine and then they both drive by giggling like mischievous little schoolboys who’ll never grow up. Aren’t they pathetic and depraved? It’s a little wonder that so many of these women have no respect for any man whatsoever. It’s ingrained in their minds to assume that all men are like those that slither up and down the streets with them.
The sight of a used and discarded condom on the ground, during an early morning stroll through some of the back alleys just north of Barton Street, indicates what might have taken place there throughout the night.
Eavesdropping on street conversations reveals a notion, maybe a consensus, that the police really don’t do much anyway because most of them are simply too lazy to do their jobs of helping to stem the degradation of the community. It’s been said that uniformed police are kept more visible in the downtown core of Beasley, Corktown, Durand and Central so that it looks like the local constabulary is hard at work, and so that the chief can acquire crime statistics in an effort to request more money from the Hamilton Police Services Board and City Council during annual budgets. Interesting hypothesis; is there any truth to it?
I feel terrible for the women, in general, who live in the vicinity of the long strip of Barton where prostitution is prevalent. It must be so hard for them to just casually walk down the street without people assuming that they’re streetwalkers. Sure enough, I’ve observed a wide range of women, whom I doubt would have anything to do with prostitution, get honked and whistled at by scummy drivers passing by. This happens at night and in broad daylight. It must make these women’s skin crawl.
While the world’s oldest profession lingers on Barton Street, it’s difficult to judge that business is booming. After all, I did say that only legitimate businesses in Gibson are members of the BIA. Does this mean that Gibson prostitutes can or will even have to be members of the BIA in order to conduct their business on that particular stretch of Barton? So far, it doesn’t seem likely.
I’ve gone on quite a bit about prostitution but that isn’t the only curiosity of nights in Gibson.
Between these checkpoints are various bars where locals go to get soused or whatever. Some loiter outside these establishments smoking, and glare at me with daggers in their eyes as I pass by with a camera. Some get into drunken arguments, and fight with each other. You can hear rhythmically-challenged and tone deaf patrons in other such venues wailing in karaoke to some country ballad that they barely know the words to; despite the fact that the lyrics are scrawling across an old television screen. Well, at least they get to feel like a singing star for the time being. Fortunately, these virtuosos are largely harmless.
A couple blocks south on Cannon Street, Wilson Street or some of the side streets you might see people’s children — a few possibly as young as 8-years old, wandering about past midnight. I’m always frightened by the sight of this. Just what homes do these kids come from, and where in the hell are their parents? Why don’t they care?
Not all of Gibson’s street hustlers are prostitutes. Some will try to sell you anything, at any time of the day or night. One night near one o’clock in the morning I was walking westward on Barton and some guy heading eastbound with a dog hollered over to me from across the street, “Yo!”
Where am I, Harlem? I hollered back, “What?”
“I’ve gotta pit-bull!”
“I’ll sell him to ya for fifty bucks!” This was before pit-bull terriers became prohibited in Ontario on August 29, 2005; a ban that Ontario Members of Provincial Parliament began to seriously consider ending by February of 2012.
With that, he went his way and I went mine.
Years later, on a morning after daylight had just broken, I was walking north on the Stipley side of Sherman Avenue. A woman of small stature crossed from the Gibson side to my side while carrying a black bag. “I don’t mean this racially but do you like basketball?” she asked as she drew closer.
“Yes,” I answered in passing; never losing eye contact.
“I have an authentic Michael Jordan jersey.”
I glanced at the bag and then looked back up at her. Maybe she was telling the truth but then again, maybe she wasn’t. In any case, I had neither the time nor the dime. “No,” I said, “but thanks.”
“Alright,” she said casually, and then strolled on.
I’m so captivated by the exchanges I find myself having on the streets with absolute strangers.
The Hamilton Police Service (HPS) has initially divided the city into three patrol divisions. Gibson is located in the eastern portion of Division 1, which is surrounded by Sherman Avenue, the border of the Dundas and Ancaster communities, the mountain brow and Hamilton Harbour. The police further break Division 1 down into four sectors. Gibson occupies the southeast portion of Sector 2; also known to the HPS as North Town. Bad-guys and bad-girls are known to do all sorts of bad things anywhere in this city, of course. While it is difficult to obtain official and accurate crime statistics for any given Hamilton neighbourhood, however, there is an impression that Gibson is one of lower Hamilton’s areas with the most crime.
In 2009, the HPS stated to the media that an average of eighty different crack houses are in operation at any given time in Hamilton. Most of them are presumed by many — neighbourhood residents and not, as being in operation in Gibson, although some have been raided and shut down in other more affluent neighbourhoods. There are still some; nevertheless, who are quite ready to state that Gibson is not as scary as others make it out to be.
Hamilton’s second homicide of 2011 was in early September. It occurred in a house on Gibson’s Stirton Street.
George Washington Burnett was a solitary 83-year old former engineer and former pastor who was known to neighbours as being nothing but kind and friendly, and sang hymns with a bass-baritone voice comparable to that of George Beverly Shea.
George Burnett was found in his bed by one of his sons. The man had been stabbed in his neck. His murder put the residents on Stirton on edge. A couple weeks later, however, police investigators revealed that Burnett was a convicted child molester. In 1993, he had pleaded guilty to molestation charges involving three victims spanning from the mid-1970’s to the early 1990’s. Burnett spent seven years in prison.
By January 2012, Burnette’s murder; nevertheless, was traced back to a man nicknamed RJ, who was presumed to be a friend of George’s by Gibson residents who periodically saw him in Burnette’s company. 25-year old Loujack Nougues Café — RJ, was a panhandler that was previously known to the police.
Catching Café in the Burnette murder helped to solve one other completely unrelated stabbing death and other violent crimes throughout the city. While being charged with two counts of first-degree murder, Café was also charged with three counts of attempted murder related to five attacks in which he would approach strange victims while sometimes riding a bicycle, and just stab them without provocation. The local media briefly suggested that Café was a fledgling serial killer on the rise. You have to be careful with such inferences but the police didn’t seem to object to the notion in the slightest.
I think Gibson’s rough, tough and marginalized reputation will remain for quite some time to come. This has become a static place. I don’t foresee strong efforts to either connect the area with its early twentieth century Canadian history or modernize its post-WWII appearance, although there is slightly more of the latter than the former thanks to the local BIA. I also can’t imagine the demographics changing too much either.
The prostitution issue; although I think it unlikely to occur, it wouldn’t surprise me to see attempts be made to establish at least one brothel somewhere on or near Barton and King Streets. I don’t think that will happen with a snap of a finger though, thankfully. I’m sure that there will be some child-rearing residents that will object to such a proposition in their midst. I expect they’ll rally for the enforcement of zoning bylaws to prevent the manifestation of brothels. This will keep the prostitutes visible on the streets for quite a while longer, despite the change in provincial law.
The idea of successful brothels eventually operating with unionized sex workers is not beyond my imagination either. It is hard to say; however, if only Gibson will have a brothel or if others will appear in other neighbourhoods where street prostitution is considered by many to be common, like Stipley, Landsdale and Beasley. I can’t see; however, a brothel being accepted into the Barton Village BIA.
Will Gibson’s neighbourhood association be resurrected? Again, this is difficult to see but time will tell. Not that anyone really cares.