Bounded by the CN Railway tracks north of Barton Street East, Main Street East, Sherman Avenue North and Gage Avenue North, Stipley (sometimes spelled Stipeley) is a neighbourhood of lower (below the escarpment) Hamilton. Although you would be hard-pressed to find an official demarcation on any map, it seems that many of the residents have unofficially used Canon Street East to divide the area into North Stipley and South Stipley.
Depression Era Landscape and Architecture
I have tried, and I have tried to figure out how the neighbourhood got its name. I’ve gone through books, archives and local historians. No one seems able to pinpoint the exact origins of the area. The information that I have come across strongly indicates that the area began to develop circa 1900.
Located immediately south of heavy Industrial Sector C consisting of scrapyards and steel manufacturers, and a wide range of industrial supply and service enterprises the architecture of this neighbourhood is typical for lower Hamilton. There are, nevertheless, five large and impressive looking churches in the area; all built in Western and Eastern European styles. Like the neighbourhood of Gibson, immediately to the west when you cross Sherman Avenue, Stipley looks to have a harder edge to it the further north you go while the tough character is much more subdued when you’re south of Main Street. That’s not to say that North Stipley looks beaten down. It’s just noticeable that the houses in South Stipley are a bit larger and have a little more classic grandeur to them. These homes are antiques, and fairly well-kept.
Stipley is predominantly an early twentieth century blue collar residential neighbourhood. No idyllic market squares, sculptures and sensational towers here. Perhaps the most iconic structure in this area was Ivor Wynne Stadium, the old and ever decreasingly proud home of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats CFL football team. It loomed over the surrounding and closely packed homes like an early 1900’s Roman Coliseum dominating a fair amount of the skyline and streetscapes.
After a few years of argumentative and indecisive politics and planning, the city leveled Ivor Wynne in 2012 in order to build the bigger Pan Am Stadium in time for the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games that was agreed to be shared with the city of Toronto. A considerable part of the debate was ensuring that the new stadium would be constructed in a way to continue to be the Tabbies home base after 2015. Ti-Cat owner Bob Young’s biggest gripe for the pending stadium was its location. He wanted it and the Ti-Cats anywhere but in Stipley, and even threatened this real sports town with the total loss of the CFL franchise if he didn’t get his way.
Since the Pan Am Games, we now know the replacement stadium on site as Tim Hortons Field.
Taggers have spray-painted and scratched their graffiti on all the mailboxes, bus shelters, and paved alleyway garage doors. While many residences obviously strive to beautify their individual places, others who are less concerned with image have left their scrap automobiles in their yards and driveways so that the four seasons and their effects can cycle over the once respected cars again-and-again.
In 2010, Stipley became one of a few lower Hamilton areas targeted by six bylaw officers in what was known as Project Compliance. Through littering, vandalism, exceeding occupancies and suspicions of drug dealing the tenants and supposed landlords of an estimated 23, 000 illegal apartments were found responsible for the proliferation of demoralizing community living in neighbourhoods with perceived reputations of being of mixed income that are steadily degrading into slums.
With legitimate tenants and home owners being vulnerable to the decay and public mischief, then electoral Ward 3 Councillor Bernie Morelli and other city councillors began to urge City Council to adopt a requirement to license rental units in former family homes that had been illegally converted into duplexes and triplexes.
For many years, there have been only a few small to medium sized parks for children to take advantage of in Stipley but unfortunately nothing that really makes people want to take their family to for the sake of having an outing. Such interests seem to result in making use of Powell Park and the Norman Pinky Lewis Recreation Centre in Gibson, and Gage Park in Delta West. With Stipley being so built up and populated since the 1920’s, it was hard to conceive any way to increase its green space. That is until making space for the Pan Am Games created a convenient excuse for City Council to pursue the late Bernie Morelli’s objective to purchase the five-hectare Dominion Glass property, situated behind early 20th century homes on Chapple Street. The city embarked on an $8-million dollar project to convert the derelict industrial site into the Brian Timmis soccer stadium and industrial park by 2017.
Various Walks of Life
Stipley is a neighbourhood with a fairly even mix of poor and “shrinking middle class” residents. The demographics of Stipley is diverse but majority Caucasian. The Polish have a strong and longstanding presence in this community with their many business and Polish Army Veterans Association along Barton Street East. This is also one of a few neighbourhoods in Hamilton that has a small but noticeable Italo-Canadian population. A West-Indian population seems to be slowly increasing in the area. Stipley is one of several neighbourhoods in the north end of town 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. I’ve explored this neighbourhood almost daily for many years. From personal experience, I’ve met some from Stipley who truly fit the negative stereotypes. I have also met some who are genuinely thoughtful, respectable, intelligent and diligent individuals.
One evening of January 2010, I was one of a few people at the corner of Barton and Sherman waiting for a bus. This guy; I say he was in his twenties, walked up to me and asked, “D’you got any weed?”
Now, this is absolutely not the first time that some stranger has walked up to me and point blank asked me for drugs on the street. Not even at Barton and Sherman. The first time that happened I was actually 12-years-old and walking my bike up 15th Avenue in Price George, BC. Since then, I’ve been asked many times throughout my life; I feel fairly certain that on at least two of those occasions the men who were asking me were narcs. On the corner of Barton and Sherman, however, I was sure that this character wasn’t anyone undercover, and that he wasn’t going to leave me alone after I just said, “No.”
“D’you got any weed?” he asked again, as if he didn’t hear me the first time.
I try not to let people get to me, and I’m usually quite good at it but if you want to get on my nerves without delay come looking in my zero tolerance mouth for dope.
Clearly, it was the terse way I responded to him each time that made him eager to engage me even more. By this time, he was more interested in getting my back up. I’m in the habit, nevertheless, of paying close attention to what people say, and how they say it when they try to test me. I knew that this was going to be an experience that I would write about when I got home.
“Cocaine?” he asked.
“Get out of my face!”
“I’m feeling cold,” he said as he tugged at the collar of his heavy hooded and fur-lined bomber jacket. I watched a wry smile creep across his face.
“I said if you feel cold, it’s because it’s winter!”
He shook his head, took two steps back, stiffened up, pointed a finger at me and then said, “You got this attitude . . . you remind me of this guy I used to know. He was a little Paki. What a fuckin’ attitude, he was such a little nigger!”
I didn’t say anything. There was nothing I could or would say to dignify his comment. I’ve met countless imbeciles like him, and they’re all lost causes.
“What a fuckin’ idiot!” he went on.
I still didn’t respond, thinking; look who’s talking? Perhaps he misread my silence as acceptance of his rubbish because he suddenly stuck his right hand out toward me as if I was going to oblige him by shaking it and said, “My brutha!”
“I’m not your brother,” I said.
“Okay then, my friend!” still with his hand extended.
“I’m not your friend either.”
“Is this not Canada? Are we at least from the same country?”
“Yeah, I’ll give you that,” I said.
I find that a curt and edgy interaction like this isn’t uncommon in Stipley, and to survive here it helps to be able to communicate in that way when the situation calls for it. This doesn’t mean that I gained his respect by talking tough without being as crude; certainly without being racist. I believe his intent was to get the worst, most boisterous and argumentative, most violent and most self-debasing response out of me for his enjoyment. He failed to do so but that probably didn’t even matter to him. The best thing that came out of that dialogue was that he realized that he should probably think twice before escalating the situation. We didn’t know each other from Adam, and therefore, don’t know what each other is capable of. It’s best to quit while ahead. He turned away from me and started pestering the other people who were waiting for the bus. He represents one of the stereotypically unsavory sorts of individuals one could meet in Stipley.
There are also some that I just can’t help but feel sorry for.
In 2015 I watched an old woman – well what could have been an old woman as the possibility of hard drug use and mental illness is known to age people well beyond their actual years, acting quite strangely on Barton Street. Yes, instinct had me raise my camera and take a few shots of her flailing about with her antics but the moment she started stretching her top downward to flash an unsuspecting man riding by on his bicycle I stopped shooting. Indeed, such images would help to convey that part of Hamilton’s story but I’m a street photographer who is fearful of the insensitive minds of this world regarding the pictures as only something to poke fun at. In certain circumstances it could be amusing but it was apparent to me that while she was having fun her behaviour was most likely the result of her obviously fragile mind. I didn’t want to help others disgrace her. I even got rid of all the other shots of her that were far more family-friendly.
On the other hand, Barton and Sherman was the exact street corner that a different elderly lady graciously hugged me for reaching out and saving her from falling when she started to slip on the icy sidewalk. A few blocks further north of there, a steel worker whose wallet I found, expressed his surprise and gratitude to me for calling him up and arranging a meeting so that I could return it to him. There were also the two guys that came and helped me push some other guy’s car out of a snow bank and get him back on his way. These are the sort of individuals that one could also encounter in Stipley.
One of the better interactions I had with a stranger in Stipley was actually at the same corner of Barton and Sherman again. A man had observed me photographing the statue of Mary and Jesus in front of St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church on a very snowy evening in February 2010. After I had crossed Barton to get to where he was he struck up a brief conversation with me about Olympic hockey, and together we extolled how the Canadian Women’s Hockey Team won gold the night before.
I had the opportunity to observe and listen in to a genuinely warm greeting on the street between a middle-aged man and a senior citizen who apparently hadn’t seen each other in quite some time.
“How have you been doing?” said the younger man. “You look well! It’s been a while but every time I see you, you’re all dressed up and smiling!”
An interaction like this is not what some expect on the streets of Stipley. Although it was clear that the men weren’t related, they almost acted as though they were father and son. They talked for a couple minutes before the younger one said goodbye and went on his way. I watched the old man go his own way with brightness in his eyes that wasn’t there before.
In this cynical me, me, me world such occurrences may seem like small things but they matter. They show that there is still goodness to be found in Hamiltonians. Simple kindness and self-respect are much overlooked aspects of quality Hamiltonian culture, and it’s worth pointing it out.
The Criminal Elements
The Hamilton Police Service (HPS) regards the city through three patrol divisions. Stipley is located in the western portion of Division 2, which is surrounded by Sherman Ave, the Niagara Regional border far beyond eastern Hamilton, Lake Ontario and Stoney Creek Mountain. Division 2 is further broken down into four sectors for the police. Stipley occupies almost all of Sector 1. 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 assumption that Stipley is one of lower Hamilton’s areas with the most crime.
For certain, throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s the police raided a number off marijuana grow ops that kept popping up along Lottridge Street.
Reportedly concerned about actual crime, exacerbated negative perceptions, a lack of social resources for inhabitants and a concern of being long ignored by City Council, some citizens formed the South Stipeley Neighbourhood Association (SSNA) and Crime Watch program in 2006. While the neighbourhood image has been improving, real and imagined crime continues to be sources of notoriety for this community. Early in 2009, the HPS informed the media that an average of eighty different crack houses was in operation at any given time in Hamilton. Some of them were presumed by many—neighbourhood residents and not, as being in operation in Stipley, although a few have been raided and shut down in other more affluent neighbourhoods. What is known for certain is that in just the previous year, Councillor Morelli, who had also been the on-and-off chair of the Hamilton Police Services Board for many years, informed the press back then there were seven to 11 crack houses in his ward alone. The electoral Ward 3 includes the lower Hamilton neighbourhoods of Landsdale, St. Clair, Gibson, Blakely, Stipley, Delta West, Crown Point West and all of the industrial sectors north of the CN Railway tracks, and between Wellington Street North to the west and Ottawa Street North to the east.
Stipley shares its prostitution issues with Gibson, Landsdale and Beasley. As expected, the biggest anchor for prostitution in the area is drug addiction. During the January 18, 2010 monthly meeting of the SSNA, Crime Manager Mike Goch of the HPS was asked if there were statistics to inform Stipley residents if issues like prostitution and chemical dependency really are greater in their area of the city as many presume. The response was that there weren’t and that drugs in particular are a problem in all areas.
This shows how things appear to be done differently between the less crime burdened neighbourhoods of western lower Hamilton and those of eastern lower Hamilton. HPS Crime Managers for the Ward 1 neighbourhoods of the west provide monthly summary reviews of those areas to their corresponding neighbourhood associations and the Ward 1 Councillor; mind you those reports don’t talk about drug addiction stats either.
Maybe it’s a good thing that the residents of Stipley aren’t informed of how bad crime and vice actually might be. During that meeting, Councillor Morelli advised the SSNA that the police have to exercise caution with regards to publicizing prostitution and drug issues because it could stigmatize Stipley and potentially reduce property values. On the other hand, maybe the SSNA and the rest of the city should be better informed. After all, world history has shown that education in the facts is the best tool for fighting ignorance and real problems. Stipley already had been stigmatized for some years. I believe that’s why the SSNA was formed. That being said, the SSNA doesn’t seem to have been in operation since 2011.
Back on the northeast corner of Barton and Sherman in April of 2013, I watched a tall drink of water wearing a long brown trench coat and yellow hard hat strut up the street like I don’t know what. I honestly thought, here comes trouble, and sure enough he sauntered right up to me.
“I gotta tell ya,” he just opened up, “when a crack-ho is offerin’ up a BJ for ten bucks . . .” he paused, shook his head and started to chuckle to himself. I didn’t respond. I just watched him, and listened; constantly measuring my safety in his presence. “. . . Ya know she’s gotta be hurtin’!”
I still didn’t say anything. How vile I thought, and hoped he would move on without saying another word. Wishful thinking because he then puked up, “I’d sooner take it into my own hand, if ya know what I mean?”
I don’t mind talking to a few strangers. I really do try to be affable to a wide assortment of personalities, and everybody has some worth to the world but encounters like this push even my envelope of tolerance too far. Why do I always attract the obvious wastes of my time? Of course I didn’t respond. I was too put off by his stupidity, his filthy mouth, his audacity to assume that he could be so chummy with me and expect me to reciprocate.
Sharing thoughts can be good for a person’s well being but it took all of my patience to not tell him in some rude way that he was sharing too much.
I guess he got the hint from my silence; maybe it was a certain look on my face. He threw something in the nearby trash can, turned away and finally left me alone.
I’m not an advocate of prostitution but I find that the vulgar way some men talk about the prostitutes of these neighbourhoods, or women in general, is far more infuriating. They make remarks about prostitution, sex, libido, addiction, compulsion, ignorance, acute low self-esteem, sexual abuse and pain as though they are things to joke about. They ridicule these women; presumably all of them being women as that may not be the case, as though they are less than human, oversexed and remain so indifferent to their misfortunes. Do these men ever stop to consider how lowly these women must think of them? No, they clearly don’t. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t me that thinks and acts like that, I still feel tremendously ashamed as a man.
It must be terribly difficult for your average female of virtually any age to live or merely be seen on Barton Street. I suspect that they fear that many narrow-minded men and other women passing by in motor vehicles wonder if any female that comes into view is a prostitute. I suspect many actually do make that assumption. While that is not an actual crime, it’s still very much offensive.
Three months later, and back at the same spot. I watched a girl – possibly in her 20’s, stagger by in a thin T-shirt that made it totally apparent that she wasn’t wearing a bra. She was filthy from head-to-toe. Hygiene had certainly not been a priority for this young woman for probably a couple weeks.
She must have just scored some money somehow to get the fix she was after to not have to deal with this world. She was quite obviously higher than a kite.
A man and woman rolled up to the lights on an electric scooter. They gawked at the girl, and as she went on by other people on the corner, they looked her up and down. They started guffawing. Of course there was going to be some exchange between the people about the girl. I avoided staring directly at anybody but as usual, I monitored people’s reactions.
“Pfff! Fuckin’ hooker!” I heard one man behind me say. Yes, his words were of utter disgust but from the tone of his voice, I could imagine a glint in his eye as he made the dirty remark. I think it gave him tremendous pleasure to criticize this lost girl.
The woman on the back of the moped added, “It’s fuckin’ Barton Street. You’ll see about a million of ‘em.”
The man on the corner made a sarcastic request of the couple, “Hey, do me a favour? Mount the sidewalk an’ run ‘er over!”
“Aw hell no!” was the response from the man steering the scooter. “It’ll wreck my bike.”
I believe that the creepy, shady, mouthy and cold behaviour of people like these are the main reason why neighbourhoods like Stipley have the deplorable reputations they do. It takes ruinous people to ruin an otherwise decent community. That too is not an actual crime but quite offensive, and difficult to curtail.
I feel for that girl. She may not want my pity but she has it nonetheless. No, it’s not much. It can’t take away whatever hell she seems to be going through in this life, and I wouldn’t know where to begin to help the stranger. It still doesn’t change the fact that I simply can’t help but really wish I could do something for her.
A month later she passed me again on that corner, this time going back the other way. There was an older man there who she seemed to be acquainted with. They spoke briefly, and their conversation ended with her saying to him ever so casually, “Yeah, by tomorrow I’ll be in jail . . . uh, yeah . . . but I’ll get out.”
More from my notes: January 16, 2015 around 7AM, I watched another girl – likely also in her 20’s, stomp along Barton Street muttering to herself, “Slut! Slut! You’re such a slut!” Periodically, she would swing out in front of her as though she were slapping and punching someone in the face but there was no one there at all.
“Whore!” she started shouting as she swatted at the air while she walked. “Whore! Whore! You fuckin’ whore! You disgust me, you useless fuckin’ bitch! You’re nuthin’ but a whore!” she repeated non stop. She might have been on something or her mind might have simply deteriorated from previous substance abuse. I suspect that her outburst was her reliving some humiliatingly violent ordeal but was then acting it out as though she were the antagonist, not the victim. Well, that’s how it looked to me. Her life had taken its toll.
I walked away from the scene feeling half ashamed that there was nothing that I could do for her while half relieved that it wasn’t me whose life had so much trouble.
Anyway, in spite of all the concern, there are still some citizens nevertheless, who are quite ready to state that Stipley doesn’t deserve to be marginalized. In consideration of everything, Stipley is still a pretty quiet area.
To me, this is a neighbourhood of tremendous hidden potential. Perhaps someday, its residents will figure out how to better seize that potential and expand on it. There will be a place to entertain and be entertained. There will be more places to work. There’ll be more chances for more people to better themselves, academically, socially, culturally, professionally, politically and financially.