Donna's Blog

Struggling Cities

Posted by donnadawson on August 12, 2009 at 1:13 PM

My car hugs the curve and I have brief glances of the splashing of waterfalls cascading down the face of the escarpment to my right.  As I prepare to descend the hill into the busy streets of Hamilton, Ontario, I allow my eyes to scan the overall scenery.  Framed by majestic rock and crunched against the tight corner of Lake Ontario's western edge, the city looks like something otherworldly.  If it weren't for the smell in the air, I would assume that it was early morning mist covering the city and making it seem as though a modern day Camelot.  But the scent that burns my nostrils as gravity pulls me into the fog, tells me that industry resides here.  And the closer I get, the more absurd the dream city becomes.  I follow the turn-off that takes me down Main Street where I am able to see the real Hamilton--a city of ethnicity and diversity but also a city of poverty and frustration. 

 

The economy has not been kind to this city.  At the heart of Ontario's Golden Horseshoe, Hamilton has always had real manufacturing clout.  It has contributed heavily to the steel, auto, petroleum and coal industries but since the crash in the automotive industry an air of silent despair mingles with the blanketing smog.  As I follow the east bound Main street toward Gage park I am continually reminded of a side of any city that we too often try to ignore.  Spray painted icons on walls of buildings with missing windows.  People shuffling along the sidewalks as though there is nothing else for them to do.  I don't know what I expect to find at the park but I set up my book display with some vague form of anticipation.  The day begins and people stroll by.  Some stop to chat, eyeing the table's fare with interest.  I watch them move on and repeat their actions at each successive booth.  No one is buying--a true indication that times are hard.  Hollow-eyed addicts mill amidst the crowds.  Cigarette-smoking women towing strings of children, hopelessness etched into the tired lines of their faces.  Tattooed youths strutting side-by-side, their chests puffed in bravado but their eyes filled with a terror of life.  I watch it all parade past.  The scantily clad girls who draw their security from the stares of predators feeding off the visual buffet they present.  The children running loose, no parents in sight, fearless and yet fearful of a world that holds no parameters for them.  The elderly.  Lonely.  Forgotten.  Filling their days with whatever they can that will hold back the horror of the unknown grave.  And then the oblivious.  Those who are comfortable in their padded lives and choose to look away from all the rest.  It is a heartbreaking and rewarding day in the city's heart. I meet the oblivious and pity them for their dull lives--for their isolation.  I talk with the lonely, the heartbroken, the abandoned, and I learn of things of which I know nothing.  I prepare to head home with the sense that I have been blessed by those I have met simply because their lives have broadened my scope exponentially.

 

As the sun pulls itself across the western sky and I point my car's bumper toward the 403, I can't help but feel that I have gained so much.  I ponder the day's conversations and observations.  The city's decay still seeps in those corners where the wealthy choose not to go and I watch block after block of it blur as I pass.  The obscenities still call from their brick canvasses.  Hopeless people still march up and down smog-stained concreted paths and those bound by the wicked powders created by the greedy still stagger hollow-eyed from their burrows.  I weave through the chaos that is Hamilton's downtown strip until I reach the 403 ramp.  My emotions are a strange mix of strain and relief as I begin the climb back up the mountain.  I breath deeply of the untainted, fresh air above the city's cloud cover and don't miss the sting in my nostrils.  But the deeper elements of the city won't leave me that easily.  The poverty.  The hopelessness.  The complacency clings to my soul like the fallout of Chernobyl clings to the Belarussian generations.  I know that I won't easily push away the hollow eyes that search me out in my dreams nor will I easily forget the frightened and happily chattering children that are always the worst victims of emotional and spiritual neglect.  I know there is a prettier, happier side to Hamilton.  I know it exists.  I have seen it.  But I have now seen the other side of the coin and it will leave me thinking of the city with eyes opened wider than they have ever been.

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4 Comments

Reply Diane Stephenson
4:47 PM on August 12, 2009 
Donna: A great piece of writing filled with emotion. I remember Hamilton from back in the late '50s up to the mid '60s when it was a far different place. It's sad to see that happen to a city. I used to enjoy a bus trip their during summer holidays to shop downtown and have a glass of juice at the Honeydew shop. I could see the mountain as you described your descent. It has been years since I have driven that route. Thanks for a great article.

Diane
Reply Nikki
9:06 PM on August 12, 2009 
boy you expressed this soooo well. There is a definite heaviness in the city, a dark spirit that's got a tight hold and refuses to let go. Working in one of the city's 6 hospitals, I know they have an amazing network of health care and it's going to get even better with the research centre being built. That Centre is already attracting the brightest minds in medicine and research. But outside of work, I rarely if ever go to Hamilton. I find it too oppressive. Nikki
Reply Jim Fox
10:33 PM on August 12, 2009 
Hamilton has faced hard times every time a slowdown occurs in the auto industry. The city will once again recover from this recession. The problem is that many of the people won't.
So often, when we visit a city we only see the highlights. It is only when we get down where the real people live that we see that it is not all it's cracked up to be.

Thank you for the rinder of days gone by. 1964 and '65 I visited a steak house one York St. You must have lots of info for future stories out of your visit.
Jim
Reply Fay Rowe
11:12 PM on August 12, 2009 
A picture of many cities, I imagine. Thanks for sharing, Donna.