Five Things About Hamilton: Pictures Pending

Welcome to Part Three of my three-part series on class in the placed I’ve lived in Ontario. Entry one is here, along with the original prompt that inspired these posts, and number two is here.

 When we left off, I was in my late twenties, living in Oakville, and realizing that nothing I could do at that time was going to allow me to live there in any comfort due to the exorbitant price of housing. We began looking for other accommodation, and because we needed to stay near Toronto and the greater Toronto transit system, Hamilton began to look like a good option. I had just finished an animation contract in Hamilton, and we had heard that we could get a nicer place for much, much cheaper.

 My work contract was not my first experience with Hamilton, however. My parents grew up here, and most of my extended family still lives here. I have memories of shopping and going to movies downtown as a little girl, and my Dad and I share many happy memories of feeding the birds at the Provincial park down on the bay inlet. Later in my life, I spent a lot of time in Hamilton while my Dad underwent heart surgery at the General. It was a hard time for me, but Hamilton’s medical system is amazing and the doctors and nurses there really made the whole thing a lot easier and smoother.

 I really like Hamilton. I think I like Hamilton better than anyplace I’ve lived before. Here are some of the reasons why.

      1. Hamilton is affordable. Nothing is super cheap, but rent, food and utilities are at least reasonable.

      2. Hamilton has an amazing health system, as I said before. Because the city is home to one of the country’s foremost medical research universities, there are a ton of hospitals and clinics, and wait times are low. The quality of care is also excellent, and charity treatment is often available for those in need.

      3. Hamilton has incredible community spirit. Some people don’t see it, because Hamilton can be a little… grungy sometimes, but when you look past the wear and tear, you’ll see a lot of great people who take pride in their small businesses and care about their communities. It’s the kind of place where you get to know the guys that run the restaurant across the street and work the counter at the convenience store. I like that.

      4. Hamilton has lots of stuff to do. Whether you like movies, art, live theatre, night clubs, hiking, the beach… whatever… Hamilton has it or is near to it. For the size of the city, there’s just a lot of really interesting stuff to see and do.

      5. And lastly (and this is one that a lot of people won’t believe, but it’s so true…) Hamilton is beautiful. I won’t listen to anyone who wants to bitch about Barton Street or the Steel Company… the working class history here is what made the city what it is today! Besides, the Steel Company is so cool looking. How many people can say they got such a close look at a huge, industrial revolution era steelworks? It’s really neat in there, and when you catch it at the right kind of day, in the right light, with the sun rising pink behind it and vapor rising from the stacks, it’s picture worthy. And I love the buildings. Hamilton has the most beautiful range of architecture periods and styles, especially Victorian gothic revival, which is one of my personal favourites. You can find everything… old fifties blown glass signs, gabled roofs with worn shingles, old shopfronts that are growing a little lopsided with age… I want to do a photo project of all the beautiful details these buildings have someday. The combination of beautiful architectural work, urban renewal and graceful aging make the streets of Hamilton fascinating, full of secrets. And the view from the mountain looking out on the lake… now that’s a place to do some yoga. Right there. Beautiful. Stand on the mountain brow sometime when it’s snowing, and tell me it’s not the most beautiful place in Southern Ontario.

As you can see, I’ve fallen in love with a city. I’m going to take pictures, over time, so others can share it with me. Until then, that’s my series. Lighter fare is coming up on Thursday, as I share some silly conversations that Robin and I have had lately.


My Life In Oakville: Part Two of Three

If you haven’t been reading along, this is Part Two of a three-part blog series I’ve been doing on class in the places I’ve lived throughout my life. The first part, about my hometown of St. Catharines, is here. The first post also contains the original prompt that inspired this series, if you’re interested.

 Growing up, I had an ever-evolving, love-hate relationship with my hometown, which provided a ton of enrichment and inspiration for my later work, but no place for a person with my particular talents to develop into a young professional. I was frustrated with the declining amount of career-track jobs, and the rising crime rate, which seemed to ruin many of the things the place had going for it.

 All this left me in my early twenties, longing to escape to the city and round out my education in some way that employers would actually recognize. I saved my bursary money, sold a large portion of my stuff, and moved to Oakville to attend Sheridan College for animation.

 My feelings about Oakville were mixed from the start. On the plus side, it was way cleaner than St. Catharines, and I never felt unsafe on the street, on the bus or basically anywhere, whereas in my hometown, I would have to have my wits about me pretty much all the time. Someone in Oakville who would be considered dirty or ugly would pretty much be considered average anywhere else in Ontario. This had advantages and disadvantages. Because I’ve always been a bit of a fashion fan myself, I found myself feeling like I fit in better sometimes than I did at home. However, the major disadvantage of the bar being higher for fashion and looks is that I couldn’t just walk down to the mall in my crap clothes with my hair unwashed, like I would sometimes do before. I mean, it’s a free country and everything, but appearance really did seem to make a big difference when it came to customer service there. If I came in wearing a $900 outfit, I’d get doted on by every salesperson in the place. If I came in with average hair and clothes, with road salt on my jacket, I’d basically get ignored, and if I managed to corner somebody, they’d usually be rude.

 Another plus was that being in an urban centre close to other urban centres meant that transit took less time and usually went to the places I needed to go, and jobs were easy to come by. I found that businesses sat on resumes for a lot longer, on average, before replying, but it was definitely easier to get interviews and casual jobs. I had one rough summer where I couldn’t find work, but Robin and I muddled through somehow. Having said that, though, I never really saw as much of the town as I would have liked to, because a) they don’t have a very good central news source, and so it’s hard to know what’s going on around town and b) everything’s ridiculously expensive.

 Now, on to my major beefs with Oakville. The first one is the environment. Oakville has a lot of nice parks and hiking trails, it’s true, but it lacks good sources of fresh produce like I had at home, and I found myself growing really homesick for the fresh foods I had pretty much year round in St. Catharines. I also really enjoy bird watching, and birds are much fewer and farther between there. I know that might seem elementary to someone used to the city, but it’s not something I even thought of before I went there. And the air quality is really, really crappy. As in, the crappiest in the country. I got sick every winter unless I pumped myself full of vitamins, and I temporarily lost my singing voice. We lived just a couple of kilometres from the 403, and walking down there made your skin feel gritty. There was also a huge problem with medical wait times. Any trip to the walk-in clinic or emergency room was a guaranteed five-hour endeavour, regardless of time of day. Anywhere else on the peninsula, it’s like 45 minutes to an hour, tops.

 Another huge problem with Oakville, for us, was the housing prices. We paid $1200 a month (an amount that will get you a newly renovated place with a parking garage, weight room and security anywhere else around here) for a slummy place the size of a postage stamp with management that I wouldn’t be exaggerating to tell you to hide the silverware around. Our appliances and fixtures hadn’t been changed since the 70’s, they cleaned the hallway about once every three months, the elevators broke down several times a week, the boilers exploded, our toilet exploded one day with no one around it (seriously!) we had insects coming up through the drains from other people’s filthy apartments above and below us, we had people that let their dogs crap in the hallways rather than go outside, we had a crack house down the hall, and on Christmas Eve, 2012, we found a guy passed out on the floor of our hallway with his cock out, in front of an apartment where a mom and her teen daughter were living. We called the cops. A lot of times. They never came. The prices were so high there we were forced to take on a roommate, and that turned into its own nightmare. After a string of thefts, destruction, and just plain creepiness, we had to give up on the roommate thing and go it alone. Our place, for $1200, was the cheapest we could get in town. This was a problem.

 Eventually, we had to give up on Oakville and move away. I still don’t like to think about that very much. It was hard for me to write this, because I’m still dealing with everything that went on there. I guess, on an emotional level, it was a really bad place for me. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you just never quite measure up. I was constantly trying to prevent people from finding out where and how I lived with a mixture of fancy clothes, confidence, and education. It’s exhausting to have to live that way. I still want to live in the city, but there has to be a better way.

Next Post: Our flight to Hamilton, and what’s next.

My Life in St. Catharines, Now With Pictures!

The main drag of my hometown
The main drag of my hometown, circa 2010

So, in case you’ve missed the previous post, I’m beginning a series today on class, and the living conditions in the places I’ve inhabited throughout my life. The prompt is this:

 Every city and town contains people of different classes: rich, poor, and somewhere in between. What’s it like where you live? If it’s difficult for you to discern and describe the different types of classes in your locale, describe what it was like where you grew up — was it swimming pools and movie stars, industrial and working class, somewhere in between or something completely different?

 I suppose this prompt jumped out at me because the place I grew up has some very stark class issues that I noticed more and more as I grew.

 My hometown is called St. Catharines, and for the majority of you who aren’t from Southern Ontario, it’s a small city about thirty minutes from the US border. Currently, I think it’s got a population of about 150 000, and that’s about middle range for a town in our area. St. Catharines borders on Lake Ontario, which is the size of some small seas. I think being on the lake my whole life has made me feel most at home by the water. There’s also a canal system that runs through the town, which lets large freighters get to the St. Lawrence river, and from there, to the Atlantic. When I was a kid I used to sit on the cliffs by the lake in Port Dalhousie, the district that I’m from, and watch the freighters sit in the lake, waiting to pass through the locks. We have some of the most amazing fruit growing land in the whole world, and you really can’t beat the local food.

 The town has its newsworthy points, both good and bad. For the good, we are the hometown of Rush drumming legend Neil Peart. Rush even wrote a song about Port Dalhousie, that I adore. For the bad, in the nineties, serial killer Paul Bernardo murdered two girls here, in a series of shocking crimes that reached news outlets all over North America. My after-school sitter lived around the corner from his house, during the time the crimes were going on. I’ve never seen public panic like that before or since. It left a mark on me well into my adult life, as I’m sure it did for many others in our community. Let it be duly noted, however, that he migrated in from Scarborough.

 So, what was it like to grow up in St. Catharines? Well, I lived in the North end, by the lake, in a beautiful old farm house that had lost its farm. My folks had gotten lucky and gotten a deal on it just before the prices went up and the millionaires started moving in. It is a beautiful, peaceful place, just on the edge of the grey area between St. Catharines and the nearby farming communities. When I went to sleep at night, if the wind was blowing the right way, I could hear the howl of engines from the highway. It’s a very eerie sound when it has filtered across a couple of kilometres of field, but to this day I still find it rather comforting.

 My childhood was relatively carefree, although I was pretty nerdy and got teased a lot. I always seemed to gravitate to other misfits like myself… what I didn’t realize then was that a lot of the time, the other kids I hung out with got teased not because they were all that weird (I definitely was) but because they were kinda poor and didn’t have the stuff other kids had, like the snappy clothes and newest games. I had all that stuff… I was just clueless and didn’t see what it mattered. I wasn’t really brought up like that. I was taught to see what I had in common with people, rather than to try and find things I had over them. I found the other snooty suburban kids really confusing as I got older, and often didn’t really get why I didn’t fit in. In fact, I ran into one of my former teachers later in life, and he agreed… it was a really snobby school, and really cruel to anybody that wasn’t ‘with it’. I feel proud that I was one of the ones he liked.

 When I reached eleven or twelve, I was identified (diagnosed?) as exceptional, and went part-time to a school for gifted kids. I learned a lot of cool things, like how to use a mixing board, do woodworking projects, and get banned from field trips for being an hour late for check-in. It was there that I was first encouraged to pursue animation. I found the transition to high school really jarring, because for the first time, I was forced to get out of my bubble of perfect people from the suburbs and deal with people from the other parts of town. It was then that I realized that most of St. Catharines is not like the North end. In those few years, I learned that my hometown had teeth. My high school, a last resort for teen moms and kids with drugs found in their lockers, was a half-empty, crumbling abomination from the 1960’s with sediment in the water lines and whole wings blocked off in disrepair. I hung out with the only ten or twelve people in the school not involved in drugs, and a good portion of them had personality disorders of some sort. Until I moved away, I thought all high schools were like this.

 Beleaguered and more than a little scared, I threw myself into my studies, dreaming of a day when I would be able to use my mind and talents to get a great job and pull myself out of the company of juvenile idiots. I worked hard to get through high school, and got into my university program of choice. University was much the same. Scared of being like the people I saw pissing their lives away in high school, I kept my head down, and kept to my books. I’d already seen the poverty that the majority of people there lived in, and I didn’t want that to be me. I found a lot of acceptance at Brock, though, and I started to get into my groove with my town, and learn more about the things that made it great.

My favorite bookstore in the world, since torn down to make way for the new arts centre. RIP Novel Idea.
My favorite bookstore in the world, since torn down to make way for the new arts centre. RIP Novel Idea.
The best book I ever purchased ironically. I just couldn't get over that it was so old that they referenced "The Home Video Games" like "The Twitter" or "The Disco Music".
The best book I ever purchased ironically. I just couldn’t get over that it was so old that they referenced “The Home Video Games” like “The Twitter” or “The Disco Music”.

Throughout those years, I could often be found on weekends lurking in the stacks at one of our many great used bookstores, ferreting out classic fantasy and science fiction, old cookbooks, and stuff to help me learn more Japanese. I went down to the beach at Port Dalhousie and just watched the ducks and gulls. I even saw the occasional turtle, but his whereabouts must remain a closely-guarded secret. Robin and I fell in love on the pier. We regularly poked through the racks at Out of the Past downtown looking for goth finds, and put on the funny hats in the mirror, just ’cause. In the spring, my favourite activity is still to go out to the regatta park in Port Dalhousie and follow the baby geese around.

 Unfortunately, like all golden eras, my time in university came to an end. The magic I had discovered in my town disappeared, as I realized that I had no way of finding any kind of job that would sustain me, let alone allow me to use my talents in any satisfying way. I applied everywhere in the area that I could, but I couldn’t even get a call-back as a typist. The few people I talked to that could help me treated me like I wasn’t worth their notice because I wasn’t from Toronto. The few good jobs in St. Catharines, I realized, didn’t go to locals. Locals were assumed to be inexperienced and incompetent. My town imported its managers, and exploited its natives. I spent a very hard year working two part-time retail jobs before I realized that I would have to escape to the city to find any kind of meaningful work.

 When I realized that I needed something more than St. Catharines could provide, I began planning. I took a scholarship, and saved every penny that I could. When that wasn’t enough, I sold a third of my stuff, including my guitar, which I’ve touched on in other posts. I fled for the city, and (almost) never looked back. Since then, they’ve torn down my favourite bookstore, and most of old Port Dalhousie by the pier, to make way for gentrified ‘improvement’ projects, some of which I see the need for, others of which I never will. But the fact remains that I think they looked in the wrong places to root out the problems St. Catharines has. It’s the holes in the wall that gave it character.

 Next week: Oakville and Toronto, and the struggle to fit in.

The Obligatory Cat Pic… and My New Post Series

One of the things I wanted to bring people with this blog is a little taste of Canada, because my country, and its people, are two of the most formative aspects of my work, and my life. So, when I stumbled on this blog prompt, I was inspired to write a series this week about it. Here it is. Thanks, WordPress!

 Every city and town contains people of different classes: rich, poor, and somewhere in between. What’s it like where you live? If it’s difficult for you to discern and describe the different types of classes in your locale, describe what it was like where you grew up — was it swimming pools and movie stars, industrial and working class, somewhere in between or something completely different?

 Over the next few posts, I will be talking about the range of experiences I’ve had with class, with personal stories from the three places I’ve lived in my life, all drastically different in terms of class experience and yet part of the same region. Then, if he’ll indulge me, I may get my husband in here to talk about his experiences living in Alberta, because different parts of the country produce wildly different life experiences.

In the meantime, here is a picture of my cat. She is fluffy and cute. Her name is Ilse.


 I am going to go catch up on my sleep, so that I may entertain you anew on the morrow.