Upper James has all the characteristics that attract criminals: poor lighting, fast-moving traffic, wide-open spaces with few permanent residents and a very feeble sense of community.
By Chris Erl
Published August 15, 2009
"If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake."
-- Fyodor Dostoevsky, "Crime and Punishment"
A few Sundays ago, after a week of cleaning, replacing gears and changing tires, my old bike was back in operation. It was a beauty of a machine with 18 speeds, lightweight frame, jet-black, emblazoned with a bright yellow "Magnum" sticker on the side. My favorite thing to do every evening in the summer and fall was to take it out and explore the quiet suburban streets of the west Mountain. It cleared my head after a hard day's work and gave me an opportunity to see parts of my community I rarely came in contact with.
So, that bright Sunday morning, I happily embarked on a short journey to work, situated in the massive strip mall on the corner of Upper James and Rymal. Taking my bike to work meant getting a bit of exercise, helping reduce the old carbon footprint and (ever important to the frugal student I am) saving money. I locked my bike up, stringing the heavy-duty chain through the tire, around the frame and securely through the designated bike racks.
It was an average shift with no complaints, until, an hour before my shift is done, I casually looked out the window and saw what looked like my bike riding east toward Upper James.
I turned to my boss and said "Ugghhh! My bike just got jacked." I reported the theft to the police, moped about it for a few days, but eventually dug out my old bus pass and rekindled my tumultuous friendship with the 44-Rymal route.
About two weeks later, I was talking with a customer who frequents my work, often wearing a helmet and backpack. In the course of small talk, I casually asked if she had rode her bike today, to which she replied, "No, someone stole it yesterday in front of the Zellers!"
It is no secret that Upper James is one of the most crime-afflicted places in Hamilton. The nearly exclusively commercial strip has all the characteristics that attract criminals. Poor lighting, fast-moving traffic, wide-open spaces with few permanent residents and a very feeble sense of community all contribute to the epidemic of crime plaguing one of the Mountain's commercial cores.
The bank robberies on Christmas Eve, the hold-up at the Tim Horton's on Stonechurch and Upper James, the knife-point robbery at Mountain Plaza Mall, the hate-motivated attack on a lesbian couple, the robbery at Couture clothing and the declaration by Hamilton Police that Upper James is a "hotspot" for car thefts in Hamilton have all occurred within the last two years.
My own personal incident got me thinking about what can be done to curb this problem. It is difficult to quickly implement the appropriate measures because planning is the core issue. The poor layout of the entire commercial strip simply makes a criminal's work easier.
Further proof comes in the statement released in January of this year by the Hamilton Police. It stated that, whereas car thefts across the city have declined, three areas in particular saw major increases: Upper James, Limeridge and the Meadowlands.
Three prime examples of sprawling, car-centric developments have now become prime examples of another pitfall of poor development. Until we come to terms with the poor social and economic sense sprawl makes, crime will continue to affect shoppers and businesses alike.
In the course of my research, I found some steps the police and community can take to combat the problem while we wait for the implementation of better planning practices. Hamilton Police should be investigating the possibility of extending their Community Policing initiative to certain sections of Upper James.
This would not only help the escalating crime problem, but also the scores of speed-fiends who use the parking lots of these strip malls as private drag strips. Neighbourhood Watch programs in the adjacent communities should be extended to include commercial districts where possible and volunteer forces should monitor commercial areas. Better lighting, more open windows and bait bike and car programs must also be implemented.
Yet no substantial change will happen until we address the issue of poor planning. Connecting crime and sprawl would turn the opinion of a substantial portion of the population and may finally convince local politicians and planners to change the city's attitude toward costly, wasteful and unsafe sprawl.
Until then, I'll be at the next police auction...