Accidental Activist


How far must we sink into the gutter before we hit rock bottom?

By Ben Bull
Published April 14, 2005

When I was a kid I used to love looking for spare change. I would occupy myself for hours, walking like a hunchback and staring intently at the ground for that unmistakable twinkle, that glimmer that would make my little heart leap with joy.

So it was one Saturday morning, on a trip into town. My Mum was loaded down with shopping, hurrying to get home, and her little Quasimodo lurched along five yards behind, bumping into random strangers and stopping every ten paces to examine a piece of glass or a slot machine token.

"For God's sake, child!" she would yell. "Will you watch where you are going?"

"Yes, Mum," I would reply obediently, without looking up.

This particular Saturday was memorable for one reason: It was the day I hit the jackpot.

Well, almost.

I had found about three pence so far, scattered over two miles of Leeds pavement, and I was about to straighten up and call it quits. But then, just as I made one final sweep of the earth, I caught sight of something a few steps ahead. It was round, shiny, and just about the size of a two pence piece!

As I ran for the treasure another glimmer caught my eye. Then another! And another! My God, the street was paved with gold! I squealed with delight and charged for the loot.

Just as I came upon the first coin I saw a huge shadow looming in from my right. I skidded to a stop just in time to watch a filthy black hand swoop down and snatch my prize away. My shock turned to disbelief as I stood and watched this grown man stumble across the asphalt, scooping up my two pence pieces with the enthusiasm of a destitute child.

After collecting the last one he turned and headed back in my direction. I had never seen a tramp before and was paralyzed by the sight of this man. His appearance was in every way tramp-like - a weathered face, an unwashed beard and smelly, stained trousers - but it was not this that stuck in my mind. It was his expression.

He was staring blankly, straight ahead, and I saw in his eyes the look of a man who had lost all hope, all vestiges of self respect, and all pretence of a grip on reality.

I have not seen that look for a long time, until now. You see, after moving to Hamilton five years ago, via Toronto and Leeds in England, I have noticed something very peculiar about this town: it has no self respect.

What the hell am I talking about? you might ask. How could I even think to compare this proud city of ours to a spaced-out tramp who steals money from a child? Well, I would ask you right back: what else am I supposed to make of everything I see? What else could possibly explain what we have done, and continue to allow to be done, to this city?

Of course, it would be disrespectful of me to come to this conclusion without some justification. So please, allow me to recap what I have seen in this town, and to justify my belief that these can only be the actions of a town with food stuck between its teeth, holes in its shoes, and stains on its trousers.

We Have No Self Belief

We all know what Hamilton looks like from a distance. Our first impression - the view from the bridge - is, well, it is what it is. We all know there is beauty beneath our skin, but my question is this: what do we do to show it? Where is our self expression and pride?

As you drive along the QEW there is virtually nothing to draw you into this town. For four years I happily whipped by, holding my breath and shaking my head all the way over the bridge. Why the hell would I go there? I saw no signage, no motto, no landmark - no signs of life or inner beauty from beneath the musty outer layer.

It's as if this town has lost all pride - all self-belief. We just want to be left alone in our misery. People pass us by like a tramp in the gutter, shaking their heads knowing that there is nothing they can do to help us, until we decide to help ourselves.

We have No Self Respect

Hamilton is not well-kept. Our inability and unwillingness to look after ourselves has left us looking scruffy and forlorn. This lack of self respect manifests itself in many forms.

Our Appearance: The one sight that stuck with me after moving into the east end was from one of the lookout points on the escarpment. I noticed, with amazement, that the north end of Hamilton, from downtown all the way into Stoney Creek, is almost devoid of any trees or parks.

The contrast between this and the south side of King is remarkable. And then I discovered Gage Park and again I wondered, "What the hell is going on?" And what happened to the Gage Park Fountain?

This fountain, constructed in splendor by the same architect that gave us Union station and the McQueston Bridge, now sullies the entire park landscape with its filthy water and felt-tip graffiti. And yet, ironically, it stands within a stone's throw of the city's Parks and Rec depot.

All over Hamilton, nature is losing its battle. Year by year we struggle to justify the money for tree planting. And this year we cannot even find the spare change to clean the downtown streets.

We consistently fail to cherish what we already have. We treat our environment as a nuisance, an annoying expense, a barrier to our misguided pursuit of "progress". The trouble is, when we look bad, we feel bad too.

Our state of Mind: Here in Hamilton we are in the habit of deluding ourselves. In our desperation to pick ourselves up and feel good we embrace the false optimism that is foistered upon us by our civic leaders and disconnected media elite. We say "I love Hamilton" not necessarily because we mean it, but because we desperately want it to be true.

Our Hygiene: The Rennie toxic landfill, the Randal Reef, the "Summer of Sludge" (2004 Bay leak) ... Hamilton has a not-so-proud history of toxic leaks, smelly mishaps, and bad air days.

One day, two years ago, my brother-in-law and his kids came to meet us on Hamilton beach. They found a condom and went home. I would have encouraged him to come back except, well, there were a lot more condoms.

Hamilton is filthy. Our toxic mistakes are a disgrace. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves and I think, for the most part, that we are. But yet - this does not change. The latest toxic spill happened only last year, and it took the city days even to acknowledge it.

We seem to have lost all pride in our appearance, the way we look and the way we smell. Even Plastimet, which I learned about just recently in the Spec series "Heat," seems to be something that could only happen in Hamilton. But it can only happen if we let it - which we do.

We Are Aimless

Hamilton walks around all day with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Looking for its next piece of spare change. There is no clear vision for this town and as a result we get blown by the wind. When you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there. The trouble is, in Hamilton, these roads always seem to lead us the wrong way.

For evidence of our town's distraught psychology, you need to look no further than the recent spate of festival cancellations. What else is a civic celebration than an expression of our collective pride? When you are part of a great team, who the hell wouldn't want to get together and celebrate? Not us. Not Hamilton.

Our Bayfront festival has been cancelled and there is no outcry. Lorne Leiberman leaves Creative Arts because of frustrations with the City and the Festival of Friends threatens to cancel out next year. Again, not a whimper.

Why else would we be so unmoved by our inability to have fun together? Because we are not together. We are not a proper town. Hamilton is a town of many parts, split by a Mountain, a misguided amalgamation, and the never-ending blight of soul-sapping sprawl.

Waves of change keep washing over us and we never see them coming. They leave us scattered and disoriented and wondering what happened. We are a town of seemingly irreconcilable differences looking for a divorce.

It's just too bad that the one neighbourhood that could bring us back together - the downtown core - continues to get second budget billing to another road. So, instead of coming together and celebrating our union, we simply drift further and further apart.

We Have No Identity

What are the inner strengths of Hamilton's personality? What is our town built upon? Our glorious heritage buildings? Our downtown? Our beautiful bay? Our University? Our natural beauty?

Sounds good to me. But what do we do to build on our abilities? Nothing! Our current priorities, such as we have any, are centered around more road building and nothing much of anything to do with our real strengths.

The Tiv collapse is the last in a long line of wonderful theatres and stunning buildings that we have stood and watched all the way down.

For a town that struggles to find its self-confidence and identity, we are doing a good job of erasing everything that makes us what we are gives us strength. Our confidence crumbles with every fading façade. We are a town with many talents but don't know what to do with them. Like the kid with the high IQ who is suffocated by his own potential, we have lost our way.

We Are Apathetic

In between the "downers" of life in Hamilton, there are plenty of "highs." The Music Hall of Fame, the explosion of fine dining in the core, the always excellent local arts scene, the impending Lister block announcement.

But what do we do in the face of all this good news? How loud do we trumpet our good fortune from the rooftops of the Spec or a local radio station near you? Not very.

Hamilton is not ready for good news. We are wary of success. We have been burned too many times before. Hope? We used to have some of that? Fight? Yes we had that too. But the mental illness that is our civic leadership has worn us to the core, and we can hope no more.

We are apathetic and depressed. We lack the self-belief to be hopeful once again, so we sneak beneath our soggy blanket and curl up on our grate. Please pass us the bottle - we don't want to wake up!

We Are Confused

Hamilton is a town that sues penniless tree sitters and blames everyone else for its predicament. Like a street corner madman, we wave our arms and rant at passersby. Nothing is our fault. While we are not entirely responsible for our own mess, our tantrums are way out of proportion to our predicaments, and usually directed at the wrong people.

So how low can we go? Dirty cabs, ugly sprawl, malls, more malls and everywhere a busy road: how low must we go before we finally reach the gutter? If it weren't for a few wise people on council and the ever-present activists in this town, we would surely be all the way there already.

I'm convinced that the root of our inaction, apathy and depression is the consistent lack of leadership and adequate representation we have been getting in this town. Hamilton's challenges have not been easy, and running a city is anything but easy, but our leaders have failed to meet these challenges time and time again, and it is they, more than anyone else, who are responsible for how we feel today: down and out.

This town is confused, bedraggled and blown by the wind. It lacks direction, self confidence and spirit. It has no self respect.

It's time for us to take a look at ourselves and see if we like what we see. It's time to hold ourselves, and our elected officials, to account for what we have become.

It's time to get ourselves together.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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