“No one dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or
They dream of dealing on
the dirty boulevard.”
Lou Reed, Dirty Boulevard
The there for you Teenage Head, which knew a thing or two about Barton Street once asked listeners to “picture my face.”
Well how about picture the face of Barton Street northward, between Ottawa Street and James Street, circa the glorious summer, 1971?
A vibrant if somewhat earthy and scruffy street of dreams of veteran Hamilton northenders, Italian, Polish, Yugoslavian and Ukrainian immigrants all in a pretty harmonious melting pot of hyphenated yet proud and patriotic hardworking, pragmatic, steely eyed homies.
Much of the populace of that era worked at Stelco, Dofasco, Westinghouse, and International Harvester etc., and made good money of which they spent a good deal on their street that was a cornucopia of shops, services, eateries and what ever what have you not legits.
For the immigrants toiling in the factories — let’s hear it for the close by Princess Street — it was an ample entry port and for the second and third generation Canadians, it was an affordable array of Victorian era row houses from which sprang some of the most toughened and resourceful Hamiltonians, ever.
I traversed this boulevard hundreds of times in the ’60s and early ’70s, visiting the vanished Lundy’s Marine where I got my first outboard Mercury — 9.8 horse I seem to recall — fishing motor and just before Wentworth Avenue on the north side, Gulliver’s Cycle and Sports where I bought a fearsome Kawasaki H2 750 2 stroke rice burner bike from Munk that at the time was the world’s fastest street bike. Both going concern shops have been KIA for a long time.
Those were the days, my friend
Martin’s Steak House, where the Ti–Cat players and coaches used to hang out and a great pepper steak could be had for less than two bucks, the Avon beer house in the shadow of Ivor Wynne wherein on Tuesday’s you could get five draughts for a dollar, and the Aquarium where pols and mobsters and regular barfly’s hung together in many times soused harmony.
And during these times, there was not a hooker at virtually every corner, a dealer feeding them just behind the corner, nor was there highly intoxicated denizens wandering and stumbling around, scuffles here, fights there, malevolent mayhem, murders. Now, there is this and much more, including urban blight approaching some of the worst US ghettos.Cops don’t even like going there, the land of the $450 dollar falling apart apartment, bed bugs, lice, cockroaches, guns, knives, 24/7 party people no extra charge and so who the hell could blame them?
Barton Street North today is an urban disaster of great filthy proportions despite tepid attempts by various city governments to put a band aid on an open, sucking chest wound. Fancy sidewalks and squeezed traffic lanes to “calm” motorists trying to get the hell out don’t mean shit to the street. It’s just all about basic survival down there. Yeah, it’s dangerous out here tonight, but a fella’s gotta eat.
What to do? Well, many of the politicians in this town are, to be kind, dodgy jackasses who would sell you and yo mama for much less than they’re worth so I’m not going to waste your precious time with yet more of the same bullshit from them.
They may even have a stake in keeping the street down in a dystopian Lou–like give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ‘em. These poor huddled masses? Let’s club ‘em to death, get it over with, and dump ‘em on the boulevard. More on that, later.
So those un–corrupted and operating in the real world are way more credible to hear from.
Let's call him Doc Gonzo, a real saw bones practitioner who for obvious reasons would rather remain anon, worked this dirty boulevard back in its not quite yet totally destroyed late 20th century existence and now frequents the area so as to remind himself to never look down on anyone.
He’s got some ideas on what some call the asshole of the Hammer, in a first person non–hypocritical oath of do no harm mind set of what to do to reclaim the concrete jungle.
What’s up, Doc?
“When I was in medical school, numerous clinicians referred to Barton St. As “the trenches”, the battlefield where real doctors worked. There were legends on Barton, Dr. Siegel, Dr. Day, Dr. Farris and Dr. Greenspoon. They were talked about with great revere, like they were sacred, “real doctors” I was told.
“I was matched as a student to do a clinical with Dr. A. Greenspoon. I learned more about kindness, acceptance, compassion and clinical medicine from him than all the other family doctors I worked with.
“So I began my career on Barton for 12 years before I took a hospital position. There was never a dull moment, I had a knife held to my throat for Percocets, I had a youth gang chase a boy, a patient of mine, into my waiting room and I physically fought four kids to protect him.
“I wasn’t happy punching out four punks but I felt wonderful that he thought my office was a safe refuge for him. His mother and father came to thank me, I knew them well, they brought me a tasty casserole, they cried telling me that they had nothing else to give. Maybe it was the greatest gift I ever had.
“I held newborns, saw so many die. Disease grossly parallels income. There is an equation, poverty, smoking, diet, exercise, drugs, education, tough life + struggle x time = ill health. It was a great experience, there was no “cherry picking”. I took what came through the door.
“Eventually the Barton Street Jail would call me looking for a doctor to help out a released inmate. I didn’t and don’t judge people. I meet a lot of amazing people, horribly wounded with ineffective parenting, childhood sexual abuse, bad choices in friends, no job survival skills, domestic violence, no sense of money management.”
Your comments as a health
professional on substance abuse, prostitution and poverty.
“Poverty cannot be erased. It had a long head start on solutions. The best you can do is trickle an insignificant additional money to them. Putting elevated flower gardens in the middle of Barton Street, fancy cast iron light standards, sticky outy sidewalk humps to slow traffic doesn’t make lack of formal education go away, it doesn’t teach people dental hygiene, it doesn’t teach effective grocery shopping.
“Ultimately if you graph economic society like a pyramid, the base only narrows or widens with their income and economy. The pyramid is always there if you doubled their income, the base would narrow, the slope of the sides would be steeper, but the volume has to stay the same.
“Generally, additional money would not go towards night school classes, dental repairs, food security. It would go to self pleasuring, junk food, alcohol, drugs, and acquisition of material goods. A social worker once took me to the big grocery store beside the jail on “cheque day”, I was shocked, sickened. Shopping carts heaped With cases of pop, bags of chips, candied cereal. There was nothing that I would consider to be “food”. It was all instant gratification, self pleasuring.
“Prostitution is a woman’s solution to increased income. However, none of them are driving Cadillac Escalades. Substance abuse consumes their efforts, often shared by a male partner with similar addictions. I have talked to many, doing shifts in the Hamilton General Emergency Room.
“Every taxi driver knows where every drug dealer and crack house is, so do the police. The police are overwhelmed, policing is a limited resource. They have to target perceived big guys. Like grow ops in the past, they had a very long list but limited surveillance resources. The very laws that give us freedom protect unwarranted entry into drug houses. Those laws prevent arbitrary search. The laws of evidence that protect us also protect them.”
Your ideas of what it is,
what it could be,
or what it never will be.
“It simply is the unfixable bottom segment of society. Barton Street is all about bad decisions. “The bottom” will always be there. It has to be, overall, we as a society have to praise a meritocracy, reward for effort. We cannot raise up the bottom and yet value the top. There has to be an award for effort. Interlocking bricks and impressed concrete sidewalks are an effort to hide it. The resources to intervene at the source of the problem don’t exist in the needed volume and the solution is trans generational. There are societies that do not have these problems. But do we want to be them?
“Barton Street is a metaphor of free choice, the ultimate outcome of the freedom to craft your own life plan. It is a product of fair and just laws, choices entrenched in our Charter and Constitution. It is obviously the dark side of these. Not all people given equality to engage life achieve an equity of outcome. Decision making, parenting skills, no one talks about it.”
Sounds like a good prescription, to me, Doc. V
Terry Ott is a Hamilton journalist He can be reached at email@example.com