The Ambitious City

Two weeks ago we went to a terrific concert, Welcome to Hamilton, where the Supercrawl organizers raised a great deal of money to provide cultural and recreational opportunities for Syrian refugee youth. 

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From the stage, Matt Berninger of The National noted that Hamilton is welcoming as many or more Syrian newcomers than the entire United States. (As are many other Canadian cities.)

Between sets and in the gorgeous evening light at New Vision United Church, Hamilton writers spoke briefly and evocatively about the city.

Poet John Terpstra read Giants: "There used to be giants,/and they loved it here. They'd sit/their giant hinds in a row along the top edge/of the escarpment"...

Gary Barwin, author of Yiddish for Pirates, read Poem for Welcome to Hamilton: "welcome to the city/now each other's home".

Sally Cooper read a scene from her novel-in-progress, leading us along James St., the centre of our civic renaissance, at a critical time for both her character and for the street. (Yes, custard tarts are mentioned in the story. Some things should not change.)

Steve spoke too, and here is his script: 

This town has changed a lot since I was a kid. On the block where I grew up you could go past the houses and say, Stelco, Dofasco, P & G, National Steel Car, Studebaker. The places where the dads worked, mostly gone now.

Every once in a while, especially in summertime, the air would get particularly funky and my parents would say, don't worry about that -- that's the smell of jobs. 

Twenty-five years ago, when I moved home for good, I had to explain to my big-city friends where I was going and why, defending the home turf against those familiar slurs.

The air is better now, the water is cleaner in Cootes Paradise, and all the cool kids want to move to Hamilton -- to "Brooklyn North". Suddenly everyone is talking about real estate. Sometimes you wouldn't guess that some of the poorest neighbourhoods are right down the street from here.

But there are things about this place that haven't changed. Authenticity is the word I always come back to. 

This is its own place, not part of the Greater-anything-else, an honest place, low on pretence, grounded, with a great big beating heart that you can hear thumping away tonight. 

So: Welcome to the Ambitious City, those of you who have been here all your lives, those more newly arrived, and those who have just joined us from faraway. 

I have always liked that slogan, even though it was used as cover for some godawful political decisions in the past. It suggests a town full of strivers bucking the odds, trying to build something together, to make better lives. To me that sounds like as good a place as any to call home. 

-- Stephen Brunt

Mother Tareka performs at New Vision, June 3 -- Cathie Coward. (Reproduced with the kind permission of The Hamilton Spectator)

Mother Tareka performs at New Vision, June 3 -- Cathie Coward. (Reproduced with the kind permission of The Hamilton Spectator)

Doves

"In Kenya they call them laughing doves," my father said when I told him that doves were nesting and cooing in the giant spruce tree in front of our new little house and that I hated to call them by their proper, sad name, mourning doves. As it turns out, they aren't really the same bird at all, the laughing and the mourning doves, and the laughing ones coo out a distinctive kind of hilarity, but I understand that my father's larger point was to suggest fundamentally different ways of seeing the world, and I understand that he knew a thing or two about the world, even if he got this one wrong.

The other day a woman I admire told me that she is quite enjoying growing old "because there is so much more to laugh about." Now there is someone who might hear laughter in the cooing of the birds in my tree, the non-laughing brand of dove.

I think I hear in those hollow, repeating hoots, which have collected softly in the chilly dawn outside my bedroom window early into each of the 25 springs we have lived here, just a little sleepy-morning bird-family sound. Getting the fledglings up and about, poking at the seedy scraps saved from dinner, fluffing up the ol' nest fibres. No mourning, or crying, like the doves in poor, pain-wracked Prince's song. Just the waking to and greeting of another day.

My own brood, which I tended in the little house just a few feet away from the spruce (and that is another thing I like about the doves: they don't mind that we are here) makes me laugh helplessly sometimes. We make a fair bit of noise when we phone and visit and dine together and I am so grateful every time I hear them laughing with each other. Good-naturedly, at each other. At me. Makes me grin, soften, with laughter at the back of my throat, makes me want to coo at them as I did to their tiny selves not that long ago, before these nice big people turned up.

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Schooled

You had to plant your feet wide in order to look, dizzyingly, upward, the yellowed floorboards beneath you and the grandly banistered staircase before you.

For balance, I used to stick my arms out a bit and hope that didn't look too babyish. The principal's office was tucked behind those stairs; there were rumours that The Strap lay in a drawer there but no one seemed to have seen, much less endured it. Behind you, a stained-glass frieze: youngsters in bonnets frolicking above in Gothic script, the words Kinder Garten -- the land of naptime mats and little rhymes, Dixie cups of milk, and Arrowroot biscuits.

So, up, up, through the second and third-floor wells, which were lined with iron railings we were never to lean over. There was a story about horseplay and a tumbled, badly hurt pupil. We stood around those wells to sing carols at Christmas, the biggest kids (current events, geometry sets, Bristol-board projects!) on the third floor.

Deeply-coloured light quilted that third-floor ceiling. I don't remember the stained-glass pattern, only the sense of privilege that it inspired. This was special though it lived in the land of the everyday. There was meaning here. The beauty and the mild strangeness of that patch of coloured sky has never left me.

As soon as I had got the hang of the place, its destruction was planned. There was great contempt for older buildings in the Toronto of the 1960s and early '70s. One of our teachers declared at a meeting about the building's future that the school was so decrepit he had to carry around a hammer and repair, regularly, its sprung floorboards. He had taught me then for two grades and I had never seen him wield a hammer.

The wrecking balls came (they were so common around mid- and downtown that I can see the demolition firm's name, stencilled on its hoardings, and the dust that hung above demolition sites, even now) and then they they went, and with them went the mellow Edwardian brick and limestone, the high-ceilinged pastel-painted classrooms (pink and mint and ripened cream), their tall, deep windows and dark cloakrooms. The Home and School had the bathrooms' grey marble cut into squares and sold them as fundraising souvenirs. A featureless red brick building rose, a lozengey blank at the crest of a hill on busy Avenue Rd., where far more than once I bumped, painfully, into sidewalk lampposts after leaving for home with a new book from the second-floor library and trying, unwisely, to read it while walking.

Last summer, in the perfect and beautiful St. Patrick's church in Woody Point, NL, recently repurposed as a performance space, someone told me that old buildings have charisma. I think they have honour as well. Their history, the effort of building, maintaining, renovating them, honours the effort expended within them (learning, say, or making art.) Often in dreams I am back at school, and sometimes my dreams are not panic dreams of the O-no-I-haven't-studied-for-the-final! stripe. Instead I am home.