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A few years ago, plans to build a stadium and other facilities for the upcoming Pan Am Games settled on largely derelict lands in the “West Harbour”, bordered by Bay, Queen, Barton and the CN rail yard. Homes were expropriated and entire blocks were bulldozed in anticipation. Then came doubts from the Hamilton Tiger Cats, who would be using the stadium after the games, and their owner Bob Young. He demanded a site on the south-east mountain with better highway access, and threatened to take his football team to another town if he didn’t get his way. The battle was fierce, eventually shifted its focus again to the rail yards near Aberdeen and Longwood, then finally concluded with a decision to renovate the Ti-Cats present stadium (Ivor Wynne), while offloading other facilities (like the Velodrome) to other towns. It was a long and bitter battle, and many still hold deep grudges.
Before the stadium proposals, there had been an extensive set of consultations with the community on what to do with the “Barton-Tiffany” area. The plan which came out of it, Setting Sail, proposed some low-density housing to fill the area and was quite popular with the neighbours. The proposed stadium totally derailled these plans, which never really managed to recover. Instead the city now seems intent on finding a big-budget developer to build condominium or entertainment facilities. In the meantime, they sit vacant.
Or do they?
In the middle of one of these blocks lies a couple of trees and some bushes, one of the few enclaves of life in these vast, vacant lots. While cruising down Barton something caught my eye and I turned to notice a couple of tiny garden plots dug into the ground by them. They’re surrounded by dirt, and a few scraggly weeds on the south side in unblievably cracked, dry ground (though yesterday’s rain may have helped). It’s all very crude – could easily have been done by one or two people with a shovel or two and a couple of bucks in seedlings. Still, in the midst of all this destruction, it’s pretty inspiring. I’ve got no idea who put this in – could have been activists, artists, neighbours or hobos. The choice of Asian vegetables certainly makes me wonder, given neighbourhood demographics…. I can’t say whether they’ll survive the summer, or whether it’s even tended. I also wouldn’t exactly be eager to eat anything grown in that area, as the price of cleaning up contamination was one of the oft-cited reasons not to put a stadium there.
Whether any food will come of it, though, is beside the point. Not only is it beautiful, but it makes one hell of a point.
Taking a closer look at the crops, this was pretty clearly done by someone who had at least some gardeing experience. The crops are both eastern and western – in the picture you can see “foo gwa”, or bitter mellon, under some very DIY trellises. They’ve dug out a pretty impressive space, with a couple of beds full of row-crops and trellises. Though the dirt doesn’t look great, it’s world’s above anything around it, which makes me wonder if some was brought it. Just as easily, though, it could have been achieved through weeds and natural regrowth. This tiny patch of land, even without a garden, would be a testament to the restorative powers of natural vegetation.
I just love this scarecrow. While standing, it’s what drew my attention to the garden, and it adds a really nice touch. The entire aesthetic here – building with old boards and branches – gives the site a really authentic “North Hamilton” feel. It’s a pleasant reminder that we don’t need a six-figure budget to put shovels in the ground.
To put this all in perspective, here’s a look to the northwest from the garden. The fence and overgrowth in the distance is the next block, which has been derelict and wild as long as I can remember. This site used to contain chome-plating facilities (very toxic) and became the centre of controversy recently when local activist Matt Jelly snuck in and photographed the toxic barrels which sat (illegally) inside. They’ve since been removed, to another location on Catherine St. N., which also became something of a controversy when discovered by the mighty Jelly. It has since been demolished, leaving another rubble lot.
If there’s one “moral” to this story, it’s that we don’t need to wait before taking action like this. There are hundreds if not thousands of these sites in our city. Anybody can go down with a shovel to a neglected lot somewhere and start growing something. Community gardens are popping up everywhere, as are vegetable plots at homes and apartment buildings. We have started down the long road toward greening North Hamilton, but we still have a very long way to go. On sites like this, where we’re not even sure if the dirt itself is safe, we may first need to grow soil before we can grow food. Even without produce, though, these gardens like this are still a beautiful and inspiring reclamation of public space. For however long they last, these plots will be a symbol of something else springing up from the rubble.