Street’s players debate whether Pan Am field will kick off a winning era …
or drop the ball
By STEVE BUIST
On the south side of Barton Street East, there’s a vacant lot extending the entire block between Balsam and Connaught avenues.
This being Hamilton, even a vacant lot comes with a colourful story.
In this case, the land is owned by a numbered company that lists a dead man as vice-president and director.
He is – was – Awny Taha, owner of the Hamilton-area chain of Big Bear convenience stores. He died in the wee hours of an October morning last year when his car crashed into a concrete pillar on Burlington Street East.
In 1990, Taha survived despite being shot six times at point-blank range in what was described as a blood feud with a former friend, a feud that ultimately involved charges and court cases back and forth for years. Three months after his death, Taha was identified as a suspect in a fatal arson that destroyed a competitor’s convenience store last August.
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But that’s not what brings us to this parcel of land.
On the west edge of the lot looking south, Ivor Wynne Stadium – or at least the empty space where the stadium once stood – is visible just one block away.
In the middle of the vacant lot is a big sign: New Home of Big Bear Convenience, Spring 2007.
Six years later, there is no new convenience store. The lot remains vacant.
There’s a phone number on the sign. It’s no longer in service.
This long-vacant lot and its nonexistent convenience store one block from the old Ivor Wynne is a cautionary tale for a city that hopes a new stadium will act as a catalyst for urban renewal and growth on Barton Street between Gage and Sherman avenues.
The key word is “catalyst, ” said Glen Norton, Hamilton’s manager of urban renewal. He acknowledges a stadium on its own won’t be enough to rejuvenate the area around Barton Street East, west of Gage Avenue.
“We have to remember that the Pan Am stadium isn’t being built just as a Barton Street regeneration initiative, ” said Norton.
“The city needs to do other things and is going to do other things to support that area.
“That’s why it’s being referred to as a precinct. It’s not a stadium, it’s a precinct we’re building, ” Norton added. “The city is committed to putting other things in around there.”
The city has defined the Pan Am stadium precinct as the rectangle that covers Barton to King streets from Gage Avenue North to Lottridge Street.
As for the stadium itself, the plan is to increase the amount of traffic it generates by including new uses.
“Part of the problem is that it’s never been programmed properly for anything other than football, ” said Norton.
“With the new facility, in addition to having the football, you have it programmed for other community uses, ” Norton added. “Now it will be 365 days a year because there is an indoor portion of it.
“Now maybe a restaurant down there makes sense, or a sports bar. It needs to be looked at with a holistic view.”
In February, about 100 area residents attended a meeting at Prince of Wales School to provide suggestions on the precinct plan.
In the words of a report that summarized the evening’s discussion, “There is a sense of excitement with the redevelopment of the stadium as there had been little investment in the area in recent years.”
What the residents said they’d like are such things as a new library, community recreation centre, a restaurant or pub, a beer store and a liquor store.
What they don’t want are more dollar stores and tattoo parlours.
According to the summary report, there was a consensus that the part of the stadium precinct most in need of attention was Barton Street.
“There is a common feeling that large chains, banks, restaurants and other retailers have stereotyped the neighbourhood as one that will not support their businesses, ” according to the report’s bluntly worded conclusion.
“There was a general consensus reached that this is not what people want visitors from around the world to be exposed to when they visit Hamilton for the first time.”
At the Big Bee convenience store on Barton Street, a block from the Ivor Wynne site, owner Ali Hamade said a redeveloped stadium precinct would improve his business and those around him.
“The value of the area is going to be a lot better, it’s good for the city, ” said Hamade. “I’ve been here for almost 20 years and it’s been going down in value.
“When they started to develop that stadium, lots of people bought lots of properties around here, ” Hamade added. “Whoever bought, they know business.
“They know property is going to go up after the development of that stadium.”
Ironically, he said, lower incomes in the neighbourhood don’t necessarily hinder his business.
“They don’t want to go to a big store, they come to a convenience store, ” said Hamade.
“But in the meantime, it’s a tough area, ” he added. “We’ve got lots of problems – lots of robberies, lots of shoplifting.”
At the cash register, customer Gilles Caron pays for his purchase and adds his two cents’ worth.
He, too, thinks a redeveloped stadium precinct will be a welcome tonic for the neighbourhood.
“It’s going to bring a lot of people into the area, ” said Caron, an ironworker from New Brunswick.
“The more people around here, the more money we all make.”
But not everyone agrees about the new stadium’s impact.
Steve Pocrnic, a real estate developer, owns properties on Barton Street East just west of Sherman Avenue.
Granted, they’re a few blocks farther from the stadium, but he didn’t hesitate when asked if the new stadium will help fill his vacant storefronts.
“No, ” said Pocrnic. “And other than maybe a few retailers, I question whether it will have any impact on anybody.”
It was 1995 and time for a change of scenery.
The bishop had given Rev. Mike Isabelle his choice of three Catholic parishes to lead.
One was in Burlington, one was on the Mountain and the other was St. Ann’s, on the corner of Barton and Sherman.
The choice was easy. As a boy growing up on Barnesdale Avenue North in the ’40s and ’50s, Isabelle could almost throw a stone from his front yard and hit the back of St. Ann’s. Now, he was being given the chance to lead the flock at his childhood church, a rare opportunity for a priest.
The St. Ann’s neighbourhood of his youth was a European melting pot, with dashes of Italian, Polish, Croatian and Ukrainian cultures.
“On a summer’s evening, pretty well everyone would be out on the front porch, yakking with each other and watching the world go by, ” said Isabelle. “You knew your neighbours and you even knew their relatives because they would come and visit.
“Although there were different cultures, it was very close-knit.”
“There were all kinds of small businesses that were actually growing and flourishing because the neighbourhood used them, ” said Isabelle.
The stretch of Barton between Sherman and Gage has also been Hamilton’s religious row for nearly a century.
Next to St. Ann’s is St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Polish Church and beside that, the Church of the Holy Spirit Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Further to the east, there’s St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church, Holy Trinity Polish National Catholic Church and St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral.
But it was a much different neighbourhood that greeted Isabelle when he returned to St. Ann’s some 30 years later.
“A number of stores on Barton Street were closed and shuttered, which was very shocking, ” said Isabelle. “It became an area of prostitution and at any given street corner, the sex trade workers would be in the area.
“The old families, they were all pretty well gone and there was nothing to replace them.”
He also noticed the roots in the community were more shallow.
Shop owners no longer lived in the apartments above their stores and absentee landlords were the norm.
Those who grew up in the neighbourhood were more inclined to move to the suburbs, and those left behind eventually died off.
“People basically tended to lose a sense of commitment to the neighbourhood, ” said Isabelle. “A lot of the people there at the parish were temporary.
“They’d move in and a year later would leave because they found something better, ” he added. “It became transitory, a stopping-off place before ‘movin’ on up to the east side.'”
Even the health of the church was in question, he recalled. Parishioners began to wonder if St. Ann’s would survive.
“About my third Sunday, I got up and said ‘I have not been sent here to close St. Ann’s. I am one of you, ‘” Isabelle said, a hint of exasperation still evident in his voice. “‘We’re not going to close this place, we’re going to make it work.’ And we did.”
Isabelle retired in 2010 after 15 years at St. Ann’s. He’s proud to say the church outlasted him.
“Now St. Ann’s is like the United Nations, ” said Isabelle.
There’s still a sprinkling of the European cultures, but they’ve been joined by Vietnamese and Filipino parishioners, as well as people from Africa and South America.
“The neighbourhood is still a melting pot, it’s just that the ingredients have changed, ” Isabelle said.
The priest is among those who believe Barton Street will rise again if there’s a political commitment as well as a commitment from those who live around the street.
“I’m not pessimistic about the area, ” said Isabelle. “I think the new Ivor Wynne is going to be very helpful to the area.
“You can look at it as an area to make you depressed or as an area of opportunity.”
The property owner
Across Barton Street from St. Ann’s, there’s a building with the landmark Bel Air Grill restaurant sandwiched between a variety store and a vacant storefront. Upstairs, there are eight apartment units.
The building is owned by Rahim Thawer of Toronto. He bought the property for $400,000 in April 2010.
Thawer also owns two side-by-side properties farther west at 338-342 Barton St. E. at the corner of Emerald Street that include a small stand-alone storefront, a laundromat and five apartment units.
He bought those properties in January 2011 for $345,000.
Thawer said he was looking for buildings with a mix of commercial and residential components. He was drawn to Hamilton because it provided good value.
“You can’t buy a building like that anywhere else and still have the cash flow, ” Thawer said. “You get great cash flow from those buildings.”
Maybe so, but city records show that, as of Feb. 13, Thawer had accumulated just over $60,000 in tax arrears on his two Barton Street properties, equal to about three years’ back taxes.
Thawer blamed the arrears on water charges that predated his ownership of the buildings.
“When I purchased the buildings, for some reason I got charged other people’s water charges from like 10 years or something, ” said Thawer.
But a city tax official said taxes on Thawer’s two properties were current when he bought them.
The city official also noted Thawer’s claim doesn’t explain how his arrears went from about $21,500 in late 2011 – well after he owned both properties – to more than $60,000 in February.
Thawer is another person who believes the Pan Am Games and new stadium will give Barton Street a boost.
“The people I talk to, they believe in Barton Street, they believe it’s going to come back again, ” said Thawer.
At 740 Barton St. E., on the corner of Barnesdale Avenue, sits a sand-coloured cube of a building.
The building once housed the medical practice of the late Victor Cecilioni, a physician who was ahead of his time in some ways.
Cecilioni, who died in 1992 at the age of 81, was a pioneer in examining the link between industrial pollution and the health of workers.
His interest in the subject came naturally. His father worked in Stelco’s coke ovens and died of a respiratory illness.
Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cecilioni was publishing articles in medical journals on the connections he saw between cancers in steelworkers and the use of certain chemicals in the steelmaking process.
His medical journal articles included crude Code Red-style maps of the city that showed how lung-cancer rates in the lower-central part of Hamilton were four times higher than they were on the Mountain. He described what he called a “cancer belt” in the neighbourhoods closest to the steel mills.
He also included charts showing how the number of patients treated in HamiltonGeneralHospital’s emergency department for respiratory problems rose and fell as the daily maximum air quality index rose and fell.
Cecilioni wasn’t afraid to tweak the noses of his medical counterparts.
In an April 1976 edition of the Canadian Family Physician journal, he wrote that family doctors needed to take greater interest in their patients’ workplaces. He noted that physicians employed by industrial/manufacturing firms had a greater allegiance to industry than to workers.
“Industrial physicians could be more truthful about some of the environmental hazards caused by employers, ” Cecilioni said at the time, “and they should be more concerned with the present and future health of the employees.”
Cecilioni has been gone for just over 20 years now. Perhaps ironically, the same holds true for much of the pollution-belching industry that existed within blocks of the doctor’s old Barton Street practice. The Hoover company at the corner of Gage and Barton has been gone since 1974. Dominion Glass, a block away from Hoover, closed in 1997.
A few blocks away on the waterfront, up to 90 per cent of the jobs at the two major steelmakers have evaporated in the space of a generation.
And now the stadium is gone, too, soon to be replaced by a new version that may help spark life in an old neighbourhood.
There is another vacant lot worth noting on Barton Street.
It is two dozen blocks west of the one between Connaught and Balsam avenues.
It, too, provides a cautionary tale about how difficult it can be to engineer urban renewal.
Like Ivor Wynne Stadium to the east, the hospital has been in place for many, many decades, a reliable cornerstone for the surrounding community.
A couple of thousand people stream in and out of the General every day, and a good number of them are well-paid employees.
Over the course of a year, that’s three times more people than would visit Ivor Wynne Stadium during the Tiger-Cats’ season, and the hospital traffic is steady day after day, rain or shine.
Yet despite a ready-made potential clientele, the vacant lot across the street persists. A handful of storefronts within a block of the hospital sit empty and other ground-floor storefronts have been converted to residential use because of their lack of commercial potential.
It’s a problem that has caught the attention of Teresa Smith, president of HamiltonGeneralHospital.
“To your point, the General has been here forever and yet, still, Barton businesses are as they are, ” said Smith.
“How can we not sit here and pay attention to what our role is or should be? We don’t have all the answers yet but we’re thinking about it.
“We do have these 2,000 people who come and go here every day, ” Smith added. “I just don’t think we’ve thought of an awareness campaign.
“Should we be trying to support our local merchants? Have we invited that in? Traditionally, no.”
The job of a hospital, of course, is to fix sick people, not sick neighbourhoods. But in the wake of The Spectator’s original Code Red series in 2010, Smith began wondering why those two outcomes couldn’t be wed.
Code Red showed poor health outcomes in Hamilton are linked to neighbourhoods with high rates of poverty and low education. Several of the neighbourhoods with the worst outcomes were within walking distance of HamiltonGeneralHospital.
“I picked it up and said, ‘Holy moly, here we sit in the middle of that urban core, ‘” Smith said. “We also play a community role as a community hospital.
“Traditionally, we, as an acute health care provider, haven’t thought in the mindset of social determinants of health and whether, in a direct or indirect way, we should be reaching out into our community so that it’s healthier.”
A Code Red Snapshot
Key statistics taken from The Spectator’s Code Red and BORN series for the neighbourhood centred on Barton Street East, between Sherman and Gage avenues:
Second-highest rate of low-birth-weight babies in Hamilton: 13.4 per cent
Teenage mother rate: 9.7 per cent
Highest rate of single-mother families in Hamilton: 32 per cent
Children under age 18 living in poverty: 40 per cent