Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday July 12, 1997
Targeting Goths wrong way to fix downtown
“Here’s a suggestion: build a gibbet in Gore Park and take all these teenagers and the poor beggars down there and hang ’em. We’ll have a hanging every month, and that’ll bring people back into downtown.”– Sarcasm from a shopper who lives on the Mountain and says she’s never been bothered downtown.
Judging people by category never works. In every group, whether you measure it by age, race, belief, wealth, job or gender, there are saints and there are slugs.
Most are somewhere in the middle.
This goes for the people who fight to keep downtown alive by opening their stores every day just as it does for their sometime opponents: the people who sit on the sidewalks and ask passersby for money.
And of course, it applies to the people who provide the cash to keep them both alive: the consumer.
Downtown’s many communities have reacted strongly to this week’s proposal for a bylaw that would prohibit pedestrians from gathering on Hamilton sidewalks.
The primary target is people who call themselves Goths or Freaks: the tattooed, pierced and pancake-faced teens and young adults standing and sitting along King Street east of James.
To them, the bylaw would be an unfair restriction on their freedom to congregate and, for those among them who don’t have homes or jobs, to collect pocket change from downtown workers and shoppers.
The good ones can “pan” up to $60 or $80 a day.
To the people whose goods and services compete for the same pool of money, panhandlers are killing them.
At the downtown strip club Chez M, they take strong exception to the Goths’ plea that they are gentle and non-threatening.
On June 6, a group of Goths chased a patron leaving the club down the alley, catching him just outside the back door.
“They were laying the boots to this guy’s head, ” said Jeannette, a Chez M bartender. “These kids don’t care. They will say and do whatever they feel like.”
Hamilton-Wentworth police confirm a beating took place in that alley and that a 32-year-old man was taken to hospital and treated after being kicked in the chest and head.
An 18-year-old has been charged with assault causing bodily harm.
The staff at Chez M say there is constant trouble with Goth kids hanging around their entrance.
“They ask us for spare change, ” Jeannette said. “I say, ‘Hey, buddy, I work for spare change’.”
She said the same people use the abandoned store entrance next door as a washroom and staff constantly have to pour bleach in the corners just to get rid of the smell.
“I’ve been in this business 10 years. I’m a pretty tough cookie, but this has to stop, ” Jeannette said.
Tough to argue with that.
Further down King Street, the owner of an independent business, who, fearing retribution, asked not to be named, said he used to bring in $200,000 a year. Now, some panhandlers take home more money than he does.
“Sidewalks aren’t for sitting on, as far as I’m concerned. People don’t want to be pestered when they go shopping, ” he said. “The whole downtown’s a mess. I don’t know where to start.”
Not by stopping people from gathering, says Frank Rocchi, a stockbroker who works in the office towers above King and James. He’s no fan of the Goths, but he won’t stand for sidewalk segregation.
“I’m absolutely appalled by this proposal, ” he said. “It’s not only draconian, it’s antediluvian.”
Frank has a good point. So, however, does Louie Petrou, owner of Leathers and Leathers Giant Discount Warehouse. He’s been at King and Mary for 25 years.
He doesn’t think it’s right to target people for what they wear, either, but he knows panhandlers are hurting downtown’s image.
And in business, image is important.
“No one should have to be approached like that, ” he says. “Everyone has the right to be where they want, but not the right to disturb others.”
All these rights still add up to something wrong.
There doesn’t seem to be much patience left among the shopping public — the people who will really decide whether downtown lives or dies.
“I almost don’t care if anything is done, ” said one shopper, “because I think our downtown is toast anyway, whether we have a nice new fountain or not.”
They say their former customers would rather go to a mall, where security guards move along the bothersome beggars. (Hamilton Spectator, 6/28/1997, A3)
Goths are not the problem
The idea of banning Goths, panhandlers or any other visible minority group from downtown Hamilton is truly remarkable in one way: It has absolutely no redeeming value. It’s unfair, impractical, draconian, imprecise, illogical and ultimately useless.
Somebody, please, put this ill-conceived plan out of its misery, followed quickly by the plan to spend $150,000 to study loitering.
Talk about fiddling while the city is burning. Hamilton’s downtown core is a mess. The office vacancy rate is sky high. Storefront after storefront is empty. Our downtown mall is eerily empty. The cheque-cashing outlets, bars and adult entertainment arcades are doing a solid business while retailers suffer through month after month, year after year, of stagnant business.
While no one has suggested Goths and panhandlers are directly responsible, the argument being put forth by some downtown businesspeople seems to be that these are generally unpleasant people, and they intimidate shoppers.
Perhaps this is true. But it’s also true that other people stay away from downtown because of the proliferation of arcades and sex shops, and no one is suggesting they be banned from the core. People have been saying for years they don’t go downtown because they don’t want to pay for parking when it’s free at suburban malls, but to date we’ve only had Band-Aid suggestions and solutions to the parking problem.
Perhaps that is because these larger issues demand bigger, complex answers. There’s nothing simple about solving the parking problem, about recruiting new business and residential properties to the core. Fixing the core requires many solutions to many problems, and above all requires a vision for downtown development.
Getting rid of Goths and panhandlers is easy by comparison, so perhaps it’s understandable in a way that businesspeople and some local politicians, lacking answers for the bigger problems, reach out to do what they can with the simple ones.
But the problem here isn’t too many Goths and panhandlers, it’s too few people. If our downtown core was healthy and well- populated, visible groups like these wouldn’t stand out, or probably even be noticed. Anyone who remembers the chaotic city core of the ’60s and ’70s, hippies, shoppers and businesspeople all sharing the same sidewalk, can attest to that.
That some people are intimidated when they go downtown is a symptom of the area’s overall state of decay, and that’s the problem that must be addressed.
As for the $150,000 plan to study loitering, we’d suggest an’ alternative. Take the $150,000, and hire a qualified, dynamic organizer, marketer and promoter to co-ordinate a downtown revitalization plan, even if only on a one-year contract. The right person in that job, combined with political will and a vision, will go a long way toward really fixing Hamilton’s downtown core. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)