North-end Traintrack Weeds: building healthy communities

The afternoon is full of sunshine, warming our cheeks into squinting smiles. Today there’s a street festival on James Street North, and it’s easy to get caught up in the joyful atmosphere. The street is closed to vehicles, music is playing, and everywhere we look, some performer or information booth seeks our attention.

Up ahead, a cop is hassling someone to leave. As we approach closer,  we see it’s that same friendly person who often stands on that same corner chatting with voices we don’t hear. This prompts us to look around again, and we notice that many of the familiar faces who are on this street every other day are conspicuously absent. It’s starting to seem like invitation to this event excludes many local residents as undesireable.

These festivals are a much-celebrated vision of the new downtown, but are they really increasing the health of our communities? Hamilton is littered with the abandonned storefronts of former development enthusiasm – is the trend on James North any different? And what would building a healthy community even look like? With these questions rattling around inside us,  we descend the hill along the West side of the James Street train bridge to explore the meadow that grows there and seek some clarity.

We tumble through the tangled meadow community of Raspberry, Asters, Goldenrod and grasses that have strengthened these damaged, polluted traintrack lands over time. Last year’s growth has formed into a dry mat along the ground, offering shelter for the insects and small mammals that live here all through winter. Gall flies have lovingly laid their eggs inside Goldenrod stems so that as soon as their young hatch, they can start eating. Chemicals in the hungry grubs’ saliva then trick the Goldenrod into growing a perfect, round belly in which the young flies can survive the winter freeze.

A gall fly grub waits inside...

Low to the ground, we see a meadow vole hard at work designing elaborate tunnels beneath the matted grasses. In creating their homes, voles do good work of spreading the networks of fungus that are essential to the restoration of healthy land. While scurrying around, the tiny voles are also unknowingly distributing nutrients evenly over the land in convenient pellet packages. The value of this little community’s accumulation of health seems huge in contrast to the destruction and poisoning of so much of the land around here.

A meadow vole's tracks

Walking East along the tracks, we pause at the remains of the Catherine Street bridge, its concrete and stone run wild with trees and shrubs.  We find clearings strewn with smashed glass, used condoms, and the most vile of stenches. These are the places the people considered undesirable, like sex trade workers, have been pushed to. It is a reminder of those who were absent at the street festival, and the prison just ahead at Mary St is a forbiding monument to their undesireability.

We kick at the accumulation of garbage here— beer bottles, shattered electronics, half-rotted mattresses, and countless bits of plastic. The landscape of the tracks suggests stories of people using this space for camp fires, smashing stuff, spray-painted self expression, using drugs or booze, or maybe just hiding out to take a break from it all. We feel relief in knowing of these narrow strips that are outside the control of the city – here, humans can run wild too. This is a place to scream and run rampant when the city’s feels like too much to bear. It’s also the place where great discoveries can be made! Did you know old hubcaps are great toys? I bet you can’t get one over top of a fence post while balancing on the tracks.

As we continue further East, the type of neighbourhoods around us change. Here, this traintrack area is some of the only greenspace close to these communties. Almost every time we’re down here we find some young kids creating forts and playing pretend in the grasses. The neighbourhoods here are made of treeless streets interspersed with factories and junkyards, and the buildings cling to the roadsides leaving no space even for grass. There are no parks or jungle gyms or pretty waterfront trails to be found. Skipping off the tracks at Wentworth Street and turning North, we’re immediately confronted by the sight of a lake-front factory spewing smoke and fire into the sky.

In the city’s downtown, a very exclusive kind of progress combined with spiking rent prices is displacing a huge segment of people  into these neighbourhoods further east. This area is disproportionally plagued by  heavy pollution. There’s no healthy forest nearby, heck, there aren’t even any grocery stores here anymore. We begin to realize that in order to fully understand the implications of the types of progress occurring in the downtown, we need to better understand the situation in the city’s East.

Just one block North along Wentworth, we come to an overgrown set of tracks no longer used by trains. At the entrance there’s an old wooden tv set with the screen smashed out and tiny plants growing inside of it. We take this as a welcoming sign and tiptoe around the piles of garbage to enter a  jungle of vines and shrubs that twist around scrappy trees. There are many Trees of Heaven here, an invasive, fast growing plant that you can count on to grow on any site, no matter how devastated or poisioned. (We lovingly call them junk trees). A closer look reveals that the beat up thing acting as a giant flowerbox was once a boat. There’s Manitoba Maple here too, a plant we remember from the banks of the Don River. The feathery sumacs with leaves of yellow, orange and red filter sweep up particulate pollution from the air with their hairy leaves and fruit, sending it to the soil to be dealt with by the communities of fungus there.

A rabbit hops by us, pausing close to a tree we hadn’t ever noticed here before. It’s a young Honey Locust, a rare native tree that protects itself with thick thorns and is especially good at living in highly polluted areas. Their spines defend this wild community from the very real threat of humans intent on “cleaning up” these areas. This scrappy stretch of land is part of a vital corridor linking forests in different parts of the city for raccoons, skunks, squirrels, and even coyotes, who are sometimes spotted out on the Dofasco pier.

We pause in the thick cover of brightly coloured leaves and feel safe in knowing such incredible vibrant things can spring up in these unloved, devastated places. Sucking on wild Mint leaves among the huge piles of debris piled beyond the fences, we can hear water spill from an abandonned rooftop into a grungy little pool. Small poplar groves are just beginning near the fences. This area is now the only thing close to forested within tens of kilometers, and it’s surrounded by one of the most toxic neighbourhoods.

We wander out of the overgrown tracks and go North along Sherman to catch the next set of tracks and return west. Passing a row of factories we observe strange metal barrels and ‘dead spots’ in the vegetation where chemicals have clearly been dumped. It’s hard to see the benefit that those living nearest these industries get from them. Those who do profit live far away where it’s safe to sleep with your window open. Who decides whose health it is acceptable to poison? We stop to climb into the most giant of junk trees and are immediately covered in soot.

Reflecting again on the street festival, it was so easy to get caught up in the happy myth of the downtown development building healthy community. But who is included in that vision? Is deciding who is desireable in the core the same as deciding who will be subjected to industrial pollutants? Unhealthy land is a product of unhealthy societies, so what can we learn from these healing traintracks about creating a society that value all its members and contribute to healthy communities?

There is comfort in the junk trees growing in the old dump site, where water drips and pools to quickly form swamp communties. The plants and creatures existing here integrate themselves into poisoned spaces and bring richness back to them with their bodies and daily energy. We can learn so much from the work of a tiny meadow vole. Each being adds to the whole, and the health of wild spaces is synonymous with diversity of life. By allowing so many to be excluded from the downtown development, we are submitting to the same logic that would mow down the Honey Locusts in the name of tidiness. By rooting ourselves in our daily experience in these neighbourhoods, and in the relationships we build with the others who live here, we can avoid being misled by myths of progress.

[For a short version of this article, about 900 words, click this: ]

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