And To Think I Once Saw A Mulberry On Neeve Street

On the day that Guelph was founded in 1827, a large maple tree was cut down to mark the occasion. John Galt and company knew that foundation stories need some panache, so chopping down an obstruction to make structural lumber carried great symbolism. Chainsaws or luxury condos were not a thing back then, nor was the patented early morning sneak attack so tree huggers don’t have time to quickly mobilize and shut them down. They didn’t put up a distillery where the mighty maple stood so that several generations later it would become part of an investment condo scheme. Whiskey was a mandatory 1800s lubrication requirement, much the same as craft beer is today. A commemorative plaque to remember the town’s first official tree assassination still stands in the shadow of the Metalworks development, whose sewage upgrade was the prime mover for the unceremonious removal of Neeve Street’s famed mulberry last week. The intention to preserve it was mentioned at every single community meeting and it’s removal proves that there are truly no fucks given when housing-as-commodity is on the horizon. I mentioned this at the meetings, were you there? Do you remember a city councillor screaming at me until his face turned red? There were lots of people around. Perhaps I dreamt it like Marco did in the Dr. Seuss book about Mulberry Street. I swear I saw a stacked townhouse tree lined future but in reality we got a multiplex of high-rises and forlorn stumps. Marco later got a gig writing promotional materials for real estate developments. 

what marco saw

We long term Ward settlers have been putting up with a lot of crap while the new investments are being built. This isn’t the usual temporary frosh week disruption of jocks  hollering and defecating in the middle of the road, pumped on Red Bull and vodka at 5am. Streets are closed for months, giant craters randomly open up, reversing machinery beeps incessantly, dump trucks gun it to and fro, equipment pounds at the bedrock all day while the workers toss hundreds of Nestle bottles into the pits in full view of the blue water preservation ribbons tied snuggly to trees still standing. No one should be surprised at the visceral reaction to our communal mulberry getting smoked, we’re all a bit testy as anyone would be when the neighbours are making a racket and disrupting the relative peace. You can leave our 100+ year old sewer pipes as they are down this way, thanks. The moment a potential upgrade is mentioned, you’ll know that the hood is destined for gentrification greatness and your blue ribbon’d tree, whose roots likely burrow deep into the old brick lined shit tunnels, is doomed. The 7am chainsaw is always primed and waiting along with the excuses – “it was a sub contractor!” “there was a communication problem” “we’ll plant a new one!” “your call is important to us”. What on earth made you think they actually care? Was it the organic coffee and plentiful biscuit trays at community input night? 

60 unit cluster

The very minute that the Woods factory was sold off to an equity fund was also the moment the death notice was signed for the Neeve Street mulberry. I filed away all of the handouts from those long ago meetings, when the stated goal was to incorporate as much adaptive reuse as possible and that no new buildings would ever be more than four stories high to preserve the character of St Patrick’s Ward. What a waste of paper and time. Back then, those that gathered at the Italian Canadian Club were ok with the official line. The consensus was yes to redevelopment, except maybe from the workers who lost their jobs when their factory was asset stripped and run into the ground, no different from the recent implosions of Sears and Stelco. Your stocks and shares in those companies are worthless now but don’t worry, there are new ways of creating and storing wealth in many tiny cubes stacked high for all to see. And never mind those anarchists mooching tree fruits at the gates dear investors, they will be dealt with. The Downtown West Bank Biltmore Metalworks Distillery District is one or two MPAC assessments away from being tear down central. It’s far too late to fight anything once the book value of the two bedroom clapboard shack has hit $500,000 deep within the Owens Corning hexavalent chromium inclusion zone. It will be over. (hello future reader in 2027! ps – I told you so)

If you are aspiring to preserve your neighbourhood and shape it’s future, a rock solid reliable, diverse and active community group presence is required, coupled with a cadre of headstrong city council contenders primed and ready to make a run to represent you. Griping about it after the fact on Friendface and on the blogs (!) will result in a zero percent slowing of the investment property / commodity housing takeover. If a cohesive resistive force doesn’t exist when the first snow job proposals are presented, it will not magically materialize once the white sign is hammered into the ground. The time to get at it was yesterday.



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Housing For All! (The greener the better)

I quite like Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner. He’s been up to see us at CFRU several times over the years and is a heck of a nice guy. It’s always a pleasure to talk to him. He’s a genuine dedicated Green. I happened to see an article in my Dad’s paper this week about the renovations Mike and his family made to their house in Parkdale to massively reduce their energy consumption. Fantastic stuff. You need to walk the walk as head of Greens. If we were all able to retrofit our places on this scale, Ontario could probably shut down some nuclear generators and make fracking for natural gas a memory. But there is a bit of a catch to this success story.

There was a time when living in Parkdale was affordable. I worked in the neighbourhood before the condo boom and was contemplating buying a dump of a place to fix up because it was so reasonable. It was very similar to The Ward here in Guelph but with far more crack houses. Gentrification and condofication has eliminated any bargains, pushing the price of real estate in all of Toronto through the roof. I randomly googled “Parkdale real estate” and the only place I found that I could remotely afford within walking distance of my old workplace is a condo listed at $309,900. If I bought the place tomorrow, I’d be mortgaged for years and constantly bitching about crushing condo fees. The price of this dwelling is almost the same as what Mike Schriener’s green reno cost him, which according to the article was $300,000. And there’s the catch. For that chunk of change, I would need the complete package, an affordable super efficient green house free and clear. But that’s not going to happen for the working schlub demographic anytime soon, if at all.


The Greens have written good policy in the area of housing. They mention incorporating alternative technologies into dwellings, beefing up the Building Codes to include efficiency and encouraging cooperatives. That’s all great. Countless people would vote for them on these things alone. Trouble is, on the whole, developers and investors do not give a shit. The current focus is on “luxury”. Here’s some bio of the builders up the road from us : “The Tricar Group is an award winning developer that specializes in the construction of luxury condominiums for sale and rental apartment homes throughout Southwestern Ontario” Those investing in these places (they aren’t buying them, it’s all about the investment) don’t really care about solar power, super insulating and geothermal heating. It’s all built on minimum standards for maximum capital gain. To their credit, these buildings will definitely be greener, as they will be connected to the district energy system. So, they will be luxurious, somewhat greenish and hardly anyone I know will be able to live there – and not just because Phase One of the build is sold out.


The only shot the rest of us have at experiencing this level of luxury would be to rent from one of the investors. I’ll hazard a guess though that the rent will be set too damn high in order to keep the unwashed out. Ages ago, out of curiosity, I wanted to check out the plans for these places when there was a sales office in the Old Quebec Street Mall. The clerk at the desk wanted to see my ID before I could go in and have a look. Didn’t happen. What’s with this long haired / freaky people need not apply business? Should I have worn a suit? Learned the secret handshake? They might as well have put a classic restricted sign in the window similar to this gem:


At this rate, we won’t see widespread affordable green housing for the rest of us anytime soon. I’m a firm believer that housing is a right and that there is no good reason for anyone in this nation to be without the option of a home of their own. Until we have a large scale program to build decent, efficient and reasonably priced public residences for all who require them, with wide incentives for existing stock to be renovated , it’s going to be more of the same. A luxurious carbon saturated dream world dominated by the 1% and countless wannabes. How do we turn the tide?

Greetings from Mayberry Ontario

How could you not love a town like Guelph where the top front page story last week was the dispute over an “illegal” skating rink on the edge of a south end subdivision. There are no Boko Haram militants hiding in the shadows here, waiting to steal away your daughters. This is not Kobane, a city half the size of ours laid to waste by war with ISIS militants. No one is likely to get shot for anything they might draw in a cartoon or write in a blog. We get wound up about safe things. You got a parking ticket. Somebody did something dumb ass in the Tim Hortons line. The neighbour got a rooster by mistake and it’s driving everybody nuts. People are playing hockey where they technically shouldn’t be. In the scheme of things, this is Mayberry.

A bunch of neighbours getting together to create and maintain something collectively for everyone’s benefit is an excellent example of how the concept of The Commons works.  The property where the rebel rink was created is “city owned” and a group of citizens decided to make use of that land for recreation without the input of bureaucrats, a legal team, permits or any other means other than their own free will and cooperation. There was no single entity responsible for it’s creation and the people care for it in common. Someone even took the time to wire up floodlights, a significant investment. Without realizing it, these ice enthusiasts are making use of a very lefty concept. They have also managed to gain the support of Mayor Guthrie, who could very well be Sherriff Andy Taylor walking to the fishing hole (or in this case, the scofflaw ice rink) with his family in tow. It’s a lovely scene.


A few years ago, also in the south end of town, a less than lovely scene unfolded. Tension was in the air at the official groundbreaking for the Hanlon Creek Business Park in the fall of ’09 with protesters heckling those present and delivering a fist pounding to a bus full of officials. It was their last stand, for the development was going ahead as was initially planned from the early 90s. In this case, the city – led by a council that was widely perceived to be of the Guelph Factor left – served these rebels with an injunction and a five million dollar lawsuit jointly with an equity firm. This was subsequently dropped but by then it was clear the development was going to happen regardless of resistance, as it always does. Seems if you occupy city owned land with hockey sticks, you get a pat on the back and support from the mayor but if you do it in the name of environmental preservation, the full force of the law will be rendered upon you. A 9 hole wilderness golf course might be a good option in efforts stop the heavy equipment next time.

A common perception of by-law skirmishes, such as those over the clandestine rink, is that it’s just one person with some kind of grudge bringing activity to a halt by getting The Law enforced. I call this the myth of the singular complainant. I live in The Ward, where ignoring by laws is a requirement of residency. The person or persons who ratted out the ice rink would last about a week in this part of town. I have only ever called something in once over the years, when some students had a notion to have a smash up derby with two old cars in the middle of our street very early one morning. By-law disrespect is one thing but there are limits to it when somebody might get killed. The odds are excellent though if you find a particular large scale endeavour in your ‘hood an annoyance, it’s bound to be bothering somebody else. When a young leprechaun poseur decided to use my driveway as a toilet last St Patrick’s Day, I let him know how actual Celtic people deal with these things. No by law officer was required. It hasn’t happened again.

The neighbourhood skirmish on the horizon to which no by-law will apply will be the complaints and frustration to come from the people who will reside in Guelph’s newest 18 story condo marvels downtown. Seeing as it is legally impossible for the most part to legislate where people can live, I think the downsizers and first time owners are in for a shock thanks to the mystery investment buyers, who dominate all projects such as these. I’ve mocked up plenty of headlines to have ready, such as “Condo conflict dominates council meeting” or “Student sublets at Tricar questioned”.  I’m considering offering a one day workshop on how to deal with the issues that will arise such as Solo Cup Collection and Disposal, White Noise Generation, Safe Body Fluid Neutralization and Leprechaun Removal. Welcome to Mayberry.

Tell me, Condo Condo Condo

By my nature, I’m the type of person who takes a great interest in the goings on in my neighbourhood. I love a good old fashioned town hall meeting and here in The Ward they are usually held at the Italian Canadian Club. There haven’t been many lately but when the massive condo developments were first proposed after the trashing of the WC Woods plant, there were plenty of meetings. They really need to come up with another name for a meeting where you’re pretty much being told what is going to happen. It’s more like a lecture and a formality really, for not once in this town have the concerns of the citizens altered the end product of a development. Don’t insult our intelligence by handing out chart paper and getting us to write down our ideas like it’s Grade Six again. The second time that happened, I bailed for the pub. Stick your Sharpie up your ass, buddy. This is obviously a done deal.


(A future Scotty Hertz (played by Ed Norton) watches a condo fire caused by unattended scented candle in an English major’s investment condo flat in Condomania 2. He’s perfect for the role, Ed Norton is exactly two days older than me) 

If you can point out an instance where a mass community anti development outcry truly won out in this city, I will gladly retract that last sentence. Sure, there will be concessions to the people like a small public square, coffee shop or access to the river, but somehow developers manage to get exactly what they want, every single time. There may be delays, such as in our famous epic Wal Mart battle, but The Big Box was built regardless. The Jesuits, curlers and thousands of happy-ish Wal Mart shoppers coexist in the burgeoning northern retail hub without conflict. The world did not end. Concerns were raised about the 18 story Tricar tower and it’s twin across the tracks. They’re going in, unaltered. Good thing we didn’t buy the dump of a house we looked at on Sussex Street, I’d be buying 10,000 helium balloons like the old man in Up and hitching a ride out of there post haste. It’s more likely I’d be rhyming off daily complaints on this blog until I died of pure exhaustion.


(Next stop, Owen Sound)

I sympathize with the citizens in the south end who have valid concerns about their new neighbours, the HIP Solstice condo developments. South enders have paid a shedload of cash to live the suburban dream and are now having visions of driveways littered with red Solo cups and puke accented by general dumbass yelling between 12-3am, Thursday through Saturday. Most people accept that towns and cities need development and that it will happen eventually. You don’t really see people lying in front of bulldozers anymore, with the exception of incidents like the Hanlon Creek Business Park standoff.  They are sticking a townhouse development over there as well, because business isn’t exactly booming. No word yet if it’s going to be called Jefferson Salamander Estates.

hcbp grading

(Heavy equipment prepares the grade of the Hanlon Creek Business Park for empty space)

Solstice are in essence building the new university residences, so the U of G doesn’t have to. I’m not implying they are in direct cahoots but at this rate, you will never see another student dwelling being built right on campus. They should actually be called Symbiotic condos. There is an info table in the University Centre promoting living at Solstice regularly. MacDonald Hall, a classic early Edwardian gem, has been cleared out and is being converted into the consolidated College of Economics. Private money built it; it’s named MacDonald after the tobacco giant that funded it, a fact conveniently lost to time and likely be lost in the reno. So Moo U is now missing a residence. Where do all the students go? They have to live somewhere and enrolment isn’t increasing. Many of them will end up in the investment condos off campus, conveniently situated on the bus route for which they all get a really cheap pass. Symbiosis in action.


(The abdicator Edward VIII shares a smoke and a joke with the ladies on the steps of MacDonald Hall, Guelph -1919. His grandad lends his name to all things “Edwardian”)

In the south end, what initially started out as a condo for “upper income retirees” has evolved into two projects. Both are investment condo properties geared to students, with a chunk of wetland, 1,000 trees and a church getting smoked in the process. Add in the other on going developments (Coltara, Arkel Lofts) and you have what my colleague Guelph Politico has aptly named Condo Central. A junior version of the boom we’ve seen all across the GTA and every boom goes bust eventually. It’s the part of the capitalist mechanism that no one really wants to discuss until everything turns all 2008. Boom, bust and bailout.

If we see a similar, larger economic collapse, I will predict in spooky futurist fashion that under the guise of the University, the province will take over Solstice condos and run them.  By that time we will be downloading lectures directly into our brains, the library will be run by robots who have all media ever created in their flash drives and the developers will still be getting exactly what they want, every single time.

Your Own Private Cheektowaga

The busiest supermarket within a hundred miles of here is the Wegmans in Williamsville, New York. Stores in Ontario seem nearly abandoned by comparison but on any given day in greater Buffalo, shopping is king. I found myself there on the morning of the NFL season kickoff and although the Buffalo Bills were playing many miles away in Chicago, the fans were representing by wearing their colours and stocking up on beer, meat and chips to ramp up for an afternoon BBQ on a beautiful day in Western New York. The place should have been a complete zoo but it was all very polite and orderly. Canadians pride themselves on niceness and holding doors but we’ve got nothing on the folks in Buffalo. Scratch that. I really mean Torontonians, not Canadians in general. No one in Western New York has ever willfully tried to bash me with a car. I’ve been hit twice in Taranna though. The chap who very nearly killed me there leaned over as I lay in the road and said “What did you do to my car?” Give me Buffalo any day.

I couldn’t count how many times over the years I’ve sat through a tirade from some boring Torontonian slamming the American people. Sorry to break the news, dear Citizen of Canuckistan, you are American people. A leftier version for sure minus the flag veneration and copious guns but admit it, you are jealous about being able to buy beer everywhere. Guess I’ll confess, I was in Wegmans admiring the brews and snagging a tub of Jif at 10 am. This is what folk do for Breakfast In America on a Sunday. Jif crunchy was on sale, still #1 with choosy mothers. Bonus!

We, the people to the north, have pretty much cloned it all, especially their infrastructure. Other than its eight lane span, Transit Road in Buffalo could be Imperial Road in Guelph. If you place yourself on the sidewalk like the little Google Map person and rotate around, Guelph in many places IS Cheektowaga, Lackawanna, Rochester. Tim Horton’s coffee is equally as shitty on either side of Niagara Falls. Why do you keep drinking it if it’s not an addiction or any good?

The Costco on Long Island, NY is identical to the much celebrated one here on Elmira Road. Beyond the currency, tax rate and slight overall price point differences, the products parade is the same. Most people have wholeheartedly committed to consumerism being an important thing and those that build and run the infrastructure are identical the world over. It’s a big box built to buy goods from smaller boxes that traveled many miles in trailer boxes or thousands of miles in steel boxes so you could buy them and be happy you got a deal. Hurray! Aren’t you a screaming success. Toss me that spoon from the glove box buddy, I’ve got Jif to eat.

You say you want a boutique/local/greener version of different things? Smaller unique tchotchkes you can pay more for in a downtown setting that has character and hipness? It’s all as readily available in Elmwood and Allentown as it is on Locke Street in Hamilton or our very own Wyndham Street. You may have convinced yourself that your walking distance shopping is something different or special. Truth is we are hardwired to acquire and source things be they of the utmost practicality or merely shit that you want to have. Consumerism is mandatory in this society but oftentimes stretches into the realm of a syndrome. iPhones, in particular models 1, 3G, 3GS, 4, 4S 5, 5C, 5S, 6 and 6 Plus, are for suckers. The guy who ran my bike riding pinko ass down with his Volvo in Etobicoke would not hesitate to flatten you as you check your device in the crosswalk. It should be posted to the back of all devices, “over-consumption of tweets and status updates may result in death”. You’ve been warned.

There are no condo towers in Buffalo of the Toronto (or Guelph) type. I couldn’t see any and I looked pretty hard. Condos have become an economic engine of their own. An expert must have written it in a paper somewhere; Condos + wealth + happiness = problem solved. Implement the equation by building dwellings on the ashes of the business that an aggressive equity fund ran into the ground so a veritable one percenter asshole can roll around in his millions in an Oakville mansion. And if you truly believe anything written in a condo development’s promotional material, it’s time to seek professional help. Buffalo has nothing of the sort, just the ashes.

My buddy’s old student enclave in the east side of downtown Buffalo was the wrong side of the tracks both literally and figuratively in the 1990’s. We took a nostalgic spin through and you wouldn’t think it possible that a place could go even-more-wrong all these years later. A house burns down and stays burnt down. Once decent serviceable places are boarded up or have a trashed roof, crude graffiti on the window plywood and gutters stripped for scrap. Three lads in an Ontario plated car will get a continuous “what the fuck are you looking at” glare from all sides. Nobody from the busy Wegmans to the north would dream of coming here, let alone shopping for anything on this section of Broadway. This ain’t the same street the Drifters are singing about. It’s the raw have-not side to the American Dream no one really wants to contemplate – straight out of Steinbeck, Marx or Compton. There is no fix on the horizon. There never ever was.

When I got home there was a big pile of laundry to tackle so I went to King Cleaners for a mass wash. A woman came wheeling in with a couple of kids in tow. She stuffed all of their clothes into two industrial washers, checked her coffee can worth of change and not having enough to cover it, she reefed everything back out again and jetted out the door at record speed as if she’d done something wrong. “We can’t make it” she declared to no one and everyone. There is no 18 story deluxe apartment in the cards for her. The condo fee alone is probably her monthly existence fund. She can only admire it off in the distance, leaning on her old beater car with a trunk full of dirty clothes taking a long pull on a bummed cigarette. She’s trying not to cry in front of the kids. Did she work for years in the factory where the glass towers will stand? There is no afternoon BBQ for them, no peanut butter from a spoon, no devices to upgrade or complain about on-line. Even the ashes are on loan.