Sunday, April 29, 2012


The region has its routines, cultures and environment, overall as each person and family within it have their own experiences. Those that benefit from the region's attributes the most are those that enjoyed a relatively clear middle class upbringing, usually with both parents intact and enough resources in one's family to send each child to a strong start. These are the people that grew up here or in a similar sized community with a pool in the backyard of a house their families owned, and a driver's license at sixteen with even the possibility of help from parents to obtain their first car. This gives people the lack of capacity to understand hardship from some angles, unless something serious and tragic happens within their family subsequently. Often their parents worked as GM workers, teachers, regional employees, nurses, among other stable professions. The last decade in which this stability was even possible for people was perhaps the early nineties, although less and less families have the kind of resources that would produce this element of stability.

People who have had this type of supportive background, parents like this and so forth, cannot picture what life is like without access to an automobile, or access to a good job. Many times parents give their word to employers to assist their children in gaining a foot in the door, or the parents are involved in a business, where they would hire their children to take it over as they decide to retire at a later date. These people who had these advantages have no idea how people without these advantages are screened out of jobs routinely, as employers like everybody else, prefers to take on somebody they know or who are related to somebody they know before they "take a chance on somebody new". A friend of mine in Niagara calls this the Family Compact. There are jobs still available, but not any of the good ones that are supposedly in the "private sector" - just the bad ones that the anointed favourites will not take.

On the contrary, I have met people who have not had the type of background described above, who are now struggling. For these people, economic recovery is meaningless, as the economy does not improve the prospects for these people - ever. These people started well behind the starting line and have experienced significantly more barriers than other people. They may not have both parents raising them, or in many cases, they have lived on their own from the time they were sixteen or seventeen. They did not have parents eager to teach them how to drive, and to allow them to practice with them for their ultimate road test. As a result, many of these people learn to drive late, or in some cases, not at all. It is not that driving is a rite of passage for everybody, but in the Niagara Region, where values of one's progress match those in the 1950's when compared to other communities, if one did not go through that rite of passage at that age, they are looked upon as somehow "damaged goods". Others that might have learned to drive, but have lost their license due to medical conditions are viewed as equally "damaged".

I related this to a Toronto audience, mostly consisting of people who lived in Toronto or other large cities most of their lives, and they found this to be unbelievable. Even those whose youth was demarcated in the same way as described above, their worth or value as a person is not affected because they never learned to drive, or cannot drive due to medical conditions, or whatever. In fact, in a cosmopolitan way, many people choose not to drive in a large city and as such, this choice can be accommodated. An employer does not view any of these people who either cannot or will not drive as any less qualified for most jobs in a true cosmopolitan community, and would consider what that person can bring to the company, as opposed to how he or she brings themselves to the workplace. Unfortunately, in smaller regions, Niagara of which is at least one, employers have created major barriers to persons with disabilities, persons who just did not have the advantage of parental support to get them on the road, or persons without any funds to own and maintain their own vehicles.

Long term reliance on social assistance for these people is not uncommon for many of these people, including those who might have an advanced education. I know engineers, teachers, social workers, construction workers, researchers, and others who have spent several years on Ontario Works due to an inability to afford a vehicle, or due to medical or other restrictions on their driving privilege. In fact, one's access to a vehicle and their ability to drive it on a regular basis has become yet one more tool in the arsenal of employers that may not want to hire "damaged goods". At the same time, employers see no reason not to continue to demand driver's licenses and personal ownership of a vehicle to be a key qualification for a job.

I notice the region has and continues to perform poor planning decisions in this area as well, as the region's decision makers and planners are working under the assumption that everybody from every part of this region has a driver's license and personal access to a vehicle. The city for example is planning to tear down the West Park Pool that is currently located in the west end's only high school, which by the way, is also on the chopping block with the District School Board of Niagara. Those using the pool are from a disproportionate number of public housing projects, senior citizens, as well as students from the entire south end of the community. While some people did drive in to use the West Park Pool, its location was accessible to the people who live in the Western Hill neighbourhood which was identified as a "priority" neighbourhood by the region. Living in a "priority" neighbourhood does not necessarily mean you are poor, but the chances are greater that you are, as there is a large section of this neighbourhood devoted to low cost housing, rent-geared-to-income housing, as well as houses that could be bought for less than the city's average market value. This is a neighbourhood where people downsize in their retirement years, or move into lower cost housing with one's children, particularly single parents.

However, my city does not seem to understand why removing the West Park Pool from this neighbourhood is going to undermine this population's use of their brand spanking new facilities they are almost finished building in the north central end of town. First, there is no bus service to this new facility in the evenings and on weekends, something whoever planned this location has blithely ignored, likely because he or she believes that almost everybody drives or can "get a ride from a friend". At the same time, the parking for this facility has been carefully planned and accessibility for "handicapped" persons has been considered, yet they did not consider core accessibility for those that cannot drive in the first place, possibly due to a disability. The city will not spend any more money to keep the West Park Pool open because they say they have no money, which is unbelievable, given the multiple projects they recently approved to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. For the fifty million arena the city just approved, they are also seeking a multi-million dollar walkway for participants to use St. Paul Street to go to the arena from the downtown parking lots, presumably. If they have money for this farce, they have money to repair the West Park Pool to standard and to continue its operation, alongside the new one they built.

When I spoke at City Council when the issue of the West Park Pool was discussed, virtually all the councillors around the table dropped their jaws when I advised them of the lack of evening and weekend bus service to their facilities. I asked one of them afterwards what were the qualifications of the person who would be planning and making these decisions. My bet is that the person must have a driver's license and access to a personal vehicle. Failure to consider transit riders in the design and location of a project to me is the type of thing that such an employee should be fired over, yet in a region like this it is highly unlikely. When somebody writing for the Toronto Sun wrote about the lack of bus access to a children's recreational program, their city hall immediately revised a transit route to have a bus stop in front of the said building. I somehow doubt the routes will be amended in this case to accommodate non drivers, as non drivers are not seen to exist in this region. At the same time, I am supposed to fork out increasing taxes year over year for hundreds of millions of dollars in road work, traffic lights, parking lot structures, and other privileges for people that drive. My guess is that drivers would not have to pay to park at the new Kiwanis facility. Why is it the taxpayers' responsibility to ensure a driver can park their car at a place like this, while it doesn't seem to be important to ensure bus access to the same location?

Besides this, the District School Board of Niagara is bent on closing the newest and only high school in the Western Hill neighbourhood. They will instead bus high school kids outside of their neighbourhood to other schools, which means if the child cannot be at the bus stop for whatever reason when it leaves, he or she may not be able to go to school that day. They will also not be able to participate in extra curricular activities, as the buses will likely leave before these activities begin. Henceforth, according to our friend Don Drummond, who had recently completed his review of government services, parents may be charged fees to help cover the cost of this busing. So, once again, we are going to have to pay for decisions made by other people. What is the effect of something like this in my neighbourhood?

First, I live in a food desert. This means there is no easy access to a grocery store near enough to my home to walk there. We can walk, but it takes about forty five minutes to get there, but it is the closest, yet most expensive food store in the area. There are no community centres or service hubs in my neighbourhood, unlike there being access to the same in other "richer" neighbourhoods. With this comes the dearth of after school activities for kids. There are no decent restaurants in my neighbourhood, or bank branches for people to do their banking. All we have is a couple of bars, a Chinese restaurant, a few convenience stores, a closed down body shop for cars, a beauty salon, a laundromat and a chiropodist's office which never seems to have anybody there. In the past few months, we have witnessed three foreclosures on homes that were owned, as well as a high turnover of tenant households. Other than that, we do have some senior citizens who are retired or semi retired, or housing that seems to be increasingly being built for Brock students. There are families here, but I somehow doubt they will remain in this neighbourhood once these other amenities are removed. Who wants to buy into a neighbourhood where there is no high school, community centre or any recreational facilities? Will I be able to sell my house? I somehow doubt it, unless the purchaser can somehow convert it readily to a student residence.

For people like myself, this neighbourhood has literally lost all of its appeal. I no longer want to live here. This neighbourhood has the lousiest bus service of anywhere in this city, especially on evenings and weekends. If the pool and the high school close, there will be no point in us continuing to stay here. I will have to find another place to live that is closer to one of the high schools that will remain open, so that my daughter will have some place to go when she becomes of age. She is not like my son, who is very enthusiastic about school and interested in learning. I do not want circumstances to be in place to encourage her to drop out. I have already heard from some students that were going to Thorold Secondary School, another school on the alleged chopping block, state to the committee that they may not be able to continue to attend school. For many people, a long bus ride each day is too much for them.

At the same time as this, hydro rates are skyrocketing in May, and the last time I went grocery shopping, prices went up by at least five percent. If this were happening in Toronto, it would not be tolerated. People would band together and fight these changes, and many times, they win. Here, there is a half hearted attempt by a citizens group to form a non profit group to keep the pool open, but it seems there is not as much of a fight by the same people to keep the high school open. Don't these folks live in the neighbourhood too? Are they not concerned about what will happen when they try to sell their homes? I must say that I was happy to hear about the group trying to save the pool, but we need a lot of people like our Mayor, city council, and even regional councillors to fight to keep the schools. In my view, all the school board has to do is enforce its own boundaries and they would not have to close any schools, but instead they intend to make it the problem of families that do not drive, do not have access to recreational services and money to help co-pay for the bus services.

Don't they understand? This is a PRIORITY neighbourhood! Perhaps, my next step will be to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to the city to find out ward by ward how much money per capita is being spent on services, and I know for a fact that my ward will show the lowest expenditures, simply because there are a large number of "throw away" people in this neighbourhood, people that city councillors, who all drive and live in big houses, do not consider to be worthy of having accessible services in their own neighbourhoods. I filled out a survey awhile back that asked how well I fit in within my neighbourhood, my community and my region, and my answer to this was "I don't feel I fit in at all". This does not say anything about the people here, as they are okay, but it does say a whole lot about how I feel I am treated as a non driver, who is not able to attend 90 - 95% of even "free events" that are put on by the community or by groups in it, and at the same time, have to be subject to the exhaust smoke of other people's vehicles, have to walk on sidewalks that are broken and subject to trip hazards or cyclists that blithely ignore the by-laws around riding a bike on the sidewalks. Again, if they do this in Toronto, people will bring this to city council and rally around it. Here, it is like nobody cares.

They once asked questions of how the city can improve neighbourhoods and accessibility issues. If they really wanted to do this, they can read this post and implement changes that would stop me from feeling so disgusted that I have to leave, just wishing I had enough money to do so.