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From Garden City to 'Garbage City'?    {See pictures below}

The seeds of the Garden City were first planted here, in Montebello Park, where a sprawling bed of roses has blossomed for the past 92 years.

When the weather is warm at lunchtime, Karen Morley, 42, makes the short walk from the Canada Revenue Agency in downtown St. Catharines and sits on a bench facing all 1,300 of the garden's rose bushes.
It's a beautiful view, but a few years ago, Ms. Morley noticed something else growing in the city's oldest park -- the number of homeless people sleeping under the massive trees that loom beyond the garden. And when she walks back to work, she sees a far different downtown than the one she looked forward to visiting, as a young girl, every Saturday.

"It's getting seedier," says Ms. Morley, who flees the core for one of the city's newer subdivisions each evening. "There's nothing that attracts me here."These days, to people like Ms. Morley, parts of St. Catharines are starting to look a little too much like nearby, post-industrial Buffalo. The Garden City's spring-fed spas, elegant hotels and stalwart department stores have given way to strip malls in the suburbs and student bars and street people downtown.

While a few new restaurants, devoted core merchants and artists stick it out, empty storefronts stick out like teeth missing from a once-gleaming smile. The steadiest downtown jobs, it seems to some, belong to drug dealers, prostitutes and the array of social-service workers trying to help them.

In many ways, the story of St. Catharines, a city of 130,000 along the fruit belt between Hamilton and Niagara Falls, is the story of small-city North America: a central core robbed of its retail might by the suburbs; a once-burgeoning manufacturing base gradually being replaced by lower-paying service jobs. Still, knowing they're not alone doesn't make the story any more palatable for long-time residents, who have been reading it, increasingly, in the form of graffiti tags, layoff notices and news reports of ever more serious crimes.
Niagara Region (population 410,000), in which St. Catharines is the largest municipality, has already notched 11 homicides so far this year, up from eight in 2004 and six in 2003. Most shocking was the Sept. 10 shooting of eight-year-old Jordan Smith, killed in his bed in St. Catharines by a gun blast through the floor of the apartment above.

While acknowledging that "11 homicides is high for our area," Constable Sal Basilone, a spokesman for Niagara police, cautions against reading too much into the numbers, which mask several years of decline in the region's overall crime rate.

All Ms. Morley knows is "I never heard anything, when I was a kid, about guns." Nor did she hear about job cuts back then at the city's cornerstone industry, General Motors of Canada Ltd., whose steady jobs once drew thousands to St. Catharines. Her husband is among the 3,700 GM workers still on the job, but less than 20 years ago, 9,300 toiled at the company's sprawling complex near downtown.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Auto Workers signed a contract that headed off GM's plan to cut 1,050 more jobs in St. Catharines, but union president Buzz Hargrove was less than ecstatic about the plant's prospects. "It is a good contract for difficult times," he said, "but nothing is guaranteed in the future."
Lesley McTavish, a downtown merchant, is more blunt. "It's Flint, Michigan, five years before the fact," says Ms. McTavish, whose T-shirt shop sits amid bars, restaurants and more empty retail stores than she cares to count. "This is a GM town, and if GM goes. . . ."

Upon reflection, Ms. McTavish later acknowledges that the Flint comparison was an exaggeration, but GM has fallen from its perch as Niagara's largest employer -- replaced by casinos in Niagara Falls, with their 5,000 or so employees. Hospitals and the public school board also lead GM in job numbers.

City officials are well aware of the changes, and have taken steps to retool. This fall, a local trade delegation will travel to Asia to sell St. Catharines as a location for auto-parts plants to supply Japanese and Korean assembly operations in Ontario, says David Oakes, a city economic development officer. The city's place amid Ontario's wine district, close to the U.S. border and Niagara Falls, also holds potential.

"I think the biggest change has to do with this whole tourism mecca that is building out from Niagara Falls and filtering across the region," Mr. Oakes says.

While he admits the city core has taken the brunt of the changes, the office/retail vacancy rate downtown has dropped to 11 per cent from 18 since the late 1990s, and City Hall is offering façade-improvement grants to merchants. Further, Mr. Oakes says, a series of meetings has begun to solicit residents' views of the Garden City and what they want it to be.

If the talk downtown is any indication, officials could be in for an earful. Ms. McTavish, for one, says U.S.-style crime and social corrosion are creeping across the river from the American Rust Belt, aided by the Niagara Falls casinos and the desperate people they attract.

"I would say the biggest change is the proliferation of crack cocaine," the St. Catharines native says. Because she sells head-shop items, customers often come looking for a connection to a drug fix. She recalls a Cleveland woman who arrived at her shop and said, "We were told that St. Paul Street was the place to come for sex and drugs."

Ms. McTavish has also noticed an increasing number of decidedly unfriendly faces on downtown streets, and she speculates that organized criminals have moved in from places such as Scarborough and Buffalo. "I just think we have a complacent city council, and the slumlords are a part of it," she says.

A few blocks away from her shop, the Leonard Hotel is a stark symbol of the downtown's decline. Once a destination for diners and dancers, complete with banquet halls and a Parisian-style piano bar, the Leonard is now home to the down-and-out and a ground-floor greasy spoon called Leonard's Coffee Pot.

"It used to be called the Garden City," says Bob, the restaurant's 78-year-old owner, who declined to give his last name. "What I call it now is the Garbage City."

Bob worked as a chef at the Leonard in the early 1950s, when the piano bar raked in $1,500 on a good day. These days, he slings three-dollar bacon-and-egg breakfasts to customers such as the woman who answers, "I just got beat up in my room," when he asks her how she's doing. Outside the diner, another woman spews profanity at an acquaintance, shouting: "You wanna fight? Let's go." Bob, smiling wryly, asks, "How do you expect to do business in a place like that?"

In time, it won't be Bob's issue to worry about, nor will the other woes that have taken the bloom off the Garden City's once-blossoming downtown. Still, he laments.
"The big stores are all gone. People don't want to come downtown any more because there's no police protection on the streets. Some people who work at GM are buying Japanese cars. You can't blame anybody for it.

Progress, I guess
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Local concern is not the 'Garbage'!

Local concern is the complacency
exhibited by our Municipal Leaders!
St. Catharines Downtown Clandestine Land Fill Site
December 2005
August 2005
The best way to clean up a St. Catharines Downtown Clandestine Land Fill Site or Squalid Garbage Dump
is to report the mess to City Hall and wait... and wait... and wait...   and wait... and wait... and wait... 
August 2005
December 2005
Claim on City Web Main Page...

CLEAN CITY COMMITTEE:

Seeking to create and maintain a litter free community, the Clean City Committee is composed of nine citizens, two City Councillors and a staff advisor, mandated by City Council for a three year term to educate, inform, encourage and organize events that will reduce and eliminate litter in all areas of St. Catharines. Clean City Committee "Litter Hot Line" Missing: Litter Hot Line Number, which if you search hard enough, is 905-688-5601
Or Return to Main Page...
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