Commentary

Jacked! Connecting Crime with Poor Planning

Upper James has all the characteristics that attract criminals: poor lighting, fast-moving traffic, wide-open spaces with few permanent residents and a very feeble sense of community.

By Chris Erl
Published August 15, 2009

"If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake."

-- Fyodor Dostoevsky, "Crime and Punishment"

A few Sundays ago, after a week of cleaning, replacing gears and changing tires, my old bike was back in operation. It was a beauty of a machine with 18 speeds, lightweight frame, jet-black, emblazoned with a bright yellow "Magnum" sticker on the side. My favorite thing to do every evening in the summer and fall was to take it out and explore the quiet suburban streets of the west Mountain. It cleared my head after a hard day's work and gave me an opportunity to see parts of my community I rarely came in contact with.

So, that bright Sunday morning, I happily embarked on a short journey to work, situated in the massive strip mall on the corner of Upper James and Rymal. Taking my bike to work meant getting a bit of exercise, helping reduce the old carbon footprint and (ever important to the frugal student I am) saving money. I locked my bike up, stringing the heavy-duty chain through the tire, around the frame and securely through the designated bike racks.

It was an average shift with no complaints, until, an hour before my shift is done, I casually looked out the window and saw what looked like my bike riding east toward Upper James.

I turned to my boss and said "Ugghhh! My bike just got jacked." I reported the theft to the police, moped about it for a few days, but eventually dug out my old bus pass and rekindled my tumultuous friendship with the 44-Rymal route.

About two weeks later, I was talking with a customer who frequents my work, often wearing a helmet and backpack. In the course of small talk, I casually asked if she had rode her bike today, to which she replied, "No, someone stole it yesterday in front of the Zellers!"

It is no secret that Upper James is one of the most crime-afflicted places in Hamilton. The nearly exclusively commercial strip has all the characteristics that attract criminals. Poor lighting, fast-moving traffic, wide-open spaces with few permanent residents and a very feeble sense of community all contribute to the epidemic of crime plaguing one of the Mountain's commercial cores.

The bank robberies on Christmas Eve, the hold-up at the Tim Horton's on Stonechurch and Upper James, the knife-point robbery at Mountain Plaza Mall, the hate-motivated attack on a lesbian couple, the robbery at Couture clothing and the declaration by Hamilton Police that Upper James is a "hotspot" for car thefts in Hamilton have all occurred within the last two years.

My own personal incident got me thinking about what can be done to curb this problem. It is difficult to quickly implement the appropriate measures because planning is the core issue. The poor layout of the entire commercial strip simply makes a criminal's work easier.

Further proof comes in the statement released in January of this year by the Hamilton Police. It stated that, whereas car thefts across the city have declined, three areas in particular saw major increases: Upper James, Limeridge and the Meadowlands.

Three prime examples of sprawling, car-centric developments have now become prime examples of another pitfall of poor development. Until we come to terms with the poor social and economic sense sprawl makes, crime will continue to affect shoppers and businesses alike.

In the course of my research, I found some steps the police and community can take to combat the problem while we wait for the implementation of better planning practices. Hamilton Police should be investigating the possibility of extending their Community Policing initiative to certain sections of Upper James.

This would not only help the escalating crime problem, but also the scores of speed-fiends who use the parking lots of these strip malls as private drag strips. Neighbourhood Watch programs in the adjacent communities should be extended to include commercial districts where possible and volunteer forces should monitor commercial areas. Better lighting, more open windows and bait bike and car programs must also be implemented.

Yet no substantial change will happen until we address the issue of poor planning. Connecting crime and sprawl would turn the opinion of a substantial portion of the population and may finally convince local politicians and planners to change the city's attitude toward costly, wasteful and unsafe sprawl.

Until then, I'll be at the next police auction...

Chris Erl, a born and raised Hamiltonian, has wanted to change the world ever since becoming the Westwood Elementary School Chief Returning Officer in Grade 5. After receiving both a B.A. (Honours) and M.A. from McMaster, Chris decided to purse his passion and study urban planning.

In addition to serving on the City of Hamilton’s LGBTQ Advisory Committee, Chris is also a registered candidate for Public School Board trustee in Wards 1 & 2.

18 Comments

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted August 15, 2009 at 14:23:31

I do not like Upper James and avoid the area. Too much traffic. Our community struggles with poverty but the focus of that issue is downtown but it is all over the city.

As the song goes: "pave paradise, put up a parking lot"

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By hamjam (anonymous) | Posted August 15, 2009 at 19:15:18

"Neighbourhood Watch programs in the adjacent communities should be extended to include commercial districts where possible and volunteer forces should monitor commercial areas."

oh my god.

Feasible. Please, sign yourself up and start patrolling the streets.

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By luke (registered) | Posted August 15, 2009 at 23:16:51

Was your bike chain really heavy duty? May I ask you specifically what model chain and lock?

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2009 at 13:28:36

bikes do get stolen everywhere, but it's an interesting take Chris has in this article.

My bike is worth less than the lock I have on it...

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By Really? (registered) | Posted August 16, 2009 at 15:36:16

Maybe the new 20 A-Line, with a frequency of once every Half Hour, will supply Upper James with the needed Pedestrian Traffic!?

With an Express Bus with Such Amazing Frequency (Every Half Hour) zipping up -- 85% empty -- to the Airport, how can crime NOT improve in this area!?

sarcasm alert

Seriously tho... where's your source for this: "Further proof comes in the statement released in January of this year by the Hamilton Police. It stated that, whereas car thefts across the city have declined, three areas in particular saw major increases: Upper James, Limeridge and the Meadowlands. " ?

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 16, 2009 at 15:36:26

for what it's worth, I absolutely feel less safe walking through empty suburban neighbourhoods than I do walking through areas considered less than desirable with lots of people around. There's definite truth to the fact that eyes on the street is necessary for a safer environment. The only time my bike was ever stolen was in my youth at Limeridge Mall. I've locked up hundreds of times in Gore Park during the day and at night without a problem.

Obviously crime happens everywhere, but I've never looked over my shoulder as much as the times that I took a night bus to my folks suburban neighbourhood without a soul in sight.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted August 16, 2009 at 17:36:22

Suburbs are becoming the new Ghettos. For Prime Examples, look no further than Toronto; specifically Malvern. Meant to be a suburb far away from the core (for obvious suburban reasons), the Neighbourhood is now so disconnected from the City, making it one of the cheapest places in Toronto to live -- HELL, it's even more expensive to buy in Regent Park now.

This cheap neighbourhood makes it attractive for low-income families, who sadly, are most likely to get involved in Gang activity.

Will Upper Stoney Creek or Faux-Ancaster (aka Meadowlands) become Hamilton's Malvern or Jane/Finch? Who knows!? I do know that TransitCity Toronto is building two LRT lines to Malvern, and two more to Jane/Finch. So I'm assuming HAMILTON will become Toronto's only-remaining cheap housing stock!

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By Bill (registered) | Posted August 16, 2009 at 19:27:28

You do not have a clue what you're talking about. I live in the Meadowland's and I feel safer than in the lower city. When I lived down there I did not feel unsafe at all. I lived there all my life and felt very comfortable. I am a very out going person and I know more of my neighbours now than I did in the old hood. They are friendlier! I see more people walking and biking than in the old hood. Yes they drive and have 2 or more cars but that is not a crime. And the best part, they all have jobs! That is why on some days there is no one around. They are all at work. I do not now who started the fallacy that the suburbs are cold and inhospitable, but they have never been there to know what they are talking about and anyone who say so is just talking nonsense. It is like the people who say downtown is nothing but decay, bums, hookers and pigeon poop. They do not know what they are talking about.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 16, 2009 at 20:37:49

I'm just merely giving my own experiences, although that doesn't mean it's the same for everyone. I know someone who moved to the Meadowlands, hated it and got out in a hurry upon realizing they couldn't hang clothes out to dry, neighbours would plaster signs on their front door if a single weed appeared on their lawn and nobody was friendly. Obviously your experience has been much more positive and that's good to hear.

Also, I've lived in the suburbs for 23 years of my life and downtown for 9.
Cheers and welcome to the site!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2009 at 21:37:04

Anecdote alert: I live in the lower city and work right downtown, but the only violent crime I've ever witnessed in Hamilton was outside a pub in a strip plaza on the east Mountain.

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By C. Erl (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2009 at 01:42:42

I'd love to patrol my store's parking lot! Its every student's dream, so how about hamjam comes patrol it with me! Bonding time, whoot!

And I'm not exactly sure about the worth of the whole ensemble since it was all a gift from my father a few years back. He told me the lock was heavy duty so I believed him.

"Seriously tho... where's your source for this: "Further proof comes in the statement released in January of this year by the Hamilton Police. It stated that, whereas car thefts across the city have declined, three areas in particular saw major increases: Upper James, Limeridge and the Meadowlands. " ? "

http://www.thespec.com/article/470547 (Though I must correct myself, that was when I printed the article...it was in November of 2008 when they released the study's findings, my mistake)

Type "crime, upper james" in the search bar of thespec.com, and you get 112 results. Take a gander fur urselves, if ur all up tuh it!

Oh, insomnia, how I loathe thee :)

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By highwater (registered) | Posted August 17, 2009 at 10:18:00

Two stabbings in the paper this morning. One on Upper James and one in Dundas. Nice change from the usual downtown stabbings.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted August 17, 2009 at 10:31:59

Disclaimer: I was Born & Raised in a very suburban suburb (Uppr SC) where I spent 18yrs and have been Downtown for about 5yrs now with a cpl years in St Catharines/Montreal/Toronto for school in between.

My observations

Suburbs: Drive-ways instead of porches kills neighbour interaction (besides a faux hello), and takes eyes off the street which could potentially lead to crime, or an eerie 'unsafe' feeling (which is how I feel). East End: Porches gallore with residents sitting/talking/socializing, keeping eyes on the streets which could make it feel safer.

Suburbs: People drive everywhere, talking or texting on their cell, or just not paying attention which could also lead to an eerie desolate feeling. Not to mention having to always look around to ensure you're not going to get hit by a car (Mud St was turned into an Expressway just before I left the hood). Downtown: People walk everywhere, adding more presence on the street making it seem like a people-friendly place, therefor more safe (Safety in Numbers).

I could go on as to why I personally feel Urban Areas are safer than Suburban ones, but I'm sure Suburbanites could do the same.

Fact is those who choose Suburbs either a) Don't know any differently, or b) Prefer to be private/anti-social. I only ever ran into neighbours in Parks in my old hood, Downtown I see friends as I walk to Tim's or the Hasty Market. I love stopping for a chat in the middle of Augusta St -patios & people & laughter OH MY!

But with the way the world is going -dwindling oil supply/re-localization of the economy-, Suburbs will FAST become the new 'ghettos' as they will become increasingly difficult/expensive to access -Again, such as Malvern/Jane-Finch.

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2009 at 17:15:42

Very good points all.

"Suburbs are becoming the new Ghettos"

This is hardly a new story. The history of LA street gangs is a goldmine for this kind of urban analysis. Then there's the story of the Bronx after the construction of the cross-Bronx expressway.

The east mountain has had problems since the late 80's.

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By Yeahbut (anonymous) | Posted August 19, 2009 at 14:46:10

I've lived close to Upper James nearly all of my life. It's a long road with several different communities strung along its length. The experience of crime is always subjective and for many, tucked into these areas it's sometimes easy to forget the murders that occurred at Limeridge Mall and at Upper James and Brucedale even if the got fairly heavy news coverage at the time and since.

Whether crime rates are high or low, it's good to consider whether community design can help to reduce them. Chris E makes a few suggestions (Poor lighting, fast-moving traffic, wide-open spaces with few permanent residents and a very feeble sense of community all contribute to the epidemic of crime plaguing one of the Mountain's commercial cores) as to causes of crime, but I wonder if there's support for this or are they just his opinion. And how might they apply to Upper James? I mean, UJ and LR might be highpoints for car theft because that's where the cars go. Might have nothing to do with nearby community cohesion at all.

I think it's worth looking at crime from the standpoint of community planning. I'm glad Chris brought the subject up. There's a lot more to it than comparing neighbourhoods, however.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted August 19, 2009 at 16:20:00

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

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By urbanboy (registered) | Posted August 21, 2009 at 15:44:24

Bottom line, crime is everywhere. Sadly, developers sold a false bill of goods to innocent unsuspecting naive mothers. They promised paradise and delivered pavement. The lower city at one point had more people residing than the mountain. Now it's the opposite. More people, more crime. You can run, but you cannot hide.

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By ex-suburbanite (anonymous) | Posted August 27, 2009 at 01:17:57

I think all areas have their problems. I lived in the suburbs for 20 yrs of my life and had my bike stolen out of my garage. Children's toys would get stolen on Friday nights if they were left outside. When I moved to west downtown, I couldn't get over how my neighbours wanted to know all about me. There is a guy on our street who can tell you everything that went on this week. When I'm at work, if anthing suspicious happened during the day, I'd hear all about it that afternoon. There are kids playing in backyards, patio furniture left out all summer on front porches, great place to live.

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