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Why We Act

What do our children see when they look out at their neighbourhoods: flowering trees and vegetable gardens, or concrete walls and asphalt parking spaces?

By Adrian Duyzer
Published August 30, 2006

In Terrorist, John Updike's latest novel, depressed guidance counsellor Jack Levy describes what he sees as he looks out the window of his home in fictional New Prospect, New Jersey.

Levy recalls "flowering trees and vegetable gardens, clotheslines and swing sets," but today, "a few scrubby brushes fight for carbon dioxide and damp soil between concrete walls and asphalt parking spaces".

The needs of the automobile have proved decisive. The locust trees planted along the curbs, the wild ailanthus taken rapid root along the fences and house walls, the few horse-chestnut trees surviving from the era of ice wagons and coal trucks - all these trees, their buds and small new leaves showing as a silvery fur of fresh growth in the lamplight, stand in danger of being uprooted by the next push of street-widening.

New Prospect is a "slumping factory town", says the inside fold of Terrorist, a place where heavy industry's energies no longer invigorate the atmosphere of the city or the pocketbooks of its citizens.

Unlike Hamilton, where biosciences, education and technology have developed in the vacuum, New Prospect's future is dim. But Hamilton's new industries have not improved the lot of all its citizens, and many Hamiltonians look out of their windows at views Jack Levy would instantly recognize.

John Updike was born in 1932 in Pennsylvania. The flowering streets and neighbourhood groceries in Jack Levy's memory are the same ones in Updike's and in our own.

We vividly see here a common North American experience, a decades-long progression that can be compressed into a half-hour drive simply by starting in the south-west end of downtown Hamilton and traveling to the north-east, or even more quickly by traveling from old Ancaster into the Meadowlands.

The first drive demonstrates a slow decline: energy sapped from vibrant neighbourhoods in a city where super-highways come before downtown streets, where the wants of flourishing suburbia trump the needs of the working poor and where councillors in affluent neighbourhoods decry the negative influence of people just trying to leave their dying neighbourhoods.

The second journey, from an quaint old Ontario town into the worst excesses of sprawl and rapine development, is to witness the energy of corporate greed, an energy born in the hearts of middle-aged men, developed in the womb of boardroom meetings and brought sputtering and smoking into this world as bulldozers and excavators, whose great love is flat and treeless surfaces, their great hatred the large tree.

This isn't just about the environment, city finances, land and energy use. This is also, and most importantly, about the human spirit. This is about the view our children will have of their city when they look out at their neigbourhood in the lonely, early hours of dawn: a city of "flowering trees and vegetable gardens, clotheslines and swing sets", or one of "concrete walls and asphalt parking spaces".

Are we sapping the spirits of our citizens, or strengthening them?

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz


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