LONDON, ONTARIO – About a month ago following the spring banquet of the Baconian Club, I made my way through the snarled up construction zone at Dundas and Richmond to the Scotiabank’s ATM cash booth. Just outside was a lavishly tattooed gentleman who stepped right in front of me and asked if I wanted to make a hundred dollars. “No thanks,” I told him.
Even if he’d been decked out like Daddy Warbucks, I would’ve given his proposition a pass but this pushy guy was obviously skint and up to no good. As I squeezed my way around him he said, “All my ID got stolen but if you just cash this cheque for me, you can have a hundred dollars.”
“No thanks,” I said again and pushed into the foyer where the ATMs are lined up against the wall.
He came in just behind me and waved a ragged personal cheque in front of my face. “Why not?” he asked. “Why woncha do it?”
Well, this was a major breach of panhandler’s etiquette. Yes, the rules of civility allow him to make his cadging overture and even one supplementary entreaty in which he characterizes the difficulty of his situation (though it’s never a winning ploy to do so while impeding your would-be-mark’s freedom of movement). But to follow that up with a third volley while continuing to invade my space meant that I no longer had to play nice. “I won’t do it,” I told him “because I don’t know you and I have absolutely no reason to trust you. Now leave me alone.”
He made an exasperated face that signalled how hard it was to negotiate with an idiot and throwing up his hands, turned and stormed out of the foyer.
I proceeded to do my banking and was at that delicate point in the operation where I was pulling legal currency out of a hole in the wall and stuffing it in my pocket – a point when none of us like having somebody hovering in our immediate vicinity – when the foyer door was pulled open and somebody scuttled inside, not to make his way over to the other ATM but to stand just behind me. Loaded for bear, I swerved around, all set to send my tattooed financier packing with an earful of abuse, only to behold a younger and decidedly more fragile looking chap, his face dotted with nasty-looking scabs.
“Can you give me a few bucks to get a meal? I haven’t eaten all day.”
“No,” I told him with more force than was probably required. He immediately ducked down his head and fled the scene, leaving me feeling like a bully. I’m no absolutist on this score. Touched by someone’s pitch or the look on their face or a clever notice on their cardboard sign, I might fork over some coinage to ten per cent of the people who hit me up. And ordinarily when I do turn down panhandlers, I at least try to soften the rejection by meeting their eyes and saying, “I’m sorry.” But this guy’s predecessor had worn my respectfulness down to the nub, and I was ashamed that I’d lost it so completely.
Back outside and making my way home past puddles of half-digested pizza vomit and discarded needles and blood-stained swabs, I grimly reflected that all this construction chaos in the core – shutting down consecutive blocks of Dundas to all vehicular traffic, limiting Richmond and Talbot to single lanes, funneling pedestrians down fenced-off sidewalks where they’re assailed by the proximate racket and kicked-up dust of earth movers and diggers – is so that Dundas Street can be magically transformed into a “people place”.
Dundas Place they’re going to call it. The buses that usually run east/west along Dundas Street will be permanently banished to Queens Ave. to the north and King Street to the south. London will lose its universal transfer point of Dundas and Richmond. And they’re going to install retractable bollards at the end of each block (or “diversity bollards” as they’re known in Europe where they’re useful for dissuading jihadists from driving their vans at shoppers) so that for whole days and weeks at a stretch, Dundas Street merchants can drag their wares out into the streets and people will supposedly dance and frolic.
For at least the last five years, they’ve been trying out this concept; closing Dundas to traffic while they host utterly desperate downtown festivals that attract nobody but the usual street vagrants and actually hurt the bottom line at downtown shops which aren’t as convenient for their customers to get to or are temporarily abandoned because nobody wants to wade through all that tacky sadness. I mean, look at Market Towers at Dundas and Richmond where outside speakers play repetitive clips of classical music in hopes of driving the lowlifes away. Look at the window ledges in front of the Central Library on Dundas Street specially outfitted with metal devices that make sitting impossible for loafers.
Downtown London is a business district and it thrives on activity, movement and cars and buses. If you want a festival actually worthy of the name, check out Home County or the Rib Fest two blocks north in lovely Victoria Park or Rock the Park in Harris Park two blocks west. Look, I get it that we’ve been putting off the essential upgrading of water mains and sewer lines underneath Dundas Street for at least two generations and that this reckoning is long overdue. By all means, bring all that up to code and we’ll endure whatever temporary inconvenience must be incurred to finally make that happen. But as a twice-a-week habitué of our poor beleaguered core – home of our only book and music shops that actually reward the custom of patrons with any aspirations to culture – let’s not kid ourselves. Cars aren’t the problem with downtown London; it’s the people.
And by ‘people’ I don’t mean the shoppers or the students or the people who work in the offices downtown or folks who attend hockey games, concerts and plays in the evenings. I mean the people who panhandle (sometimes aggressively), the folks who hang around the welfare offices at Dundas and Richmond and the needle exchange on King Street east of Richmond. And just wait until they determine which plum downtown locale is going to be the happy home of our very first safe injection site. That should really turn things around for the better. Small wonder indeed that three quarters of the respondents to a recent Free Press readers’ survey revealed that they do not feel safe walking downtown at night.
Dundas Place is a fait accompli. We’re just going to have to watch that disaster play itself out, like that absurd wiggly block of Dundas east of Adelaide did 40-some years ago. If there’s any sign of hope for downtown’s future, it arises out of last week’s provincial election. Now that London is entirely represented by NDP members of Parliament in a cost-cutting Conservative majority Queens Park, I’d say the odds are pretty good that London can kiss its core-destroying dreams for a bus rapid transit system goodbye.