What’s the buzz in ‘Music Town’?

A version of this article was published in the Hamilton Spectator, February 13, 2019

I am sitting on a hard folding chair in a small box of a room, walls tiled with soundproofing squares, patterns of small holes dimple the bland surface. I can see my reflection in a smoky, square, one-way window in front of me. The room is utilitarian to the point of lacking personality, perhaps even exerting some negative force that is draining mine and the technician’s own.

VR image of the actual room

The room is purely pragmatic, much like a police holding cell, and it shares the same sense of seeming stuck in time. Other than one odd touch, a fusty toy monkey at a tiny drum kit, they could have filmed The Milgram Experiments here.


I’m here to get tested, but if I’m the least bit nervous, it’s not the kind of test that I could study for and fail. I’m getting my hearing tested, I already know there has been a drop-off in my hearing, thanks, I’m sure, to loud concerts I joyfully attended in my raggedy, rebellious youth. Leaving smoky concert halls with ears buzzing was common and a trophy of sorts, cheaper than buying band merchandise.

But now it’s warbling sounds of various pitches and volume entering through the headphones I’m wearing as the specialist notes my raised-finger signal that I have picked up the sound.

The Pure Tone Audiogram chart I’m shown after is like my high school grades the year I discovered recreational drugs, declining steeply. The toll is in the higher frequencies. I will mishear certain words, especially words with “f,” “s,” and “th.” I guess that’s the trajectory of age: downward, slow or fast, but relentlessly, predictably, down.

Screen Shot 2019-02-13 at 8.03.06 PM

She asks if I normally hear buzzing and I don’t know if I do, but later, at home in bed I notice it. I’m instantly panicked that I will now notice it all the time. It’s distracting.

I’m at a point where I could get hearing aids to help catch the higher frequency sounds, I’m informed, but for now, I prefer to miss a few words than to have something fitted into my ears.

Is it a curse, then, to live in a Music Town, as Hamilton has branded itself? With so many bands and venues, it’s easy to find something to do most nights. Hamilton’s got a reputation for gritty music, it’s a value the Steel City cut its teeth on. Teenage Head, Forgotten Rebels, Chore, Monster Truck. I heard Ray Materick play “Linda Put The Coffee On” so loud in a small club a few years ago that I thought my ears would bleed java.

Talking about going to see a band with some friends, we end up talking about how loud it is, I suppose it’s that “kids these days” meme for past-our-prime-time players.

We get into a short digression on the subject of earplugs, exactly the kind of conversation my 20-year-old self would not have had the patience for. But here I am offering pro-tips about a library at the university that has the best free earplugs, something I learned from one of my student volunteers.

Then it occurs to me that we are all individually planning to fit our ears with foam plugs to go listen to music. This is, of course, absurd, and it poses a systems problem: why don’t the bands and the clubs turn down the volume so that we can listen comfortably, maybe even safely?

We’ve banned smoking indoors, should we consider noise a new indoor health issue?

Jonathon Richman of Modern Lovers fame once declared that music shouldn’t be played so loud that it would hurt a baby’s ear. But how loud is too loud?


I asked Dr Larry Roberts, an internationally recognized expert on tinnitus, based at McMaster University, who was generous with both his time and expertise. Let’s just say I’m squandering the riches he shared to relate this one simple truth: humans didn’t evolve in such a noise-filled, volume-peaking, loud environment. That’s right, it’s not natural to be exposed to this much sound. I also learned the proper way to pronounce tinnitus. And of course, the answer to the question: how loud is too loud. “If you have to yell to be heard, it’s too loud.”

There you have it. Roberts advises having an exit plan when the dBs reach damage-levels. If you have to assign a danger threshold a number, let’s go with 80 decibels. Sustained noise at that level starts to eat into your hearing health.

We are, by nature of our vibrant scenes, victims of opportunity, and thereby subject to very real threats. While our lungs are now protected from cigarette smoke in clubs, it seems our hearing is something we haven’t really considered. Earplugs now or hearing aids later? Is that the question we are faced with in Music Town?


Monumental Fail; Statue of Limitations; A Modesty Proposal (alternative titles)


Statues are all the literal rage this year: Bronzed monuments secured to a pedestal and left stoically to face the elements, and, more threatening, civic life surfing the torrents of time.

It’s supposed to be bad form to speak ill of the dead, but when they cast a long shadow over our public space, there’s going to be pushback. Or a pull-down. Eventually, anyway.

Our Hamilton statues, where we have Sir John A. Macdonald, Queen Victoria, Augustus Jones, Mohandas Gandhi, are getting more scrutiny. Most days I don’t even notice them as I pass by.

Our Hamilton quartet of statues was almost joined by a Frankie Venom. The thing that killed the former Teenage Head singer’s statue dips into the boiling cauldron that touches all statues: moral character. Some pointed out the less savoury aspect of Frankie’s life, but what, we might ask, of Sir John A. or that model wife and mother Victoria, Empress of India? Are they somehow exempt from moral scrutiny?

The root Latin word for statue is “stare” which means “to stand.” Appropriate as we stare at previous generations’ choice of heroes and, with our Google eyes filled with information, wonder how we expect complicated and flawed humans to ever be worthy of eternal respect.

A few times in my life, some well-intentioned but ultimately misguided person has suggested I go into politics, a proposition I immediately reject with my usual response that I have a checkered past and a checkered future, thereby making me a liability for political office. But perhaps in the orange glow emanating from the dump fire south of the border it’s not such a long shot after all?

But let me make a very Hamilton proposal about statues, a regional expression of that shining mythical Canadian self-deprecating character: humility. The answer, I feel, has been hiding in plain view for 85 years over on York Boulevard.

The four architectural pylons on the T.B McQuesten High Level Bridge spanning the Desjardins’ canal each hold an empty niche, a hollow space purposely built to hold statues of famous Canadians. Four famous Canadians. Architect John Lyle’s (scaled down) bridge design officially opened to fanfare in June 1932, and yet in the intervening eight and a half decades, no bronze toes have touched the base, no famous Canadian, or likeness of anyone, has ever graced the cavities with their form.

Yet things are good over there. Looking down from the bridge, you can watch people roller-blade, cycle, run, walk, on the cycling path far below, and catch occasional paddlers on the canal. Traffic zooms self-importantly past the niches, a cycling lane extends to connect Burlington and Hamilton, the stairs from the heights to the water’s edge are busy with people exercising or taking some leisure. Instagram feeds are steadily replenished with shots of the bay or Cootes Paradise, sunrise, sunset.

A few years ago a McMaster undergraduate, Alvand Mohtashami, made an interesting proposal for the bridge. Fill the antique niches with, not humans, but animals: a blue heron, maybe a double crested cormorant, wings spread to dry. But animals instead of famous Canadians? Can animals be famous? Even this suggestion is no doubt fraught with as yet unexplored controversy.

I suggest there shall be no battle for the niches. Most people don’t have time to stop and look, or to know the story of the empty spaces. And where does that leave us? Well, with no troubles to argue about. We should expand this method to all future public art considerations.

Google “public art” and you won’t find a recognizable human historical figure, but you will see oversized animals and abstract sculptures that build on a relationship with the surroundings and the people there. Chicago’s Cloud Gate, or as it’s commonly known, the Bean, features in tourist photos in a way standoffish Sir John A. will never know.

Monumental statues seem so last century. I’d much prefer public art that challenges my sense of importance, art that invites participation and play, almost anything over this odd, vain attachment to human heroes cast in bronze.

I’ll confess I wasn’t supportive of the Venom statue intended for Victoria Park. But I decided I could live with a concept that I would have submitted to a design contest, had we got that far: A Venom fountain; I imagine it as a long chrome tube rising from a circular base, like the microphone stand he wielded as an extension of his on stage persona. And like Venom the frontman, the fountain would spit water out at intervals. How punk rock is that? Rather than reverential, it’s playful. Gobs of fun.

Going forward, let’s show some of that Hamilton humility in our public art, and in so doing we can temporarily forget our differences and learn to play together.


talking not writing about cycling

Back in the late ’90s I hosted a news/current events show with a strong local social justice and environmental focus  on the McMaster campus and community station CFMU – I was also deeply involved in several volunteer activist groups, and here, in this cassette recording of a live broadcast, I am both interviewer and partial subject since I was one of the organizers of the city’s first ever Critical Mass bicycle ride.

Listening all these years later it is hard to imagine how stark the cycling conditions were compared to even today – lacking as it still is. There were no bike lanes across the highway #403 on Main or King, no lanes on Sterling, really hardly any infrastructure to speak of. Bike parking? Good luck.


Nowadays the mass rides are done by the Hamilton Glowriders, and are more party than protest, but cyclists can never be far from either aspect when we get together I suspect.

In this campus newspaper article about the glowriders, they talk about the “more adversarial approach to cyclists’ relationship with motorists” as expressed by the generation of critical mass rides.

In contrast, Glowrides, the article explains,

“actively seeks to repair this frequently tense relationship by adding an element of fun and celebration to the group ride and stressing the need to be safe and follow all rules of the road. Instead of tense interactions, now most drivers in the downtown core drive and honk along in support of the cyclists.”

If you see photos of the Critical Mass rides (including the first one in May 1998, you will note that costumes were quite festive, and, while the ride was a lot of fun, it was consciously meant to be – simultaneously –  a protest ride.


Post Critical Mass ride at Victoria Park, Summer 1998


But let’s not forget these key elements in defence of Critical Mass:

a) We had nothing to lose

b) Protest can be fun

It’s odd that Critical Mass is now pitted against the Glowride as though we were the older lawless and ill-tempered cousin, but the similarities are probably greater than any differences. Attending my first Glowride last fall, we did pretty much the same amount of lawbreaking as Critical Mass might have – i.e. blocking intersections as the ride went through a traffic light that turned red before everyone was through – there were hundreds of riders, more than our biggest mass rides which peaked around 70 riders. I was quite impressed with the turnout and the fun atmosphere, enlivened by a massive sound system on a cargo-bike.

Yes, the early Critical Mass rides took up the whole road for long stretches of Main and King, and that certainly upset a lot of rush hour drivers. Glowrides start later in the evening and spend a big part of their ride on the car-free Waterfront Trail, for example, eliminating some of the strain that Mass riders faced when staking a claim for bikes on the hostile streets downtown.


Glowrides have LED lights and social media networks that weren’t available to the Masses in 1998, and, they have the advantage of a steady increase in cycling in the decades since – some of which was certainly engendered by the Mass riders of old.

Have a listen and reflect on how far we have come in terms of support for cycling, and how we can continue to work together as we advocate – and agitate – for more!



Backpedaling on Bike Lanes?

There’s talk of removing bike lanes along York Blvd and Dundurn Street North to make room for cars once Light Rail Transit (LRT) displaces traffic on King Street. Cyclists are of course upset, and some are strategizing about alternative routes to the York and Dundurn pairing.

I hate the idea of conceding lanes so soon after getting them. The continuous, connected route on York was years in the making, a priority for city cycling staff and advocates, and it is a sweet ride. I cruise downtown from my Strathcona shack to grab some grub at the market, and head back up Burlington Heights with a modicum of separation from traffic.

The fact that these hard won lanes are being offered as a sacrifice to cars to make up for the loss of traffic lanes on King Street is bad enough, but isn’t Light Rail supposed to be the cyclist’s friend?

I thought walking, cycling and transit were what we were aiming for: we are supposed to be building alternatives to space-wasting, expensive and dangerous cars. Why then, when we are on the cusp, do we cave?

When our family moved to Strathcona almost a decade ago, there were no bike lanes on Dundurn North, nor York between Dundurn and Bay. Walking to the store, my kids hiking to middle school, everywhere we went we were an arms length away from fast moving cars in the curb lane. The sudden blast of air against my arm as a car sped up Dundurn toward York. One wrong step off the sidewalk would mean disaster.

When our city councillor Brian McHattie made cycling lanes a priority in ward one, we benefited. A protest flier delivered to mailboxes in the area predicting traffic chaos when one of two northbound lanes on Dundurn would be removed was proven false as things have worked out beautifully. The change for cars, negligible (unless racing side by side counts), but the added buffer of the bike lane offered our skin-wrapped skeletons a reprieve from danger.

A possibly unintended, but welcome, improvement for pedestrians is provided by bike lanes at the curb: road design that moves water to the catch basins at the roadway edge always means the potential ignominy of getting soaked by cars passing through puddled ponds. I lost an iPod touch to one such massive soaking. I guess that could be seen as good for the economy, but it sucked to be soaked and made the journey a costly one.

You see, defending the existing bike-lanes is not just a cycling thing, it’s a walking thing. The city does a terrible job of clearing bike lanes of snow in winter, but it is often better than the resident-led strike against shovelling sidewalks. Elderly people sometimes choose the bike lane over the slippery sidewalks with their walkers and canes. It’s a practical improvement that needs to stay if we in fact support active modes of getting around.

My fear is that we do not support active modes. I mean, removing bike lanes and making walking less viable screams cars first, doesn’t it?

So what to do? I’ll suggest the KISS plan: Keep it simple stupid: leave the bike lanes alone.

Accommodating cars to the detriment of people walking and cycling is regressive. Does car traffic slow down? Probably. Will the world be swallowed up by a five-eyed monster as a result? Not likely.

We, the walking, cycling, transit-taking plebeians are already living a shadow-future that the rest of the world needs to wake up to. Me? I’m tired of being pushed around for car driver’s entitlement. Please, note, I am also a driver on occasion, and when my right foot hovers over the gas pedal I have an entirely different set of expectations and desires than when I walk or cycle. As such, I understand and support the trade-off that needs to come if we are to protect more vulnerable road users.

The day when more people can choose to take a safe alternative to the car keeps getting pushed back. Government inaction, or political obstruction, fear, it all adds up to making each step we take on our everyday journey more ugly, dangerous and frustrating.

Back in 1975 Hamilton looked at creating a system of bike lanes on streets to reduce cost and to give cyclists an enjoyable trip. As Vince Agro explains in his book from that time (You Can Fight City Hall) “Unfortunately, little progress has been made towards implementing this plan but the City hopes to be able to begin the project soon.”

I hope that my well-intentioned cycling cum urban traffic-engineers, the already harried LRT planners, the rest of the traffic department, and everyone else in this fine city give the future a try. We’re at least 40 years behind schedule but it’s here if we want it. Backtracking is not an option.

Splash zone along curb lane on Dundurn between Main and King no bike lane to protect 

A version of this article titled: “A city for cyclists: Don’t Backtrack on York and Dundurn bike lanes: Avid cyclist ‘tired of being pushed around for car driver’s entitlement'” first appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, Wednesday, April 12, 2017


“Stories of the ‘More-than-human’ World”, CCENA’s Second Long Table Gathering of the Year

I had a great time speaking at this event, the organizers were enthusiastic and devoted to bringing out engaged conversation, as is their goal: The Centre for Community Engaged Narrative Arts is a work in progress and the feedback after this event was delightfully encouraging for future long table gatherings. I can’t say enough about how great it was to share the table with fellow presenters Kaitlin Debicki and John Terpstra.

I’ve agreed to share my prepared text with CCENA, so I’ll share it here as well. We were tasked with speaking for 10-12 minutes each, and then the panel opened up for discussion. I think I even encouraged civil disobedience at one point, so it was definitely moving places none of us had likely considered. Thanks again for the giving me the opportunity!

Coldstream of Consciousness


I feel it is significant to share that I haven’t owned a car for 20 years; I mostly ride a bicycle, walk, and occasionally take buses or borrow a vehicle. I’ve found that the way I get around provides me with a specific understanding of where I live.

I have distinct memories of walking with my kids on particular trails to get places: The Spencer Creek Trail through the heart of Dundas to go to the library, a favourite route to escape roads and cars, walking through tall wild grasses and stopping to listen to the rushing water in the creek. We hardly saw anyone else on the trail. Sometimes my kids would make us late — when the blackberries were ripe — so that we’d arrive with purple-stained fingers and mouths. It was like returning to a more restrictive world where this tasty burst of gathering and eating suddenly became a problem of decorum, and some of the primal joy washed away.

Randy talking about Coldspring Valley on History and Science Hike

A combination of Conservation and unofficial trails between Governors Road and Highway 8 was our route to William Dam to buy our backyard garden seeds in the spring. An epic journey lasting hours, but full of poetry from my young daughter who memorized full passages from Lord of the Rings; and questions, and snacks, and walking sticks borrowed from the forest returned as we left the path and rushed toward home ahead of threatening clouds.

Unpaved earth provides an intimate experience and surprises. It could be the stick on the path that suddenly slithers to life to escape our approach (I brake for snakes). Or the bee flying beside me, matching my speed as I pedal along the Rail Trail, sharing a journey for a few magical moments. Or the night on my way home I decided to leave the comfort of street lights for the darkness of the woods and was rewarded with undulating lights of hundreds of fireflies.

But there are other encounters. In particular, roadkill becomes an almost daily, up close, slow, occurrence as I commute beside Cootes Drive on my bike. It makes sense. The highway was jammed through a biodiverse marsh in the 1930s, and the legacy is noise, depleted habitat, and carnage teetering towards species extinction.

The sight of, and then horrible realization that, the dead raccoon, crushed by a vehicle, had its insides forced out in a stream of bloody organs behind its body. The audible buzz of flies. Or the strange variation that appears one day among the grassy centre median, which turns out to be a road-killed snapping turtle – the top of her shell smashed open, the briny scent of water, and inside, among other intestinal debris, the small white unlaid eggs.

These are crime scenes. Hit and run except no one stops to care.


How many of you know where Coldspring Valley is in Hamilton? If you know, how do you know?

There’s a creek there. Farmers of the past called it Red Creek. Some ecologists might have referred to the same waterway as Coldwater creek, or Coldstream creek. We know it more commonly now as Ancaster Creek. It is, as you might have guessed, a cold water creek, very rare and specialized habitat.

How many of you have heard of McMaster University’s Parking Lot M? Or as it was previously know Parking Zone 6?

These mundane and blandly descriptive place names literally buried the naturally evocative Coldspring Valley, after stripping the land of vegetation, moving the creek out of the way, filling in the messy floodplain to ensure it never floods again.

From 1958-1963 the Royal Botanical Gardens called it Coldspring Valley Nature Sanctuary, a place for nature hikes, learning, and scientific discovery. After McMaster bought the land from a reluctant RBG, they parked vehicles. The name fell off the face of the earth.

Now, after several decades, references to Coldspring Valley have made a modest comeback, you might think the place is back from the dead.

Scraping By

In April 2014, heavy machinery trundled onto the parking lot and started tearing up chunks of asphalt. In a few days, a few hundred parking spaces had been removed to create room for the naturalized buffer.

My initial vision for removing the scar of pavement had started in earnest only a few years before, in 2011. The moment had been rising to surface like the cold water seeps that trickle past skunk cabbage on the side of the north facing slope for a long time before. Everything had changed.

I’d hiked through the large parking area many times, entering at different points where the various footpaths to the west ended in asphalt. Through the valley following the creek from Osler Drive, or down a trail from University Gardens crouched on the plateau above the valley. Or a side trail branching off lower Spencer Creek Trail and Cootes Drive.

There must have been a buried pang of sadness, or anger, or some mixture, every time I made the transition from the fields and surrendered to the expansive, flat, ugly parking lots at McMaster. I’d seen deer, coyotes, beaver, a noisy belted Kingfisher, and once a bald eagle drifting majestically overhead. I’d also rediscovered lost trails, remnants of the area’s past as a nature sanctuary.

The details of the journey that has seen the parking lot retreat to open up space for the minimum requirement of a 30 metre naturalized buffer is detailed in many places, including the Restore Cootes blog.

But we are here to talk about land as teacher, land as pedagogy. I am taking this in its most literal sense. The land does what it must. We can change it, control it, rarely do we get an opportunity to improve it by our actions.

So, for someone who researched the history of the area, wrote letters and blog posts, connected to politicians, and professors from several faculties, from art to engineering, I’ve helped move the discussion and the project forward. I just saw the recently updated campus master plan and it includes formal acknowledgment of MacMarsh, a wetland project that developed as a part of our collective work on Lot M.

But the university also gives itself ecological rewards for new buildings, or permeable paving in parking lots, when the true ecological thing might be not to build there, or to help encourage a shift away from car dependency, to undo the damage.

I am happy that there is now a 30m buffer, researchers and classes are there doing valuable work, but if I think of the parking lot as another crime scene, they are like EMS or emergency room staff, experts patching things up. The work takes place on top of the gravel fill, the floodplain remains buried, it will not serve its purpose, it is dead.

The lesson is an old one: land is cheap to develop, expensive to rehabilitate. RBG director Leslie Laking said exactly this after they lost the eastern shore of Cootes Paradise to the Chedoke highway and the land at McMaster in the 1960s: “Pressures to develop expressways or parkways or other engineering works…have been and will continue to be encountered, and almost invariably it is the ‘undeveloped’ natural areas which are sought for such purposes…. An arboretum and parkland generally are vulnerable targets because only trees are in the way” (“The Future”, RBG Special Bulletin No. 20, March 1968

It seems utter madness now, but “In 1925, a proposal that the city build an incinerator was turned down on the grounds that when existing dumps were full, the entire Dundas marsh was available for garbage disposal.” (Emergence of the Modern City, Wood, Harold A, in Steel City: Hamilton and Region, Dear et al, University of Toronto Press, 1987, p131)

We have trouble with the world. Where will we take it?


McMaster student volunteers helping build turtle nesting habitat on former parking lot, now 30m naturalized buffer in Lot M/Coldspring Valley

“Beginning where it is easiest,” advises a landscape architect, “Successes in small things can be used to make connections to other larger and more significant ones. This is, consequently, an encouraging environmental principle to follow in bringing about change. It is, in fact, the only practical basis for doing so.”(Out of Place: Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape, Michael Hough, Yale, 1990, p194)

I can confess that getting the parking spaces removed from Lot M was a side-project, a diversion, something to try. If that seems like a brag, no one was more surprised than I was when it succeeded. But my real goal, which began back in 2001, is to have Cootes Drive removed. It seems impossible but it also seems like something that should happen. I had good company in Bruce Duncan, Hamilton Conservation Authority ecologist, who supported the idea when it was first announced, and he is quoted saying nice things about it in the Dundas Star, advising me “to propose it to the city, and work cooperatively with them. That’s the way things happen.”

I need support. This is why I really loved John’s book Falling Into Place, and when I read his Submission to an Unannounced Competition for Proposals Toward a Vast and Total Redevelopment of Niagara Falls, I was instantly and at once a fan and inspired to continue to be unrealistic in my demands.

I feel I have failed to deliver on the promise of the talk’s theme, unless I can say that walking on trails is the way the earth instructs me: I can’t speak for the land, but I can observe and interact with this space, become more aware. I know that walking has provided inspiration for my actions relating to Cootes Paradise, and brought my focus to these degraded scenes of environmental destruction.

Let me end on a hopeful note: at a recent history and science hike in Coldspring Valley/Lot M, we saw signs of life on the buffer beyond the tough plants and hardy trees trying to reestablish their presence. Evidence of turtle eggs, hatched, or more likely predated by Raccoons, but turtle eggs had been safely laid in the sandy mounds that we built where cars used to park.

I’m happy to arrange a tour of the area, if anyone is interested.



Who am I to you?

I’ve spent a big part of my life devoted to a not-for-profit organization that has allowed me to live, learn and get paid for doing what I love. I have a strong sense of feeling fortunate to be able to work with university students with an interest in engaging with projects that set out to improve society.

duff_manThe constantly changing environment with new ideas coming from below means I am privy to issues as they try to take root and grow into larger movements: way back it would be recycling and waste reduction (which seems to always need improving) to more recently the place of marginalized communities in a capitalist society and how to address issues of racism, poverty and women.

But now I ask generations of you, student volunteers and former student volunteers, friends (& former friends?) to give me some feedback about any impact I’ve had on you, hopefully positive, but if negative, I’m eager to learn from mistakes.

This may be like a wake where the person is still alive, but I’d love to hear what you have to say about me. I might actually need it.


Poking Around the Viral Game

Keeping an open mind about Pokemon Go
It’s an opportunity to learn about new technology

Hamilton Spectator, August 18, 2016
By Randy Kay

Pokemon Go is here and the augmented reality game has hit the population like a dose of Beatlemania, without the music, and the screaming. No screaming, please, it’s 2016.


Just starting on the Pokemon journey…


Confronted with the new, previous generations, including the one who shrieked The Beatles out of performing live, unfortunately have trouble understanding quieter, emergent crazes.

I’ve already experienced thinly veiled insults while exploring the game. On James Street North a woman interrupted me and my companion with “look up, the moon is beautiful tonight.”

I immediately understand her point, but the fact she felt emboldened to make it suggests something about her attitude toward us.

The kitchen staff out for a smoke by the back door of a nearby hotel offered, a whiff of smugness mixed with the exhale of tobacco, “don’t get run over.”

I’m old enough that other adults should probably not be saying things like that to me. Besides, I’ve already been warned: as the game loads the first message is: “Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings”.

Players are not mindless zombies despite congregating at all hours in parks to silently address the action unfolding on their smartphone screens.

Capturing Pokemon characters is, after all, a series of fun, short-lived moments of focused, stationary play. Large gatherings of players likely indicate a special place known as a Pokemon gym, where teams battle for control of the site. These people are not generally moving anywhere fast, and stand or sit rooted to a patch of earth to play.

My concern is less with the game and the overblown dangers associated with it, (as the death toll on roads carries on unabated) and more the negative reactions to it.

You have no pokeballs in the game? Maybe you are missing an opportunity to “evolve”. In the business world there’s a distinction between a mind set that is fixed or growth oriented. Players are growth, engaging, trying new things. No amount of Pokemon potions will revive a fixed mindset. You are too faint of heart.

Social media is the platform and this game is taking it to new territory.

In Westdale a trio of musicians from the Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra has set a lure at the Pokestop by the post clock. “Lures” sprinkle purple flowers that fall confettilike on phone screens temporarily to attract more Pokemon, and more players, to a particular stop. One of the musicians is my daughter, who called to see if I was in the area. I was already on my way, drawn by the lure and the chance to collect Pokemon.

This was my first exposure to Pokemon Go as a social media marketing device. Businesses are a half-step behind. Having a Pokestop near your store can be a boon to business, but only if you engage with it.

It’s not just teens and twentysomethings playing. The little girl who we met, excitedly cheerleading her mom’s pokeball throwing prowess, the rest of her family contentedly lounging on the side of Millionaire’s Row in the Hamilton Cemetery.

I already regularly walk through this historic cemetery. I still stop to take a photograph of the sunset over Cootes Paradise, but now I can hit some Pokestops along the way.

Pokestops here include information about the historical graves so you can actually learn something about the people and the place while playing. These Pokestops have more potential to enhance a visit than the already weather worn — and broken — smartphone stations the cemetery was installing at select sites.

Augmented reality has just — literally — been placed in our hands. This is only the beginning. If you faint like a weak Pokemon at the slightest innovation, you are going to miss the potential in new technology.

Learning can be mobile and fun, it’s positively disruptive if applied to get kids out from behind desks and playing as they learn. Disruptive is what schools desperately need.

To play I usually walk or ride my bike. I’ll confess I even ordered a special phone-mount for my handlebars. Maybe that was a bit too much, but it makes playing and navigating easier.

I’m not the only one buying-in. My tech guys at the local computer store are all out of portable phone chargers. Buyers say it’s for work. The staff know better.

My skill on Pokemon Go is nothing to brag about. I’m learning as I go, getting advice from other players in the field, of whom there are plenty. I feel that I will probably even drift away from the game. But there is something important here, even if it is the opportunity to challenge your sense of adaptability and curiosity, two qualities that we should value in people of all ages. But at very least, keep an open mind.

Hamilton Spectator transportation


March 4, 2016, Hamilton Spectator

It was a cold Friday in February for Hamilton’s first Winter Bike to Work Day. They met in Gore Park over some high-end donuts and fair trade coffee, while others gathered elsewhere in the city to pedal their boneshakers through plumes of cold mist rising from sewer grates.

I’ll admit I gleaned this from photos posted online. I was at home drinking my own freshly brewed fair trade coffee while cooking my morning oatmeal. Have I wimped-out before the Viking Biking crew?

Bicycle, Westdale in Winter (photo by Randy Kay)

The winter ride’s argument is that even in frozen Canada cycling is a year round option for travel. It’s true, no doubt. When bike paths are clear of snow and ice, cycling is just a matter of dealing with the cold, entirely manageable.

But they are not clear of snow and ice. I sometimes Imagine the winter of discontent drivers would have if they had to deal with the same level of service as cyclists. Some glorious day we will achieve snow-plowing parity, and the winter cycling argument will pick up steam.

Until that day, my bicycle and I remain fair weather friends. After my leisurely Winter Bike to Work Day breakfast, I left my bicycle leaning in the dark hallway and walked a few frozen blocks to buy groceries. That evening I booked the Hamilton CarShare so that I could drive to Toronto and retrieve my daughter as she exited the Megabus from Kingston to start her reading week. The car ride on such a cold night was a welcome luxury, and cheaper than our combined bus fares.

Any particular day I can choose to walk, bicycle, transit, car-share, and on occasions borrow a car. I have yet to take a SOBI bike share membership, but that’s another option many Hamiltonians have already taken up. Let’s just agree that I have a diverse array of transportation options for a guy who doesn’t own a car, options available to most in the city. When we get Light Rail and a mountain bound Gondola, I will add those to the mix.

While the message of Winter Bike to Work Day is at the core “we can do this,” this bold claim could be tempered with a modest question; perhaps: “what is the best mode for me given the conditions?”

Do I ride my bike in winter? Yes. But peering through frosted window panes helps me decide how I am going to move my butt for things like getting to work (3km) or to the Hamilton Farmer’s Market (1.6km). The first consideration – like the topic of conversation in coffee shop lineups – is almost always weather conditions. Très Canadian.

My preferred modes are cycling and walking, but if the roads are covered in snow and ice I’ll trade my bike for boots. If the walk seems treacherous (or I’m feeling lazy) I’ll boot it to the bus. Other considerations include distance, how fast do I need to get there, what kind of exercise I want to get, will I be carrying something, and my energy level.

Usually my mood improves when riding. But riding in my balaclava, my sunglasses worn to cut the glare of sun on snow are annoyingly misting up with each exhale. My feet and hands, despite excellent winter gear, rarely get as warm as I’d like, though my core is toasty. Let’s consider this a bad-mood-inducing input. On the coldest days I prefer walking to cycling since my body heat disperses more evenly, my toes and fingers warm enough to remove my mittens about 10 minutes in. These physiological inputs form neural pathways not easily forgotten in the algebra of winter awareness. My cycling enthusiasm sags as the temperature drops.

This winter has been easy on cyclists and snow plow crews. Poised between winter solstice and the spring equinox, I’ve ridden more this year than I have in recent years. But I remain a fine weather agnostic on the subject of how to get around.

There are other shortcomings in my personal winter cycling preparedness. I don’t want to have to change tires, clean off salt and slush, nor do I have room for a second winter-beater in my already crowded abode. This is when a bike share like SOBI makes sense. At $15 per month during the winter season (December to March) I could access their bicycles and let them worry about storage and maintenance.

But that leaves the condition of pavement as the ultimate barrier to cycling: If the city could keep clear lanes for cyclists the way they do for motorists, I would be back in a happy place, even it my fingers and toes were a bit cold. As far as I can tell, we’re not quite there yet.


Croft was heart of Hamilton cycling

Where is the beating heart of Hamilton’s cycling culture? I’d look for it back in a time when everything needed to be done.

I don’t exactly remember the first time I met Neil Croft, but he came to the small Recycle Cycle volunteer bike repair group we formed in 1997 as the culture bringer, the poet-philosopher muse of the fledgling freewheelers.

Like a series on handmade postcards that Neil was famous for sending, I picture him in key culture creating moments. There he is on CHCH TV, a bit reluctantly in the spotlight, riding out to a huge empty warehouse, searching for a space for Recycle Cycles’ first home. We eventually settle in the basement of Erskine Presbyterian Church, still there today, I’d add.

Neil arrives early to Hamilton’s first Critical Mass ride, May 1998
– photo courtesy Heather Croft.

In May 1998, Neil has risen to the occasion of Hamilton’s first Critical Mass bike ride, a concept he introduced to us after experiencing Toronto’s version. Neil gave us our slogan for the first poster advertising the inaugural ride: “subvert the dominant paradigm.” This bit of linguistic ingenuity sent us scrambling to the dictionary before leafleting McMaster campus bikes with subversive invitations. Already tall, he’s towering above the 60 plus cyclists gathered in Westdale in a homemade costume with a towel cape, the crowning article a custom construction helmet with a bicycle wheel mounted on top, slowly spinning horizontally adorned with colourful pompoms as we pedal Main Street toward downtown in afternoon rush hour.

Neil was our best mechanic, helping people fix their bikes, and repairing and selling bikes at low cost from Recycle Cycles. Now monthly mass bike rides allowed more social time, and we came up with a bike-themed art show in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Neil included his prized bicycle in the show, an elegant gesture acknowledging both the utility and the beauty of bikes. A Toronto bike choir performed at the opening night.

Hamilton cycling in the late 1990s didn’t have much to offer in way of infrastructure: essentially no bike lanes, no bike parking, and only the city cycling committee representing cyclists. We quickly surmised whatever good ideas they had were too easily ignored by politicians when it came to act. We decided to become the unruly cousins.

Some of us who enjoyed the monthly mass rides formed Transportation for Liveable Communities (TLC) Hamilton in 2000 with the goal of advocating for cycling infrastructure. We coalesced around Car Free Day, and events quickly grew to fill a full week, including bike-films, bike “drive-in” movies at Gage Park, poetry readings, historical bike tours, “bus and hikes” to local waterfalls using HSR transit, the first women-only bike repair workshops, street parties and parking meter parties. Yes, we dropped quarters into meters, laid down sod, chess sets, boomboxes, offered free lemonade, and bike tune-ups while displacing cars for some grassroots community building. It was Neil who sacrificed his car-free-dom to drive and buy sod so we could create the comfortable green party space at the side of the King Street downtown.

Our Car Free Weeks were funded with an annual budget of less than $200 and entirely volunteer run.

An un-permitted street party on King William in 2002 featured an outdoor DJ booth, live music from Steve Sinnicks and the Raging Grannies, and “street hockey etiquette” to deal with any drivers who insisted in passing through the now green turf zone covering the pavement. While kids hand painted a car, the beat cops who came along decided it was easier to let us continue than to try and bust it up.

The original core group from Recycle Cycles started, grew and maintained almost 20 years of public activism that led to real improvements for cyclists and, importantly, made room for more cycling culture to develop.

At some point on the ride all your pedalling gets you over the top, and that is how you can measure success, when things speed up, when they get easier. The HSR fleet fitted with bike racks. Bike parking, bike lanes and paths all expanded dramatically since 1997. MaCycle, New Hope bikes, SOBI, Yes We Cannon! We watch a new generation of cycling advocates try and start something, perhaps with a slightly critical eye on a polite respectability a step removed from the grassroots actions we engaged in.

Neil, who was with us all the way is gone. At a memorial get together to share stories from his life, some of the old Recycle Cycles crew were reunited amidst the sadness of loss. We can’t fix this, can’t make grass grow on pavement, can’t ride together as a group to a better future, there are no tools to repair our sense of balance.

We’ve earned a time to coast and reflect on what we’ve accomplished, and consider what we may have lost along the way.

Randy Kay

This article appeared in the Hamilton Spectator on Oct. 7/15


McQuesten shaped city’s future: Parks on one hand and modern high- ways on the other

Tucked into the gravel sandbar known as Burlington Heights, in a small family plot, the bones of T.B. McQuesten are laid. It’s a fitting resting place for a man who could claim the distinctive geography of the Heights as one of his life’s canvases.

When the earth opened to receive him in 1948, the Hamilton Cemetery overlooked the peaceful Chedoke River Valley with Princess Point an easy landmark. Further along York Blvd stand monuments to his time on earth: the signature high level bridge over the canal, the Royal Botanical Gardens’ Rock Garden, or across York Boulevard from the cemetery a restored Dundurn Castle.

McQuesten family plot, T.B. McQuesten’s marker in foreground, Hamilton Cemetery

The marrow of McQuesten’s contributions to the city are in each of these places. His days on the influential city parks board spanned almost three decades until his death, the lasting results found in natural spaces and parks like Gage Park, Kings Forest, the RBG and Cootes Paradise, even McMaster University, coaxed here from Toronto for a 1930 opening, all McQuesten projects.

If parks were meant to act as lungs for the city beautiful, the other McQuesten imprint could be seen as cigarettes: The QEW highway and its shorter prototype Cootes Drive, the province’s first truly modern highways, steered into being during his time as provincial Minister of Highways.

McQuesten transformed Ontario highway design in the mid 1930s, drawing on the German Autobahn and Robert Moses’ USA parkways for inspiration. These highways were engineered to be safer by design: limited access points, low grades, easy curves, a centre median to prevent head on collisions. It’s true what they say about good intentions, they really are paved.

As the highways were put into use, the modernist McQuesten was appalled by the ensuing carnage. “The Department of Highways,” he complained, “is doing everything it can to design and construct highways which will be as accident proof as engineering science can make them, but this can be of little effect unless the human beings who travel the highways take upon themselves the responsibility of controlling the ever-present ‘human factor.’”

To combat human “carelessness” and the “craving to drive too fast…altogether too prevalent in Ontario,” a series of advertising pleas were dispatched by the department. A 1936 article announcing the ads paints a picture of death strewn roads, with 560 traffic fatalities in Ontario, almost half of them pedestrians. The slogan? “Try Courtesy”.

Hell, it turns out, is other people when it comes to road safety.

McMaster, whose move to Hamilton hinged upon McQuesten’s offer of acres of landscaped property designed to be indistinguishable from the neighbouring RBG lands, would present a dilemma that came too late for McQuesten’s input.

A decade after his passing, the campus he painstakingly helped plan and design began a rapid expansion. In the 1960s, two 80 acre RBG properties adjacent to campus fell victim to McMaster’s aggressive growth. The beloved RBG Sunken Garden was displaced by the imposing cement block of McMaster Medical Centre, and the rare cold water, spring fed habitat and trails of Coldspring Valley Nature Sanctuary, west of Cootes Drive, were filled and paved to serve McMaster’s projected parking demand. At the same time, the entire eastern lands of the RBG’s Cootes Paradise were lost to the Chedoke Highway (Highway 403). McQuesten’s eternal slumber would now forever be disrupted by highway noise rising from the valley.

The loss of these key properties caused much soul searching on the part of the Board of the Royal Botanical Gardens, who worried about witnessing the disintegration of their properties. As RBG director Leslie Laking noted “An arboretum and parkland generally are vulnerable targets because only trees are in the way.”

McQuesten’s concern about human traffic fatalities was real. We can only guess how he might have felt as cars, highways and parking lots began to further encroach on his beloved parks and their non-human inhabitants; like a snake eating its own tail.

The unintended trajectory of McQuesten’s contributions, tranquil nature parks on one hand and modern highways on the other, continue to intersect in a shell game of contradictions. The turtles of Cootes Paradise crushed by traffic on Cootes Drive brutal evidence of how this induced conflict plays out locally.

With demographic shifts trending away from cars and toward transit, opportunities to repurpose space set aside for roads and parking arise. What we can regain of the natural world is a conversation that’s already begun. In McMaster’s parking lot, the wasteland of asphalt gives way to ecological rehabilitation in planted oaks and grasses, reawakening a long buried dream that was Coldspring Valley.

It is testament to McQuesten’s foresight that we can even have this conversation in Hamilton today. The challenge before us is to refocus McQuesten’s early 20th Century vision to better reflect our evolving understanding of modern ecological values. Will it be traffic or turtles? Parking or Paradise?


McQuesten’s birthday was June 30, 1882.

First Published: Hamilton Spectator, June 6, 2015