Arts & Culture | Poetry

Welcome to Hamilton

A poem about place, land and home.

Listen to John Terpstra read his poem aloud in this short film made by videographer Jamie Bouwman.

Welcome to Hamilton.
You’re going to love it here.

Welcome to the top of the Wentworth Steps
which is one of five staircases up the escarpment.
This used to be the top of the Wentworth Incline Railway
which ran from 1895 until the 1930s.

Welcome to the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe nations;
the Six Nations of the Finger Lakes area of New York,
the Anishnaabe from farther north,
in the land of the Dish With One Spoon wampum agreement.

This is this dish, lying spread out before us.
You’ll be dining from this dish.
You’ll do some of the cooking.
Like I said, you’re going to love it here.
Just wait.

It gets complicated, right away, though.
The members of those and other Indigenous nations live amongst us in the city
and on reserves, like the six nations reserve to the south.
Life has not been, and is not
easy, for many of them.
They have not blended in together
with the rest of us immigrant and immigrant descendants.
It hasn’t been made easy for them,
to put it in a sinfully mild way.

Welcome to where the European settlers arrived
just over two hundred years ago.
From the east, overland, from the far side of the lake,
pushing westward from Lower Canada.
From the south, over the Niagara River.
They were refugees, walking up the peninsula
with their children and their cattle.

Welcome to the farms and the orchards that used to spread below us,
from here to the lake.

Welcome to where you are standing, this vantage point
on top of the Niagara Escarpment,
at the very western tip of the most eastern of the Great Lakes.
Welcome to Head of the Lake, as it was called,
a place of supreme beauty.

You’re going to come to feel very protective of it.

Welcome to the natural environment of the city,
to nature, hidden in plain view:
King street, running along the shoreline of a glacial lake,
the waterfalls along the Escarpment,
the escarpment turning a corner around the lake,
the bay, Cootes Paradise,
and the creeks that run under our feet in storm drains,
and my personal favourite, the Iroquois Bar.
Ask me about it.

Welcome to a city that is divided in two by this wall,
this layer cake of rock,
which represents three hundred and fifty million years
of earthly experience, and many stories.
A city that lives in two different centuries:
the 19th century below, 20th above.
There are people up here, on the Mountain, who will tell you proudly
that they haven’t come down or gone downtown in 30 years,
and vice versa.

Welcome to this Concession Street area,
the first village-type settlement on the Mountain,
which supported a large population of African-Americans
fleeing from the US before the Civil War.

Welcome to this perch where the first city conservation officer in the 1860s
watched fish poachers at one of the inlets,
and ran down to stop them.

Welcome to the changes, and more complications
some of which are hard to bear:
the abundance of salmon and of other fish in the bay,
the sword grass & the rattlesnakes & the bears & the cougars,
the inlets,
long fingers of water, which stretched from the shoreline
halfway to this escarpment,
and were filled in for convenience and industry.

Welcome to the Birmingham of Canada,
a former industrial giant,
which has also land-filled a third of the bay for factories.

Welcome to Sherman Avenue,
one block east from your house on Blake,
named for Frank and Clifton Sherman,
who started Dofasco Steel Company in 1912, which is now Arcelor Mittal:
those green buildings you see in the distance.
They have a great motto:
Our product is steel, our strength is people, our home is Hamilton.

Welcome to a city that attracted people from all over the world
for work in those factories;
people who raised generations of children on those jobs.

Welcome to a city famous, and infamous, for its industry.
The armpit of Canada,
known for its heavy air pollution, the cloud hanging over it,
that you drove down into from up here.
It’s not so bad or smelly now.

Welcome to a city which lost twenty-five thousand jobs—more!
when the industry moved away.

Welcome to a city with a lot of poverty,
homelessness, mental health issues, generational distress.

You’re going to love it here,
for the contradictions, the possibilities, the hope.

Welcome to 541 Eatery and Exchange, on Barton Street,
and to Indwell, and L’Arche, the Good Shepherd,
and many other efforts to help and heal.

Welcome to a city that is starting over,
that is in the news,
because things are happening, people are coming.

Welcome to a city that is in the news
for having more hate crimes per capita than any other in Canada.

Welcome to a city where you can still see the drive-by bullet holes
in the brick of a house where a mafia member lived—
in your neighbourhood.

Welcome to one-way streets and not enough bike paths,
and drivers who sometimes seem to take aim at cyclists,
so be careful on your bike.

Welcome to the Escarpment Trail, below us,
a walking and bike path that will take you to Albion Falls.
Be careful there too;
stay on the paths.

If you take the bus instead, remember to say thank-you
to the driver when you get off.
That’s what people do here.

If you’re lucky you’ll catch a bus
with the guy who plays the harmonica.

Keep your eye out for the one who dances up and down the streets
all day long.
He’s not crazy, just crazy-happy his mom survived cancer.
He’s keeping a promise he made to God.

Welcome to the city of Hamilton.
My city, where I have lived for half a century,
and raised two children.

What I love is where we are,
where we are standing,
where we are located,
this westernmost tip of the easternmost Great Lake.
I love it in spite of all the stuff I just said,
and because of all the stuff I just said.

The earth is a wounded creature here
at Head of the Lake.
Where is this not the case?
The earth is the body of Christ, I think,
wounded by all the things we do
and say.

Welcome to the healing
of which you may be a part.

John Terpstra sat down with CC Editor Angela Reitsma Bick to talk about his new poem and the places we love. Read the interview here.

  • John is a Hamilton (Ont.) poet, writer and carpenter.

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