"I was born here and I'll die here
--against my will." -Bob Dylan
When we first moved into this house it was a real dump. My prognosis was to tear it down and start over from scratch, but my housemate had a vision. Two years later it is almost complete. We had to rebuild a foundation wall, tear out rotting floor joists, remove aluminum wiring, old insulation, and hundreds of those antique square-top nails. The house was built in 1889, and there is a whole history of renovations visible in the basement. The floors slope and shake when the trains pass, and there was a precariously poised unused chimney in the attic--a kind of appendix to a long gone hearth--that we had to remove piece by piece.
At one point, lake Ontario would have been very close to our back yard; now it is half a kilometre away, with artificial extensions made to the shoreline to accommodate the factories and piers. The north end itself was once a satellite harbour town to the main city, and there were wild parties, bootleg liquor runners (smuggling hooch into the States across the lake) and gangsters using the bay as their personal clandestine morgue. Something of that energy remains and gives this part of town its particular feeling of being a place to lay low, to hide out, and a solidarity that is both generous and wary of strangers.
We moved in at the beginning of winter, 2002. The house had been empty for several months, and it had a haunted kind of feel--even after we ripped out the moldy carpets, cleaned the child's crayon of the walls, and replaced a flimsy bathroom door that someone at some point had attempted to kick in. Half of the house was uninsulated, and we spent a cold, drafty first winter huddled in the kitchen (where a tree was in the process of growing through the wall), drinking tea and trying to keep warm when we weren't in the basement buttressing the crumbling foundations.
I found some photos. Note the strange bedroom shower installaion we removed from the corner.
The following summer, my housemate's seventy year old mother came from Poland to visit and help out with things. She was just recovering from treatment for cancer of the eye, but this didn't stop her from digging a long trench for a wall that needed to be built under the kitchen, carrying the earth up out of the basement, bucket by bucket. She was also up laying shingle when the new roof was being done, and won the admiration of our neighbours, who were so impressed by the old woman's fortitude that they came over, unasked, and helped with the clean-up. My housemate's mother doesn't speak much English, but she transmits a spirit of warmth and openness that transcends any language barriers.
It was at this point that the neighbourhood started accepting my housemate. For me it took a little longer. It's only really been this summer that I've started to get to know the people who live around us, but I'm truly happy that I have. The whole place has come to flower for me this year, and I no longer feel like a stranger. I remember seeing the area for the first time, during a particularly cold spell in November or December, 2002. I had come to Steeltown on my own, without my housemate, to try to install some temporary heaters and prevent the pipes bursting from the cold. The gas furnace was in the process of being replaced, and I was unsuccessful in even finding the proper valve to turn off the water supply to the house. I found an icy pay phone out front a corner store and called my housemate to tell her of my failed mission. In the grey light of dusk, under all that snow, with those smoking factories in the distance, the whole place seemed so alien and forbidding. Now it feels like home. I've spent two years thinking how I just want to get out of here, and the time may be drawing nigh, but I'm not sure now that I really want to go.