Blood, sweat and fears: Calgary’s Cash Corner still kickin’
Originally published at OpenFile Calgary August 16, 2012
by Zoey Duncan
It’s 8 a.m. in Victoria Park and two dozen men are smoking cigarettes, sipping coffee and chatting amongst themselves along Centre Street south while watching a backhoe rip up part of 13th Avenue.
At the same time they’re also mindfully eyeing each vehicle that drives past, as if they’ve developed an instinct for identifying potential employers. This is Cash Corner, a notorious one-block strip in downtown Calgary where employers (typically in construction or landscaping) and the unemployed negotiate short-term cash-for-labour deals on a daily basis.
“It can be an excellent way [to get work] but it’s inconsistent,” says Kenny, who has been coming to Cash Corner since 1996 with the goal of flying under the radar. “There’s chicken today and feathers tomorrow quite often.
“We’re here to try and make what need by our own sweat, by our own efforts. That’s what Cash Corner’s all about.”
This unsanctioned employment agency, between 12th and 13th Avenues S.W., made headlines in 2007 and 2008 when developer John Torode was planning to break ground on a $200-million condo project adjacent to Cash Corner. Pressure from the developer, along with a report from the United Way [PDF] led to a city plan that would force the men to relocate, and possiblyimplement a more formal infrastructure. City council ultimately voted against the plan, in part because the move would be seen as an official endorsement of unregulated and illegal labour practices.
A disappointed Ald. John Mar, whose ward includes the corner, told the Calgary Herald at the time, “We’re going to continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend this problem doesn’t exist.”
The Torode project collapsed in the wake of the 2008 recession and the company’s subsequent bankruptcy, a parking lot surrounded by fence is all that remains of that dashed dream. So the men who work Cash Corner congregate there just as they did in 2007 and long before that—much to the consternation of area community leaders who fear it’s a public safety issue.
The men (and occasionally women) who arrive daily at Cash Corner are continuing a tradition that stretches back more than half a century in Calgary’s history. Following the Second World War, a government unemployment office existed approximately where the posh Hotel Arts now stands. Back then, after checking the office for jobs, many of the unemployed would hang around for the rest of the day. Eventually it occurred to one employer that if he needed someone to do some manual labour for him, he could find men who were more than willing to work hard outside the unemployment office.
The unemployment office has long since been demolished, but its legacy lives on. Men show up early, typically by 7 or 8 a.m., ready for a day’s work if they can get it. Employers drive by, strike a deal with a worker or two and drive them out to the jobsite for the day.
Many of the men here look rough: their skin tanned and weathered from working outdoors in the summer or baking under the sun waiting for a job. Long, wiry beards or day-old scruff and well-worn sweatshirts are typical garb. Mostly, the guys stand huddled on either the north or south corner of the block, but some sit on overturned milk crates or right on the asphalt sidewalk, eyeballing the traffic.
Most workers, at least the veterans who know the ropes, demand a minimum $15 an hour—anyone who works for less risks drawing the scorn of the rest of the day labourers. Jim, who has been finding work at Cash Corner since 1997, says he recently turned down an offer of $12 an hour from an employer who needed someone to do some painting and move some sod.
“Nobody in this city works in this city for 12 bucks an hour,” Jim says, calling it an insult and a wage nobody can live off. “If I go to work for him for 12 bucks an hour, I cut everybody’s throat down here.”
Newbies and infrequent users of the block often gather on the north corner, by 12th Avenue, and are more likely to take the lower-paying wages and to ask fewer questions about the job than those who wait on the south end, he says.
Employers don’t drive by as often as they used to, Jim says, but that wasn’t case when he started frequenting the corner 15 years ago. Back then, there would be 60 men lined up, toes to the curb, at 7 a.m. sharp and several pickup trucks were ready and waiting to hire someone. The wages were lower then, but so was the cost of living.
Now, the gigs are harder to come by. The day labourers used to be hired by homeowners to do landscaping work, build fences or paint. Many of those jobs have been taken by summer students who will do the work for less money. As well, the men from Cash Corner seem to have been maligned for that kind of work after some workers cased the homes they worked at and came back later to steal.
“Well, there’s always bad eggs that get mixed in,” says Jim with a shrug. “I have my opinions, but I’m sure a lot of people do. For the most part it’s pretty good. Most of the guys are pretty good, respect one another to a certain extent.”
CASH CORNER ‘LIKE A WASP’S NEST’
Perhaps. But those bad eggs have convinced David Low, the executive director of the Victoria Park business revitalization zone, that it’s only a matter of time before a violent confrontation occurs.
“All it’s going to take is for a tourist walking out of a hotel, they don’t speak English, they don’t understand what’s going on, they’re going to run into someone on the corner who’s a little bit chippy or intoxicated and there will be a violent confrontation,” he says. “That’s just inevitable.”
Low wants to see a formal employment centre for the day labourers who he describes asgenerally polite people who just “do their thing.” However, the area, he adds, also attracts “predators” who spend their time on Cash Corner because there’s safety in numbers.
“What police officer is going to go up and confront someone when there’s 20 guys standing behind him?” Low says. “There’s a gang mentality that exists on that street where these guys own it.
“It’s like a wasp’s nest,” he continues. “It can live under your porch for 10, 20, 30 years until someone accidentally pokes it and then something bad is going to happen.”
But the police don’t see a wasp’s nest on Cash Corner. You could say they see it more like rabbit’s burrow.
“That’s so far off my radar in that area in the district that I have no concerns,” says Staff Sgt. Ralph Veckenstedt of the Calgary Police Service. He worked a street shift July 26th and spent part of that day interviewing a worker on cash corner after earlier running some statistics on the area.
Veckenstedt says there hasn’t been a single call about Cash Corner in 2012. He acknowledges that “crime can happen anywhere” and says the public has to call police if they have problems with someone on the corner or suspect something criminal is happening there.
Low, of the Victoria Park BRZ, says he has some hope—but not much—that Cash Corner could change in nature or move elsewhere as post-recession development in the area picks up again. The city has plans to redevelop Volunteer Way—that’s Centre Street between 10th Avenue and 18th Avenue South—which will completely transform the asphalt-covered block into a pedestrian stroll.
But then again, the 13th Avenue Heritage Greenway, with benches, lampposts and a cycling pathway is slowly approaching completion and Low thinks it already just “makes it more comfortable for people to just kind of hang out and not do much.”
The men who work Cash Corner aren’t looking for something easy or comfortable though. They’re looking to support themselves on their own money and they’ll carry on as long as jobs are there.
“I’d be much more comfortable right now sitting in the [Drop-In Centre],” says Kenny. “And they’d probably give me a bowl of gruel or something and I’d be warm, there’d be a TV and I could sit and do that. But guess what, I might pick up a job that will make me a couple hundred dollars today or a $100.
“I know when I do work on Cash Corner, the money’s going in my pocket. I’m not paying somebody else’s wages for my sweat. It’s my sweat, my money.”