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9:00 am and 6:30 pm
These are exciting times at Streetlight! The LORD has blessed our fundraising campaign and we are now ready to start the construction of a brand-new building on our property. Of course, before we can build up, we must first tear down. We have to say goodbye to the beige beauty that we’ve called home for the past 18 years, and this comes with a mix of emotions. On the one hand, we have fond recollections of a building that played host to packed-full community dinners, pancake breakfasts and worship services, but on the other, we have the dreaded memories of the sewer smells, rodent infestations, and other amenities of our windowless abode. Indeed, the bricks and mortar of this place have left a mark on us and on the neighbourhood. And so, as this love-hate relationship comes to a close, I can’t help but wonder about the history of this building that has stood on the corner of Wilson and Ferguson for well over a century.
As it turns out, a few internet searches into Hamilton’s historic directories and a documentary about the history of the Jewish people in Hamilton paint a picture of our little corner of the city. These bits of data strung together reveal a story that 82 Ferguson has always been a cultural hub in a ragtag neighbourhood.
The Streetlight property as we know it consists of just one building on a corner lot. At the turn of the 20thCentury however, this lot was actually four separate properties. 76 and 78 Ferguson Ave North were attached houses built prior to 1870 (they would have been immediately in front of our current fenced-in compound). The earliest inhabitants of these homes were a dry goods merchant and a broker. There was a building directly on the corner of Wilson and Ferguson that was constructed around 1894. Over the years it was a butcher shop and a grocery store. Our building, 82 Ferguson Ave North, was built around 1890 likely by it’s first inhabitant, a builder named James Mercer. It was a mansion, set further back from the road.
Hamilton saw a lot of population growth in the 1890s as immigrants came from Europe looking for a new life for their families. The neighbourhood at this time was home to many poor-class Jewish immigrants. In 1905 a Jewish man named Myer Cohen came to live at 82 Ferguson. Mr. Cohen also owned 189 Rebecca St, a neighbouring building at the corner of Rebecca and Ferguson, which is a medical office today. He was a rag dealer, or what we might call, a scrapper. In an industrializing city, manufacturers went to rag dealers to purchase used steel, paper, rags and other reusable material. This was a dirty trade, that involved sorting through contaminated garbage. Many people looked down at rag dealers who were often of Jewish descent. This was the life of Myer Cohen as he lived in our building and worked next door, turning junk into money.
It was during this time, likely under the direction of Mr. Cohen, that 82 Ferguson Ave North became the home of a synagogue. Although Mr. Cohen moved on from 82 Ferguson (and also sold the neighbouring property at 189 Rebecca St.), the building remained both a home for various Jewish immigrants and a place of worship. This shared usage persisted until 1935, when the building became solely the Agudath Acham Synagogue.
According to a documentary by the Hamilton Jewish Project, the synagogue was known by the local Jewish population as the Ferguson Avenue Shul. It was incorporated in 1914 by Romanian Jews. Over the years, the congregation removed the ceilings from the lower floors and built a balcony around the main room. The high ceiling was painted blue, with gold and silver stars and the signs of the zodiac were all around. The small congregation of scrappy pedlars made sure to have a beautiful place for worship and communal gatherings. The building was likely the pride of the local working-class Jewish people, enduring through two world wars, ongoing antisemitism, and the changing economy of the burgeoning city. But it wouldn’t last.
Over the years, the Shul gained a bad reputation and new moniker: the Broigasa Shul (the angry shul). It was said that those who became disgruntled with the other area shuls came to the Ferguson Avenue shul. As we know, this type of communal disunity is not sustainable, and so by the 1960s there was almost no one left to keep the shul running. According to the late Rabbi Aaron Shiffman, “the shul came to an ignominious end.” It was sold and the money was divided among the few remaining congregants (which was against Jewish law and custom).
In 1966, 82 Ferguson Ave North came into the possession of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters &Joiners of America. Local 18 of the Carpenters Union now called Ferguson and Wilson home. It was likely during these years that the building was remodeled with the false ceilings, brown tones, and wood paneling that we well recognize.
For those who know Hamilton, it should be no surprise that a union hall would take over as the community hub in a working-class neighbourhood. By this time, Hamilton had forged itself as an industrial heartland. Workers poured their whole lives into their blue-collar trades and the unions served as rallying points and as protectors of their self-worth and dignity.
Putting aside the varying views about the effectiveness of trade unions, Hamilton’s industrial roaring power of the early 20th century would eventually run out of steam. By the late 1900s downtown communities became viewed as uninhabitable wastelands. Ferguson Avenue fit this mold well, since the Grand Trunk Railway ran down the centre of it. Smoky trains plied their way from the harbour up the tracks towards Ferguson Station well into the 1980s. The sense of this industrial past has been immortalized by photographs (and a local mural) of a famous train derailment in 1953. It happened right next door to 82 Ferguson Ave as the overturned train engine came to rest on the doorstep of Myer Cohen’s former junk building.
By the turn of the 21stCentury the outlook of the neighbourhood seemed bleak. The downward spiral of the steel industry had taken its toll on the working class. Suburban neighbourhoods up the escarpment had outpaced the downtown in wealth, population growth and development.
When Streetlight purchased 82 Ferguson Ave North from the Carpenters Union in 2004, the Beasley neighbourhood was considered one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. Child poverty was prevalent and visible in the shoddy houses throughout the area. There was a sense of deep loneliness among marginalized adults who lived in area group homes. Drug addiction, homelessness and unemployment plagued the community. For many of us early ministry workers and volunteers, coming into this neighbourhood was a cross-cultural experience. We came with a strong sense of the gospel, but little understanding of the culture of a neighbourhood hardened by years of poverty.
By the grace of God, in those early years 82 Ferguson Ave North became a place of fellowship and worship. It was a place where meals were shared; where local kids could hangout, skipping or shooting hoops in the parking lot. It was place in the community and for the community. And the people who came very much carried on the historic rag-tag vibe as they faithfully gathered throughout the week.
Over the years the building was painted; inside and out. The roof was fixed up, along with the fascia and soffits. The front ramp rebuilt and the parking lot repaved. Soon the daily gatherings of various clubs and Bible studies were stretching the building’s limits to the max. All exhaustive work was done to make the space usable, but the furniture could only be rearranged so many times. Major renovations were considered but deemed an unsuitable solution. Committees formed to find a new building in the area (we even considered the old junk sorting building at 189 Rebecca!), but all roads led us back to the corner of Ferguson and Wilson.
God has made it clear that our work at this location isn’t done. With his grace we will persist, but as for James Mercer’s now 130-year-old mansion, the writing is on the wall – and it’s in the form of a demolition permit.
As I reflect on the history of 82 Ferguson Ave North, the romantic in me can’t help but notice the parallel to the Biblical narrative: the rise and decline of a Jewish people, the intertestamental period of the (Maccabean?) hammer raisers, the coming of light and proclamation of Good News, the pending destruction and the hope of a new and better home. Okay, I admit it’s a stretch, but I don’t want to downplay the sense of hope that exists in our community. It is a hope for restoration.
In many ways the Streetlight community is as scrappy as ever. Unfortunately, the evidence of generational poverty still persists in our neighbourhood. We will likely carry that gritty vibe into our new building, but we’ll do it as a people of hope. The hope of restoration in Jesus has a growing foothold in our neighbourhood. A new building will only enhance that growth. And as history rolls on at the corner of Wilson and Ferguson we trust that the people who call this place home will be remembered as a community who built their foundation on Christ alone.
For more about the building project or to donate go to: https://www.streetlightchurch.ca/shine-on