BY NICHOLAS KÖHLER • By 7 a.m. on a still-dark, chilled Alberta morning, they have already begun to gather—first two, then four, then eight, until, an hour later, two dozen men stand at the corner of Calgary’s Centre Street South and 12th Avenue, stamping their sneaker-shod feet for warmth. The bosses do not arrive until an hour later, pulling up in trucks and minivans to permit the gang of sometime-construction workers, landscapers, garbage men—whatever is called for today—to swarm their vehicles and negotiate terms. “It’s just like fishing,” says one of the labourers, miming the action of casting a line. And like fishing, the rewards are inconstant. “You can stand here all day and make nothing,” says another.
Calgary’s iconic Cash Comer could become a casualty of the boom
In a city drowning in money, this downtown strip—dubbed Cash Corner for the day labourers here seeking casual work— would seem an anomaly. Even with more jobs than people, Calgary is home to men willing to endure frostbite for a chance to work. “I’m a construction ho,” one says
cheerfully. “I stand here like a prostitute.” Some see the men (occasionally a woman appears) as Steinbeck-esque rogues—“the noble savage of the street,” as David Low, executive director of the local business revitalization zone, puts it. The average wage is $12 an hour—$100 for the day. A man who agrees to less risks the wrath of the street. And, while some are new to Calgary and homeless—victims of the city’s housing shortage—and others addicts or alcoholics, most have apartments and a job or two, and appear on the corner when they have time to spare. Others, seasonal oil-patch workers returned to Calgary for spring breakup in Alberta’s north, even receive regular El cheques. All use the corner to survive a city that is increasingly expensive and designed more and more for “people so rich they don’t even know where the gas cap in their vehicle is,” as one labourer puts it.
Five decades ago—some trace it back as far as the Depression—Cash Corner sprang up spontaneously outside a wooden shack housing a federal employment office. The shack is long gone. And now Cash Corner, too, must go. Its immediate surroundings, set for condofication, will soon receive 3,000 new residents. City council is divided over whether to officially recognize the workers—as well as their underground, perhaps illicit economy— by relocating them. Some aldermen want to hold to the city’s laissez-faire attitude. “They didn’t need city council to make it work,” says Ric Mclver, one such alderman. “That’s probably why it’s working so well.”
And yet it does not work well. Not anymore.
Mark Wilson, general manager of the swank Hotel Arts, has long complained that the men use his parking lot as a toilet and that his foreign guests fear them. “Someone has to step up and take accountability,” he says. The site, once just around the corner, has been moved in the past, though without an explicit city policy. And in February, city council
vcry nearty mac^c a similar
move, considering a pro-
posai to relocate Cash Corner and provide
the men shelter and washrooms. What do
the men think? Some would welcome a roof and a real toilet. But others revel in Cash Corner’s unmanaged, organic efficiency. The labourers gather here, says one, in part because “they just don’t like the structured lifestyle.” A new, city-sanctioned home—with amenities—is, he adds, a “bad idea.” He shouldn’t lose any sleep: worry that condoning the practice would leave the city vulnerable to liability suits scuttled the move. A report looking over options is due by December.
That may be too late: during Stampede this summer, a tony corporate tent is to be erected next to where the men gather, an event sure to push Cash Corner out. If the city does not choose a new locale—or if it attempts to suppress Cash Corner—the labourers and their various employers will choose a new home themselves. “It’s kind of like trying to squeeze Jell-O,” says Low. “It would only fragment and pop out elsewhere.” M
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