This month we're looking at books about community and fostering connection, and Carissa Halton's Little Yellow House is a perfect title to start with. In this collection of candid and thoughtful essays inspired by life in Edmonton's inner-city Alberta Avenue neighbourhood, Halton writes about her friends and neighbours, the community institutions that support them, the challenges of city life, home ownership, raising kids, and the tensions of gentrification. It's an illuminating and hopeful book that asks readers to think again about what makes places liveable, and also provides a wonderful glimpse of Jane Jacobs' proverbial sidewalk ballet.
The first set of kittens Bill ever took in was brought to his attention by a desperate mewing from the blackened garage that slumped behind his six-suite rooming house. The kittens followed Bill to the front of his home where he set them up comfortably under the wooden stairs.
These three kittens were the product of a union between two abandoned cats as they waited patiently for the return of their owners. Bill had noticed the cats’ human family packing up the moving truck and the next day drove away with everything they owned except for their four feline pets lounging on the front porch. They weren’t the only ones abandoned that year, a time of booming oil business. Up and down the street, people moved in and out nearly as fast as a drive-thru order can be turned around and in the shuffle, as the rental market became increasingly resistant to pets of any kind, people left their animals.
After three days watching the pets from his suite, Bill took action. He set up a feeding station under his porch steps. Drawn under the stairs for food, they stayed and as none of them were spayed or neutered, they procreated.
When the kittens got old enough to be separated from their mother, he smuggled them up to his single room, which contained a hot plate, fridge, and space for a bed, then set about domesticating them. Even if the mother is a domestic cat, if kittens grow up without human contact they become feral. Feral cats die in a myriad of ways and Bill couldn’t bear the thought, so he petted the kittens and litter trained them and, when he deemed them ready for a new home, put out a homemade cardboard sign on his front lawn: Free kittens.
The street on which Bill lived in Alberta Avenue was a major thoroughfare for elementary school kids tromping to school, and invariably those who could read would stop and beg to take a kitten home. He had one rule: they needed a note from a parent.
“I think you need a plan,” said Gillian. “You won’t solve the issue if you simply keep domesticating kittens and giving them away.”"
Gillian was a public servant who lived in a century old home across the street and had a bad feeling about the Free kittens sign. She had been watching the cardboard sign go up and down over the past year and had watched the children stop and exclaim, and talk to the broad, grey-haired man who walked stiffly with a slight limp that favoured his right side. She determined to check in with the man herself. Walking across the road, she confronted him, “You have free kittens?”
“Yes, I do. Would you like one?” Bill said.
“I’d like to see one, yes,” Gillian said. “I’d like to see a few, even.”
He led her up the wood stairs, down a hallway and to his room that had an attached bathroom. She wondered if he lived on anything beyond macaroni, margarine and bread.
Just as he promised, there were kittens and eight adult cats that he cared for in the neighbourhood.
“I think you need a plan,” said Gillian. “You won’t solve the issue if you simply keep domesticating kittens and giving them away.”
“I have no money to neuter any of them,” he said.
“Well, I have money.” Then Gillian came up with a deal where she would provide cash and transportation for the cats to be neutered and agreed that none of the cats in their care would be put down.
While his home may have been a safe home for cats, it wasn’t getting much safer for Bill. He had been injured at work twenty years but refused to go on government disability because he felt he could “work a little bit”. That work, however, rarely materialized. His rooming house wasn’t ideal, but it was a roof over his head and he felt thankful that he could afford the roof and flush toilet; then his landlord sold the place and shortly thereafter the new owner knocked on his door. Bill invited the big man in and the man said, “You’ve got to leave. See, I’m going to do a bunch of renos and so you can’t live here anymore.”
His rooming house wasn’t ideal, but it was a roof over his head and he felt thankful that he could afford the roof and flush toilet; then his landlord sold the place and shortly thereafter the new owner knocked on his door. Bill invited the big man in and the man said, “You’ve got to leave."
“Sure, I can do that,” he nodded agreeably. “You’ll need to give me three months.”
“No, you’re not understanding me. You need to leave now.”
“Well, I need to find another place.”
The tall man stood up and breathed down at him. “You’re not hearing me. Get out of my place.”
Bill would stay until about the end of the month, but it became rather impossible when the New Landlord Guy ratcheted down the heat to bare minimum and turned the power off. Gillian was preparing to head to Australia for doctoral research and Bill had agreed to feed and water her four cats. When she heard about the eviction, she said, “Bill, why don’t you house sit for me? You need a place to stay and I need a house sitter.”
Bill moved into her guest room. He stayed for three months and when she returned, she suggested he just stay where he had settled. In his careful way, he moved around the house tidying, cooking, feeding cats and people. The two unlikely roommates played crib together and listened to 1930s jazz and modern opera that hummed from her grandma’s record player.
Thanks to Team Bill/ian’s work, every spring there were fewer and fewer freeranging cats to manage on the street until one year there was only one more cat to catch…
Excerpt from Little Yellow House: Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood, by Carissa Halton. 2018, University of Alberta Press. Appears with publisher's permission.
Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood
“Ma’am, you sound like a very reasonable person. Can I advise you to just move?”
Carissa Halton and her young family move into a neighbourhood with a tough reputation. As they make their home in one of the oldest parts of the city, she reflects on the revitalization that is slowly changing the view from her little yellow house. While others w …