The Gertrudes’ ‘Boys’ Town’ examines Kingston’s history of housing struggles

After an eight-year hiatus, Kingston band The Gertrudes released their new album, Emergency to Emergency, in November of 2021. The 12-track album, produced by Wolfe Island Records, is woven together by underlying themes of the “hidden pandemics” that go largely unnoticed in Kingston. 

Since there hasn’t been much opportunity to perform live lately, the band has been experimenting with music videography instead. Their latest video for the song ‘Boys‘ Town’, released on Feb. 2, 2022, features a projection of Dennis Crossfield’s 1969 film Dear Landlord overlaying the band’s performance. 

A still from The Gertrudes’ ‘Boys’ Town’ music video features Annie Clifford and Greg Tilson, as well as a projection of Dennis Crossfield’s Dear Landlord.
Image credit: Leigh Ann Bellamy.

In a phone interview, Greg Tilson of The Gertrudes disclosed that ‘Boys‘ Town‘ was written at the beginning of 2020. “At that time, Kingston had the lowest vacancy rate in the entire province. That, being in combination with being on the doorstep of a global pandemic, just really heightens the content of this song that is pointing the finger at displacement and gentrification, all of these things that at least our neighbourhood (Skeleton Park) is grappling with.”

The music video, directed by Leigh Ann Bellamy of Curious You videography and accordionist and filmmaker, Josh Lyon, juxtaposes the historic and current issue of lack of affordable housing by layering video footage from the past and the present. Tilson explained that Clark Mackey had introduced the band to Crossfield’s Dear Landlord, which explored the lack of affordable housing in Kingston at that time.

“We were just amazed looking at the footage of [the film] and being like, oh my god, like that’s, that’s all in Boys‘ Town! There‘s John Street, there‘s Patrick Street…” Tilson shared. Projected onto the band members is footage of dishevelled houses and simple apartment buildings which were just built at the time of the 1969 film — buildings that are still home to residents in the area today. “We all live in the Skeleton Park neighbourhood,” Tilson said of The Gertrudes, “And, of course, the issue of homelessness is just part of our daily discussions because of the visibility of it.”

An aerial image of ‘Boys‘ Town‘ c.1970. ‘Boys‘ Town‘ is the area near ‘Skeleton Park‘ which includes John, Patrick, Charles, and James Streets. Photo via Snapshot Kingston.

The Gertrudes have put a considerable amount of cultural and historic research into the entire album. Musically, and in true Gertrudes style, many 19th Century North American and Irish fiddle tunes are woven into the melody. The title track, ‘Emergency to Emergency,‘ features the distinct melody line from ‘Rocky Road to Dublin,‘ which was written during the Irish Potato Famine.

“Kingston definitely has a strong connection with Irish roots, as do the members of our band,” explained Tilson. “So yeah, there’s that historical element in the album, which is not unlike our choice to work with Dear Landlord. It gives us historical perspective, you know, like the problem of housing and homelessness in Kingston is not new, nor is a pandemic, or famine, or disease. So, I think it’s helpful to kind of take a moment and consider what Ireland was going through in the early 19th century, or in this case, what Kingston was experiencing in 1969, over 50 years ago, with a lot of the same issues.”

Tilson expressed that the band is inspired by the efforts of activist Joan Kuyek and the former Association for Tenant Action Kingston (ATAK), both of whom were instrumental in the amendment of the Landlord and Tenant Act in 1970 and in the introduction of rent control in 1975.

In a 2021 interview between Kuyek and Tilson, Kuyek reflected on why she first organized ATAK. “When I look back at Kingston at that time, well, there weren’t as many people and there weren’t as many apartment buildings, but the kind of housing was appalling,” Kuyek said at the time. “People on Lower Union Street didn’t even have indoor plumbing!”

When asked about her current perspective, as Kingston continues to struggle with housing, Kuyek responded, “I can see some improvement. The nature of the struggle changes, but it’s always there. And as soon as we start taking things for granted, they’re going to take it away from us. So, it’s important to organize all the time.”

“We’re not really in a position to speak about housing, we’re not experts on housing, but we are coming at some of these heavier topics through art and music,” said Tilson. “I think there’s hope for some action to create space for people that need it because I think that’s what we’re all talking about. You know, this isn’t a new problem.”

In addition to being advocates for the “hidden pandemics” of the Kingston community, The Gertrudes have committed to donating proceeds from their track ‘Emergency to Emergency’ to Kingston Street Health. Similarly, proceeds from the album’s song ‘Parham’ are being donated to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Several members of the band also recently teamed up with Our Livable Solutions to help furnish a sleeping cabin at Portsmouth Harbour.

The Gertrudes are set to perform at Next Church, MacKinnon Brother’s Back to the Farm, the Isabel Bader Centre, and other venues over the next year. “We’ve got lots of gigs that we’re excited about,” said Tilson. “That’s the most important thing [to us], to get out and perform and connect with people. So we’re really excited about that.”

The Gertrudes‘ newest music video ‘Boys Town‘ featuring Dennis Crossfield‘s 1969 film Dear Landlord.
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