There’s a banking boom of sorts happening on Gottingen Street. For years the Pharmasave had the street’s only ATM, but now cash machines abound. Near the Gerrish intersection, Joe’s Market, Kit Kat Pizza and the Gottingen Food Market each have one. Further north around Almon, both Needs and Israel Convenience host machines. They’re in a couple bars, and the new management at North End Ultramar—Gottingen’s lone gas station—expects theirs to arrive this week. The chronically hard-luck street is flowing with cash. Funny thing about this revolution, though. Big banks have nothing to do with it.
For all the signs in Gottingen shop windows saying you can find an “ATM” inside, nowhere is there an actual bank machine. The only service offered is withdrawal, for a fee, from a business like VenCash, Maritime Cash or EZEE ATM. This is a useful service to the community: Studies show most of the cash that comes out of machines is spent in the immediate vicinity, so each machine should be a boost to the Gottingen economy. However, it’s a poor substitute for the financial foundation of a major bank.
The “white-label” ATMs won’t let you make a deposit, pay a bill or check your credit card balance the way you can at “teller machines” from chartered banks. They won’t flash messages encouraging you to ask a banker about a loan to start your dream business. And they’ll typically charge you $1.50, which your bank will match, no matter what plan you pay for at the bank. That’s a tax of 15 percent to withdraw $20, the penalty for not bothering to go to one of your bank’s machines, or for living around Gottingen. Because although they go to great lengths to make their presence felt in your life—from ubiquitous advertising to telemarketing calls to logos at the tops of skyscrapers lighting up the night sky—Canada’s five main banks are absent from the street.
“They’re trying to turn Gottingen into a ghost town,” says a Pharmasave clerk one time I visit. The Pharmasave does a lot under its small roof. It’s the street’s post office and pharmacy, and plenty of residents still don’t know there are other cash machine options. But the store can’t do everything. “We are sorry that we can no longer make change due to a lack of a convenient location for us to get change,” a notice by the cash register warns people trying to break a bill for bus fare. “The street needs a bank,” another clerk says, another time I go in.
Royal Bank used to have a branch on Gottingen where Cunard Street starts, not far north of the Pharmasave. Royal moved out almost 10 years ago, donating its building to Dal Legal Aid. (Every so often, a senior walks into Legal Aid expecting the bank.) Across the street at 2250 Gottingen was a Bank of Montreal. A newspaper article called it “one of the finest bank buildings in the province” in 1957 when the bank moved in. Now it’s a storage closet for costumes from the annual Tattoo military pageant, “another building wasted” as the graffiti on its face says.
Bank closures—and banks making billions in profit—have become a part of life, and Gottingen’s abandonment is a fate shared by many towns and neighbourhoods. That’s cold comfort, but it gets colder. A banker with TD Canada Trust told me the spread of retailers accepting debit cards excuses the bank from putting its own ATMs on the street. “The trend towards getting cash back with purchase is driving people away from machines,” he says. “Retailers win because they carry less cash and don’t have to pay for making big deposits.” So thanks to the miracle of Interac, every shop and restaurant cashier becomes a bank teller? “You could put it that way.”
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