It's puzzling that City Hall would actively discourage such an excellent example of adaptive reuse for an abandoned industrial building.
By Michael Cumming
Published September 24, 2010
A surprising event happened recently in Hamilton: the Pearl Company announced it was shutting down.
The Pearl Company is a cultural enterprise owned and operated by Barbara Milne and Gary Santucci in the Landsdale neighbourhood of Hamilton. The reasons given for their decision to pull out was that they were no longer willing to fight City Hall in a long-running zoning dispute, which apparently has cost them a lot of money over the years.
The Pearl Company has been instrumental in bringing cultural events to one of the most distressed neighbourhoods of Hamilton. It is well known locally for putting on an almost absurdly large number of musical, theatrical and artistic performances in their converted industrial space. They also operate the successful Art Bus, which conducts tours of Hamilton's art galleries twice a month.
By all accounts, and from personal experience, their cultural contribution to the city is of the first order. They are the energizer bunnies of cultural entrepreneurship within the city. In any sensible regime they would be made heroes of urban renewal or be given the keys to the city. But not here.
There has been some discussion about the procedures involved in zoning applications and whether these procedures were followed, but the bottom line is that the good The Pearl Company is doing is readily apparent while the bad they might be doing is not apparent at all.
Development resulting from cultural initiatives such as the James St North Art Crawl gets a lot of press in Hamilton. But running The Pearl Company out of town seems not only to be a bad idea, it seems like a crazy idea.
What would be 'no-brainers' in other places - e.g. supporting venues like The Pearl Company - are controversial here. Could this be another example of Hamilton shooting itself in the foot? Has Hamilton completed its transition from the 'Ambitious City' to one in which no good deed goes unpunished? Many people seem to think so.
What newcomers to Hamilton quickly learn is that how they view the city may be diametrically opposed to how many long term residents view the city. We see the same place but may come away with sharply differing conclusions.
This disparity of perspective is typical of polarized social, economic and political environments, which I suppose is what we have here in Hamilton. In some respects it is like a northern industrial version of the Deep South. Some benefit from the status quo while others do not.
The epicentre of polarized viewpoints is in the Lower Town of Hamilton and most particularly in its East End near King and Steven - exactly where The Pearl Company bravely set up shop. This is Hamilton's Downtown Eastside. Poor people tend to live in this part of town, rich people elsewhere, and never the twain shall meet.
You would think that a poverty-stricken city like Hamilton would try to encourage as much private investment as possible in this age of declining public coffers. Yet, City Hall appears to chase away people with real money to invest - with a stick. This city is not always open for business.
City Hall in its planning policies seems to have a preference about where private money ought to be spent. It has a desire to funnel investment into officially-sanctioned areas such as James St North, Locke and Ottawa Streets. These are attractive areas, with great potential to be sure, but what about the rest of the city? Neighbourhoods such as Landsdale are ignored and marginalized even though physically and architecturally there is not much difference between it and its more fashionable cousins.
Surely the city should focus on the fact that money is being invested rather than on where it is being invested. Trying to micro-manage private investment decisions through the planning and building departments seems absurd.
The power structures of some cities work against artists while some work against business people. In Hamilton they manage to work against both these camps. Those on both the left and the right wings of the political spectrum can experience the neglect of City Hall!
Hamilton, partly due to its archaic planning and zoning systems, intentionally concentrates poverty in areas such as Landsdale. Despite this concentration of poverty one can easily see the attraction of opening an arts and performance space in the middle of it.
This is what normally happens in cities lucky enough to have entrepreneurs like the Pearl Company's owners: investment takes place in distressed neighbourhoods since costs there are low. Fighting City Hall year on end obviously adds to investors' costs.
In the US, neighbourhood marginalization and red-lining often has a racial component. But not so much in Hamilton - ethnic minorities can be found in most parts of the city. Here, marginalization is more poverty and environmentally based with poor people coming in all colours.
Another important factor in the marginalization of neighbourhoods is environmental degradation. As in many cities, especially those with heavy industry, the East End is poorer than the west due to prevailing winds and the particulates they carry.
Anything near or downwind of a steel plant is bound to suffer some marginalization. But this does not explain The Pearl Company's case since areas further east of it that are much closer to the belching furnaces (e.g. Ottawa Street) are on the upswing.
One of Hamilton's greatest resources is the huge number of old brick warehouse buildings that dot Lower Town and elsewhere.
The Pearl Company is an excellent example of adaptive reuse for this type of building. It is surprising how few of these industrial buildings are converted into productive uses as you might see in larger centres.
This huge resource exists here but is not being exploited. Indeed, City Hall appears to actively discourage its exploitation. This is puzzling.
There is a battle of ideas going on here but it's difficult to sort out exactly what kind of ideas are in play. The politics are certainly parochial, the processes of neighbourhood marginalization are severe and the planning policies appear to be self-defeating. However, I can't quite understand this situation.
What The Pearl Company episode does suggest is that private investment in unfashionable areas of Hamilton is extremely risky even though some of these areas appear to be full of economic potential.
This can't be good.
This article was first published on Michael's personal website.
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