How far are LRT opponents willing to go to turn their predictions of doom into self-fulfilling prophesies?
By Michael Nabert
Published September 28, 2016
Rendering: LRT alignment at King and Walnut
I'm sure you know the folk saying: a house divided cannot stand. Hamilton is needlessly a city divided.
The light rail transit (LRT) project serves as a flashpoint for larger issues - like area rating for transit, which regularly pit one part of Hamilton against another, squandering the city's energies. We find ourselves locked in self-defeating internal struggles, like our left arm fighting our right one, instead of working together for mutual benefit.
This is a holdover from the city's forced amalgamation under Mike Harris, although the conflict is now as much ideological as geographical. I seem to see one group of citizens spreading a hopeful message of the whole city thriving, while another frames civic decisions in terms of narrow self-interest and speaks in a language of fear.
Some of that fear may be well-founded. For goodness' sake, half of the country is living paycheck to paycheck within $200 of a financial crisis, so some economic anxiety is just rational.
Streets under construction will mean fewer feet at the doorways of local businesses, and I'm sure some of them are barely surviving by shrinking margins as it is. I have great empathy for someone who has poured their lives for years into a business that feels threatened.
What's really jaw-dropping here, though, is not that there are business owners reacting out of fear, but the extent to which LRT opponents are willing to cross certain lines. When the heavy rail disaster in Lac-Megantic is invoked in reference to the LRT, we have definitely plunged off a cliff into the absurd.
Not only is it disrespectful to those who suffered from that tragedy, but the only way the LRT could explode downtown is if it's somehow filled up with ... explosive people? When your argument devolves into furiously delivered nonsense, it's Donald Trumpism. Surely we can do better than that.
Here's a lesser-known folk saying: There are two ways to catch a thrown knife - by the blade or by the handle. Any massive investment pretty much always comes with silver lining.
An LRT can open the door to smart urban intensification, including job and economic growth, when paired with smart development policy. That pairing is important. Embracing the opportunity is likelier to mean good news than looking a gift horse in the mouth so hard you kick its feet from under it.
This is why the tone of the anti-LRT sentiment is so troubling. It's not hard to find people announce, I'll never set foot in downtown or support any business there again if this thing happens statements from the No LRT crowd.
At that level, it's a bald, angry threat: do this thing I don't like, and I'll punish the city by doing what I can to make sure it fails and hurts downtown businesses.
Ultimately, the citizens of a city can make all kinds of circumstances work by pulling together and making the most of it. We also have the option of fighting tooth and nail against our own interests.
We love to be proven right and hate admitting we got it wrong, particularly when we're emotionally engaged enough to be as angry as the No LRT crowd. This leads me to wonder whether this will be horrible for the city and/or me! is so important as a rallying cry that, consciously or otherwise, some of our citizens may turn it into a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Businesses that will see LRT construction happening right outside their windows have legitimate concerns. Some are working hard to understand the challenges of construction and strengthen customer relationships in the hope that we're going to keep shopping there despite the temporary inconvenience.
A few others are burning bridges with potential customers by pouring their energy into aggressive rhetoric, illegal spam emails, illegal postering, and public misinformation.
If their business suffers precisely the way they are predicting, I can't imagine that they'll ever consider any possibility that they shot themselves in the foot.
They're going to proclaim that they've been proven right and that everything that went wrong for them was the fault of everyone who wanted the LRT, and that festering resentment may provide the excuse for more anti-civic sentiment down the line.
This vitriolic argument is not really a battle over LRT. It's a struggle between people determined to see us thrive by embracing change, and those who are so threatened by change they're willing to punish the city for it.
We can fight one another, or we can work together. If the people of Hamilton band together to help the downtown thrive, it will thrive. That's the power of living in a city of civically-engaged people.
A billion-dollar investment in our city from the province is worth making the most of. Even if it's not quite everything it's cracked up to be, there's no way we won't see a benefit from coming together to build our city up rather than listening to voices tearing it down.
At that point, we wouldn't just be a house that stands together, we can be a city that soars.
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