If the downtown is for everyone, where is the rest of everyone?
By Reg Beaudry
Published September 15, 2009
People don't flock to downtown Toronto to visit the working poor. Most people can't afford to live in downtown Toronto, or downtown Montreal or downtown Vancouver. Heck, they can't even afford to live in downtown Burlington, and that's just a suburb on steroids.
Royal Connaught Hotel (RTH file photo)
Yet here we are in this once great and still amazing city called Hamilton and I can afford to live in downtown Hamilton. Well guess what: I shouldn't be. I make squat. As Meredith Broughton wrote in a recent comment on Raise the Hammer:
Living downtown is a privilege, not something to be handed out to those who can't afford to house themselves. I fully support more affordable housing, but not in the city core.
Downtowns are not only a place to live and work, but also a destination. Most people who go to Hess Village do not live there. They go there!
So this whole argument about how we have to get people to live downtown is all fine and dandy, but if you're not giving them a good reason to live down there, then who the heck is going to want to visit them down there?
Indeed, Hamilton is not Toronto, we get that, but it is nonetheless a fully functional city with all the makings of a great city. Anyone with a decent IQ or a couple of years of university/college under their belt knows this.
From Bob Young to Jim Balsillie, they all get it. When you look at an overall snapshot of the lower city surrounding the core, it's pretty damn impressive.
We've got a vibrant art scene with eclectic restaurants and shops on James North, the historical James south with an energetic pub district, Hess village, Locke street, Westdale, grand stately homes in the Aberdeen area, and all the while nestled in between a beautiful escarpment, waterfalls and a fantastic waterfront even Torontonians envy.
Topped off with great professional sports teams, a world renowned university, architecture to die for and the Art Gallery of Hamilton's world class exhibits, we look good.
And what is it all surrounding? The Core. A boulevard of broken dreams. A single stretch, really, give or take, between Wellington and James, lost and utterly forgotten, a dumping ground for the insane, the inane and everything else in between. Welcome to scooterville, may I take your order?
What's interesting about this whole thing are the underlying issues that don't sit well upon further inspection. One of which is: who's minding the mint?
'Pottymouth' Ron Marini is the Director of Downtown Renewal. Tough job. So tough, it seems, we can only bow down and thank our lucky stars that we managed to land a dollar store type department store in the core.
Just the fact that Ron sees nothing wrong with this newly proposed Connaught deal speaks volumes as to why the downtown is in the sorry state it's currently in.
Heck, why try to woo CKOC, a University campus, or even a Milstones downtown, when we've got dollar stores, cheque cashing places and a slice of an urban oasis for the bold and not so beautiful?
At least the Connaught boys admitted they'd prefer something a little more grand than housing. But Marini? Nope. It's all good, my friends.
He says, "What's wrong with affordable housing?" What's wrong with it? Well, nothing - if it's not concentrated to the point of ghettoizing an entire downtown.
And before we all jump up and down at the 'nothing but positive' reviews of Spallacci's Terraces on King, take a seat and try not to open your eyes too wide or the sun might burn you.
The thing is, I've lived in that building, and although there are many wonderful people who live there, it saddened me to press a soon-to-be stolen elevator button with spit on it, walk down the back stairwell into a sea of graffiti and step on dog poo on the Terrace.
The folks who take care of the building are amazing and they work very, very hard to keep it clean and respectable, but it's difficult to do when the property management has to meet their social housing quota and let the next loser in after the last loser was just kicked out.
But then again, why would it matter to Mr. Marini anyhow? The dude doesn't even live anywhere near the downtown. He goes to bed at night in Stoney Creek. Sleep tight, Ron. Don't let the bed bugs bite.
Which leads me to my next zone of uncomfortableness. Does anyone aside from councillor Bob Bratina actually live in the place they are paid handsomely to run?
God bless him, but the Mayor lives in Stoney Creek. Lovely lady, but the head of the Downtown BIA lives in Caledonia. Thanks for giving it a shot, but The Connaught man himself, Tony Battaglia, lives on the West Mountain.
What does this say about the current downtown situation? All the people who are fighting to make this city great, without getting a penny for it - from the Raise the Hammer folks to Mixed Media's Dave Kuruc - all live in and around the downtown area. Think about it.
But you know what, that's cool. I can live with this. I can live with a few skanks kicking around here and there. Heck, it's urban living. It's all part of the package, right? Absolutely. But not if that's the entire package. A little bit of spice makes the steak, but too much of it and you've spoiled the meat.
If the downtown is for everyone, where is the rest of everyone? We've got the poor down pat. They're doing fine, thanks for asking. The working poor are there (me!) The mentally ill are having great conversations with themselves. The social down-and-out are relaxed and comfortable, fresh off the bus from downtown Toronto.
Great. Terrific. Fantastic. It's all there. We've got that mixed bag of people we all know and love.
But what about the people with money? You know, the urban hip, chic, the young and the restless, the ones who go to Toronto to spend their cash instead of in their own bloody city. And so we take the last grand building in the heart of the city and give it away to the 'working poor'? This, my friends, does not complete the picture as to what makes a great city and a great downtown.
Would the Royal York be turned into housing? Let's ask Mayor David Miller. I'll go get the phone while you pour me another glass of wine.
Ah, but, so goes the argument, better to have something than nothing. Well, that's nice. If you're torn between two lovers and feeling like a fool, comb your hair, brush your teeth, take a class on how to win friends and influence people, and find a better lover.
But then again, you know what? I'm special. Who else puts up with this crap? Me and the few other special people who choose to live downtown are here for the 'bones' of the core, the moderate convenience and the hope that one day it will all come together.
I can put up with all this crap and hold on to the dream of a city that can easily be the city it wants to be, but most people live in the moment and not the future. They don't see potential, they see what is.
What it is aint so pretty.
Dollar stores and carpet stores with hockey tape for a signage doesn't really turn their crank. For the moment, they will choose to live, work and play somewhere else that will turn their crank.
Sadly, they will miss out on the wonderful and exciting city Hamilton can be: a city already encompassed in beautiful historical architecture. Look up and you can smell the history when you walk down King Street. It's all there, my friends, everything we want and can have in a great city.
We just now have to decide whether we want to continue letting it be a dumping ground for the social misfits or spit and polish it to a new grandeur.
Reg has created an online petition calling on City Council to reject the current Connaught proposal in favour of seeing this building restored as a prominent hotel again: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/the-mad-connaught.
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