To Prevent the Next Century Collapse, Understand the Bigger Picture

It was possible for The Century to be left to its slow, painful, inexorable demise not just because its owners didn't give a damn but also because the environment allowed for it to happen.

By M Adrian Brassington
Published January 19, 2010

I'm a long-time reader of Raise the Hammer. I comment sporadically. Sometimes - most times - I cede the floor to those who at least appear to have a better understanding of an issue. I believe in 'Rendering unto Caesar'. That is, while I will never surrender my right to voice an opinion, I will defer in terms of the degree of qualification of the opinions of others.

The issue of The Century Theatre and all of its concomitant facts, resonates for me, because cinemas are one of the primary passions in life.

For some time now, I've been very active on my own researching and raising my own awareness of Hamilton's cinema history. Part of this goes back to having been a patron of all of them throughout my life. (I grew up in a neighbourhood that had both a nabe and a drive-in within walking distance. The drive-in was Canada's first.)

Part of it has to do with being nerdishly impassioned about what I refer to as 'cathedrals of film', to the extent that I have made pilgrimages to NYC, to Jersey City, to London, and all throughout the US northeast and New England states. Part of it has to do with being a writer; I've injected old cinemas into a handful of projects, and wrote a screenplay around a drive-in.

As well, I have a pretty good understanding of the economics of the movie biz, and am very aware of what's changed since the 'heyday' of movie-going. More importantly, I understand full well - better than most - why the landscape has shifted from then to now.

I have long said here, on this site, as recently as late last year, that you cannot do anything effective about your present state and surely to God cannot plan with any effectiveness for your future without understanding your past. (I would, quite frankly, arm-wrestle with anyone here over this point.)

Most commenters here, while having lots of animas, lots of vitriol, lots of good intentions, don't seem to understand how The Century came to this end. Not from an historic, economics, film-industry point-of-view. I'll endeavour to fill in the gaps in a followup article Ryan has requested I submit for publication.

However, there are other contributing factors regarding The Century that should appear quite clear to all.

  1. The notion of 'what's important to a city's heritage' is not a universally-agreed on one. I'm a fervent believer in the idea of 'saving' a city's cinematic heritage, such as with The Tivoli and The Century, but I recognize that what's important to me, might be of lesser importance to others - and of no importance at all to the majority.

    So at the very least, there has to be some kind of recognition, acknowledgement, declaration on the part of the People of Hamilton in their representatives, their government, the charter of the City. This has to be a mandate within which actual designations of historical sites are reached, asking the question: 'What do you want?'

    The sad thing is that Hamilton has lost just about everything in regards to its cinematic history, its moviegoing heritage already.

  2. The current owner of The Century without question, beyond the shadow of a doubt - and come on, there's no mystery here - had no intention of doing anything with the building as a heritage location. Who purchases anything only to leave it to rot? Seriously.

    So here's someone who used the system to his advantage, to eventually have it demolished to start from scratch with no impediments whatever, no obligations to anyone other than the Planning Department, and no ancillary costs due to a 'heritage' complication.

  3. By-law enforcement in Hamilton, apparently, sucks. The state of The Century's roof was publicly known for more than half a decade. Online. In online photographs. Which leads to...

  4. How downtown Hamilton is viewed by its politicians and developers. Here's how I addressed this subject elsewhere:

    As someone born and bred in Hamilton, I have a certain perspective about all this. But for now, I'll just offer up this question: 'Do you believe that, on another timeline, in an alternate version of 'here', if Hamilton's development had not been focused on the peripheral aspects of the municipality but equally on the downtown (and, for the sake of argument, the area's core industry - steel - had not decayed as it did, critically wounding the area), do you believe that a building such as The Century would have been left in the state of disrepair it was?'

    I don't. Nor do I believe The Tivoli would have ended up as it has.

To me this isn't so much about specific decisions that have been made as it is about the general state of affairs, the focus of development itself. I doubt very much, had there been even a steady rate of development in the downtown area, that Hamilton's wealth of open, asphalted spaces (and unused buildings) would have remained.

You rarely find empty, decaying heritage buildings in the downtown of any thriving city. (Yes, I'm clearly talking about a particular set of circumstances and yes, there are always exceptions, always instances of 'extenuating circumstances'. But certainly where I've lived, in several cities in several countries on two continents, this simply hasn't been the case, by-and-large.)

It was possible for The Century to be left to its slow, painful, inexorable demise not just because its owners didn't give a damn - or perhaps had a particular selfish mandate in mind, with a particularly perverse goal at its core - but because the environment allowed for it to happen.

Without the downtown non-activity that unfolded over two decades, the results of which are easily witnessed now, The Century would undoubtedly have been developed to one degree or another in the 1990s.

There is no real 'mystery' where The Century is concerned, and it's easy to get angry at the result.

(Does it help at all to hear me say that my attachment to this loss is akin to someone losing a friend? That these buildings aren't just mortar and brick to me, and they're not just history. They're part of a process that I revere, a set of practices, indeed, beliefs.)

But from my perspective, even as attached as I am to the events, it's more important to understand the bigger picture: how cities evolve as economies change and people's needs shift; how 'business forces' impact when vacuums are created - all of these factors and more.

I salute the efforts of RTH as well as all of its regular readers. Always have, always will. This is where change begins. This is one of the spaces from where so-called 'grassroots' energies can be corralled, where real discussion can be encouraged, real change effected.

The first step of course, is to understand the issues, to fully understand them. Because before we can agree to disagree, we have to at least be equipped with the facts.

Editor's note: this article started out as a comment on a related thread.

M Adrian Brassington is a Hamilton writer.


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By jason (registered) | Posted January 19, 2010 at 23:32:24

great piece. If Hamiltonians or city hall cared about our city we would take care of our buildings and our neighbourhoods. Ever heard of a depressed, run-down city called Boston??

The sad part is we have 'leaders' in this city - political/business/media- who think this scene can be re-created in some stucco-ville on the outskirts of town. It can't.

Comment edited by jason on 2010-01-19 22:33:53

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By Beantown Counter (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2010 at 14:25:12

Analogous? I dunno. Boston is gorgeous, but it has the advantage of being swamped in universities the way that Hamilton is in factories. They have around 100 colleges and universities in their immediate area, many of them top-drawer schools like Harvard and MIT. That leads to an elevated standard of living (average household income there is almost twice that of Hamilton), but it also means that architectural heritage is closer to the core of the city's identity, and in fact the city's core in a more literal sense...

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