By M Adrian Brassington
Published June 22, 2012
At this week's General Issues Committee [GIC, formerly committee of the whole] meeting on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, downtown renewal manager Glen Norton gave a pretty nice presentation [PDF] on a staff-generated a request for "an amendment to the Downtown and Community Renewal Community Improvement Plan, as per the Planning Act, for the purpose of implementing a Hamilton Downtown Supermarket Development Incentive".
The proposed incentive is a $650,000 forgivable loan/grant to entice a supermarket to open in the core.
I've dealt with my immediate reaction here, but I feel compelled to express stuff that's clearly rooted much more deeply, something that goes beyond this initiative, to the heart of the matter: the state of our downtown core.
I laughed at some of the session's exchanges, because, with Mr. Norton's illumination, the reality is clear: we created this situation, these circumstances that necessitate providing added incentives for potential grocery store/supermarket proprietors to come in and set up shop, when we haven't reached the required critical mass population-wise. (And given the state of the downtown core, is it any wonder?)
We created a situation where the downtown, east of James - although there's a case to be made for 'east of Bay' - was allowed to fall apart. In concert with the downloading of social services by the province and the resultant concentration of facilities (and concomitant presence of those using these facilities), as peripheral development got the lion's share of interest and support, the downtown crumbled.
To listen to the general tenor and tone of so many councillors' responses was to hear an awkward mélange comprised of discomfort and detachment.
In retrospect, what was additionally fascinating to me was to realize that it's not like the rest of the city suffered throughout this time-frame. We're not Flint, or any other locale where the economy took a dive and everything went to Hell in a hand basket across the board. (Although there is the supposed reality that prior to amalgamation, the City of Hamilton was, effectively, sprinting towards bankruptcy.)
My point is that Nero fiddled while only *parts of Rome* burned, the 'fire' pretty much restricted to the downtown and the north end.
If we consider 'the downtown core' to be from Main to Barton, from Queen to Wellington, it's pretty striking that all the while it wasn't exactly thriving, outside this area - especially to the south, but surely to the west and east - things have been relatively fine.
I've lived on Market Street, on Stanley, and on Bold. I've ventured through Beasley, Durand, Central, Corktown, Kirkendall and Strathcona. So I've known these neighbourhoods going back decades. They were never decimated. Yes, they've had their challenges, their travails. But they didn't suffer the indignities that the downtown core has.
Note here that I'm not personalizing things. I'm not talking about 'the downtown core residents'. I have chosen not to. I'm not being dismissive. In fact, though it may appear odd, I'm attempting to transcend the 'personal' by framing things in a much more pivotal way, by looking at the area rather than those who move through it.
Mostly because we're talking about a process that's unfolded over decades In a way, perhaps it would have been better had this to be a more 'personal' situation, where entire neighbourhoods had been under attack.
Maybe if that had been true, things wouldn't have gotten to the state we find them in currently. And I guess a case can be made that residents were under attack, within the context of 'benign neglect'.
This is our downtown we're talking about. This is where our City Hall is located. This is where our art gallery is, where our premier entertainment complex is, where our heart used to be before the city expanded south.
Argue as you may against the notion that 'downtowns are fundamental to a city's psyche' - and Lord knows that suburban sprawl and the 'mall mentality' have promoted this mindset to the max - the fact is that to ignore the importance of a downtown core is to give the finger to the organic truths attached to cities going back thousands of years.
Things spring up in one place, other things grow around them, people congregate, put down roots, requiring that more things spring up, and so on and so forth.
I'm no urban planner, and I certainly don't have a grasp on all the complexities, of the symbolism of the cause-and-effect of buildings and architecture and layout on residents and how they see themselves as citizens-of-place.
However, to allow a situation to be created wherein you have people from outside the downtown core being not only dismissive but derisive of their downtown core is to me, not just unacceptable, not even unconscionable, but abominable.
And yet 'the locals' notwithstanding (and I'm referring to those 'aware-and-energized' who support and participate in such events as Art Crawl), many Hamiltonians avoid the downtown core. They pass through it en route to somewhere else. In many ways, I don't blame them.
As I've said previously, I remember two previous post-WWII iterations of vibrancy in the downtown core. The 1960s and the Stelco Tower/Jackson Square '70s and '80s.
What the strip of King Street from James to Wellington looks like now in comparison to 'before' is enough to flatten out a good mood whenever I'm walking it. It is a shit-pit. I don't care that some would take offense to this label, councillors included.
While I'm heartened by the pockets of change that have been created, what I still see is clear evidence of systemic abuse and abandonment, political bafflegab notwithstanding.
When you see what's currently there and place it over 'what used to be', it's very difficult not to feel a profound sense of disgust: the bingo halls and cash outlets and parking lots and beauty supply stores and vacant buildings, versus the vibrancy of a consistently-packed Sam the Record Man and The Right House and Mill's and The Palace theatre and the Royal Connaught bring on frustration and anger.
So back to this week's GIC meeting.
Putting aside the stunning comments about people taking transit to get to the Dundurn Fortinos, my gob-smackedness had less to do with the fact that the motion was sent back to Glen Norton et al. for 'tweaking' and more with with realizing that on so subtle a level, so little genuine regard is offered for our current state of affairs, so meagre consideration as to deflate hope, however naïve that hope may in fact have been.
But I'll say one thing for our leaders at City Hall, our visionaries at 71 Main Street West: they're consistent.