Comment 66885

By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted July 25, 2011 at 21:20:10 in reply to Comment 66878

I would be inclined to say that Hamilton's challenges are far more unique than most cities.

Hamilton's growth problems in most parts arose from similar missteps as most mid-size cities in North America have made thru the 70's. Some learned, and many continue to struggle even after learning from missteps of their own and others.

However, what exacerbates Hamilton's growth and frustrates its urban form, is its unique topography and more sadly, its burgeoning sub-culture.

I fear the young-boys cartel more than the old-boys cartel. For they choose to do what they do presently in spite of knowing better not to claim total knowledge. The old-boys did what they did from what we now clearly recognize as lack of knowledge in their firmly held beliefs. Planning is a wicked problem that calls for curiosity, discovery and tacit knowledge not firm beliefs.

Our urban-suburban divide is more acute than most cities with suburban sprawls surrounding its core – primarily because our downtown core & lower city is physically divided by a hill – which Hamiltonian's over generations have come to perceive as a mountain.

If you take the old city of Stoney Creek with its downtown core, and its present day configuration which straddles the hill – it's now BIA or its old core continues to suffer economically in spite of having an attractive built form.

Stoney Creek's old core suffers from lack of sustained patronage from its local population which is spread out across its old suburbs hugging the core and outwards to it’s new stick-built suburbs to the east and up on the hill.

Comparatively, Dundas BIA or its old core, does not suffer this same experience as Stoney Creek - on account of its old suburbs and its new stick-built versions which spread out far westwards (and some on the escarpment) - as a large portion of Dundas is more or less on the same undulating physical plane - giving it a sense of geographic and cultural continuity with its core. The Dundas core never experienced a catastrophic loss of sustained patronage on account of it’s topography. Its memory managed to remain intact.

However, in terms of their proximity to new big box stores, their level of affluence, real estate values of homes, including the extent of new suburbs beyond its older suburbs - both these examples are fairly comparable, yet they experience different economies in their core.

Our old city downtown core in 2011 – also suffers from lack of sustained patronage from its newer suburbs on the hill, but more importantly, it suffers from the lack of patronage from its downtown neighbors to the far east and west of the core – areas on the same plane, which once were our city's older suburbs, but now experience a urban/suburban duality with catastrophic social outcomes.

The fact remains that the older suburbs on the core's west which are much more wealthier than those towards the core's north, south and east combined – still have not managed to carry the moral burden of economic patronage which is required of it in order to sustain new street-front enterprises in our city core. They are happy with the mini-boulevards of dreams they have created for themselves, and choose to live within the confines of these bubbles.

Sure there was massive amounts of smashing of history in our core thru the 70' - and some new ugly stuff was build, and much uglier stuff said on both sides. And sure we have been straddled with a systemic malaise unique to our city with regards to the myopic iron-fist grip of an older generation which has impacted our city's political and cultural life, much to their own financial detriment.

But in spite of all this and many more misgivings concerning the atrocious inter & cross-generational communication which we never seem to transcend as Hamiltonians, scores of old buildings have been fixed in the core and many new young & old people have already moved in.

Unfortunately the retail environment in our core – from which springs our cores continuing perception and its reality, suffers greatly on account of the lack of sustained patronage from its own lower city urbanites. Most of whom have unconsciously adopted the preferences of the new suburbanites on the hill, by virtue of living a detached single family / backyard barbecue lifestyle in what is essentially an urban setting. As a result of the preference of this life style, nearly seventy-five percent of the livable lower city is a self-absorbed, and aloof suburbia from a different era, that does not actively seek out an urban life style, but yet manages a claim to the virtues of urbanity. Hence on most evenings the streets of our main core appear frighteningly empty. Our empty parking lots are just the icing to embellish the script.

If the main core were to also count on the patronage of suburbanites from over the hill and the valley – by somehow overcoming the topographical divide which has lead to an emotional disconnect – the critical mass of affluence/disposable income that we already have in our city, is more than sufficient to sustain a culturally vibrant and economically thriving street-front texture which is representative of a mid-size city core that we all seem to agree on and sorely miss.

For every new store, restaurant or cafe that opens up in the core, two suffer greatly, and one dies from lack of patronage even in 2011. Our confusion comes from this. Our arguments and recurring fights on mostly valid but often unsubstantiated planning issues with people who don't and will never understand, comes from this.

We fail to acknowledge that it is not just our stick-build suburbanites who abandon our core after 5pm. It is even our lower-city suburbanites who mimic the same behavior.

So how does one really translate the "build-it and they will come" in Hamilton, when even our 'we' fails to show up, if not for economic patronage, just to even cheer when much is already built and continues to be built?

Overcoming the inter-lowercity divide between its affluent western suburb and our retail challenged main core along with its immediate eastern suburb is comparatively easier to achieve.

We just have to snap out of the funk that the previous generation has handed down to us - and release our antiquated notions of class and creed, and we could be well on our way to seeing a sustainable vibrant core.

It can get real cool and comforting way before any mega-hotel and shiny condo projects are announced on the many vacant lots, because we already have more than the necessary ingredients required to overcome our hand-me-down fears of an imaginary core that is supposed to bite you after dark.

Overcoming the topographical divide between the hill and the core may be a bit more complex, as the physical disconnect has festered deeply segregated and different life patterns over decades, and changing them may need more than savvy marketing and slogans. It would require genuine efforts at befriending them first, and that essentially require us urbane, lower city residents from the east end to the west end, to stop dissing them so much – even those that look down at the core with a chronic disdain.

But for that to happen, first we have to accept that those living in the suburbs are not our enemies, but in fact that they are our immediate and long-term guests and customers whose preferences and choices vary and may not always agree with ours.

To develop a thriving street life in our core, we don't have to chase mega-projects that promise to bring us a critical mass from an ‘outside’ – which we still fear and continue to be inhospitable towards. We already have the critical mass inside within us, let us recognize its presence and cultivate it.

Sure there are much more complex issues at play here then this – in order to make an economy come alive. Like the heat, oceans, oil or even an utopia called Ancaster that we all love to deride. But for now this is just my simple read on urbanism in our times, in which smaller steps of befriending neighbors to reestablish a broken community and its economy is a far more financially elegant approach, than aspiring to rapidly create a hundred million dollars in new assessment revenues from the lower city. For this brings forth its corresponding image of fifty million square feet of new built construction at an average tax-rate of two dollars a foot.

And fifty million square feet – if it does arrive by dogged tenacity or brute force, could be a hell of a lot more physical real estate and subsidies, than one imagined it to be during the 'exuberance phase' of revitalization.

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-07-25 21:39:15

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