Site Notes

An Update on Raise the Hammer

Some thoughts on RTH's origin, development, legacy and next steps.

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 28, 2021

As you may have noticed, Raise the Hammer has been on hiatus for the past few months, and readers deserve an explanation and some sense of what to expect next. I have been struggling over what to do about the site, and I want to share some reflections on where I am and what to expect in the future.

To begin with, various changes in my personal and professional life have left me with less time to focus on RTH, while at the same time shifting my interests and attention away from the bread-and-butter topics the site has traditionally focused on.

More broadly, for quite some time I have been feeling restless with the format and legacy of RTH, an entity that grew out of a specific cultural context in the mid-2000s and feels increasingly ill-suited to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Narrow Cultural Context

RTH launched as an urbanist movement to expand the boundaries of mainstream discourse on municipal policy in Hamilton beyond the suburban postwar status quo of single-use sprawl development and car culture.

I still think that's a laudable goal, but the way we went about it had the effect of excluding as well as including. It's fair to point out that the loose group of people who coalesced into RTH were mostly white, mostly male, mostly middle-class and reflected the cultural biases and blind spots implied by those lived experiences.

It's also fair to say the idea for RTH grew out of the outrage of a group of very privileged people who had a sense of entitlement to be heard and taken seriously. Of course, everyone has the right to be heard and taken seriously - but that right is not distributed in any way resembling equally or fairly.

That is particularly the case when it comes to the kinds of municipal policies that shape the ways people experience life in a city. Failing to understand the systemic factors that stratify access to public space and community resources has the effect of making those stratifications and inequities worse.

Action Without Equity Reinforces Inequity

If, say, a high-income community succeeds in preventing a waste incinerator from opening in their neighbourhood and the incinerator just moves to a low-income community that has been denied the capacity to influence policy, the result is actually a deepening of inequality.

Or, let's say a group of tactical urbanists undertakes DIY "intersection repair" activities at dangerous intersections, as happened in Hamilton in 2013. The City's response diverged sharply along class lines: the guerrilla bumpouts at Locke and Herkimer were quickly made permanent, whereas the crosswalk on Cannon at Mary was simply removed.

When improvements to safety and accessibility only happen in communities that are already wealthy and well-connected, those improvements have the effect of sharpening disparities.

In a city that has a 20+ year gap in average life expectancy between its highest-income and lowest-income neighbourhoods, that's not just unfair, it's literally a matter of life and death.

Over the years, RTH has not done enough to undertake its advocacy in an inclusive, equity-seeking manner. Equity requires directly confronting inequity in the specific circumstances where inequity occurs. If you are not confronting inequity, you are by definition supporting inequity. There is no middle ground, no neutral stance.

Equity and Accessibility

Perhaps RTH would have been more in tune with accessibility and equity if the site itself was more accessible and equitable. It took me a long time - too long - to understand how the policies we adopted for participation in RTH failed to create a truly safe, inclusive space for people to participate in the project of city building.

For a long time, the site's commenting policy erred on the side of giving trolls too much power to abuse and harass and intimidate more vulnerable contributors. We were so wedded to the abstract idea of 'free speech' that we failed to see how abusive people were exploiting that abstraction to bully vulnerable people into silence - the opposite of free speech!

The site's commenting policy evolved incrementally over time, but I'm not proud of how many times people from equity-seeking groups had to try and tell me how they were experiencing the site before I came to understand what they were saying.

(In any case, even as RTH incrementally applied more rigorous standards for civility in the comments, the centre of gravity for public commentary was already busy shifting to social media - for better and for worse.)

Intersecting Crises, Inflexible Format

In a world struggling with wicked and intersecting problems - the accelerating global climate emergency, the horrific perpetuating legacies of slavery and Indigenous genocide, widening income and wealth disparities, the rising threat of authoritarian populist fascism, the crisis of biodiversity collapse - it just seems absurd to consider local civic matters in blinkered isolation.

I mean, the global climate emergency is the most all-encompassing existential crisis facing humanity, and it seems to me that every story about how we live and how we get around should be framed in terms of the climate impacts. This becomes even more important when we consider the ways global warming and inequity combine to visit the harms of climate chaos disproportionately upon marginalized equity-seeking groups.

These concepts have existed within the realm of RTH, but the site has not been particularly good at integrating them in a consistent, thoughtful manner. Articles are categorized in a unitary and often arbitrary way and difficult to cross-reference.

And in an online media landscape that has expanded to embrace podcast and video, RTH remains stuck in a typographic box. It is a website built in and for the first era of the internet, a time when a website was essentially a virtual magazine.

So What's Next?

Between the astonishing rise of social media in the 16 years since RTH launched and the proliferation of new local media organizations in Hamilton, RTH has in many ways come to feel more like a relic than a vital organ.

All of these factors, and others I haven't touched on, point to the need for a broader, more inclusive, more urgent set of first principles, and perhaps a new entity that reflects those principles more faithfully.

But in the interim, I am mindful that RTH still occupies a niche in the Hamilton media landscape, however imperfectly. And in recent weeks, a number of people have reached out to me to ask if I might be willing to publish their contribution. That suggests it may still have a role to play.

So I will be taking RTH out of hiatus and back into active publication, effective immediately, and for the near future - but with the understanding that it will need to retire permanently at some point and perhaps make room for a better, more inclusive entity to take its place.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.

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