McMaster Could Be a Real City University

By Mahesh P. Butani
Published July 14, 2011

There have been many questionable moments in Hamilton's recent history. After the redlining of a large swath of our city, another such moment was the recently leaked directive that bitterly stung the same neighbourhoods still reeling from the sweeping 'colour codification' of class, income and deaths.

Do not go east of James Street, Alice - that ain't wonderland!

Fed on a generation of class prejudices, self-indulgence and skittishness, our institution of higher learning inadvertently re-affirmed to the entire world via this 'directive' its ongoing preference of the redline approach to rebuilding communities.

In its attempts to minimize the fact that the emperor has not worn clothes for decades, this institution of higher learning quickly proclaimed that the above 'directive' was not officially authorized and in fact did not bear the official seal of the emperor. Besides, at first claim, only nine people were sent this unauthorized directive - so really, how bad could it be?

Twitter-shwitter... and soon it was revealed that this was not the first time such an unethical and legally untenable directive was projected onto scores of young impressionable minds who were not yet corrupted by the prevailing group-think at this institution.

While it is unfortunate for all the communities who must once again deal with the fallout of such capricious thinking, this misinformed directive also brings into sharp focus the net gains of higher learning to our society - for these are the educated elite who may well be the leaders of our community tomorrow.

Such is the fate of Hamilton's vision statement, as many of its educated consciously choose to live their present on inherited biases of yesterday.

Do not go past the campus gates, there is evil lurking out there, everywhere...

While one sincerely hopes that such delusion never rears its head again in our institutions of higher learning, one cannot but wonder whether this may be the only way left for our 'tragic island of higher learning' to experience the spiritual awakening it so badly needs.

It may, in fact, need to isolate itself totally from the community for a few years behind its delusions of evil lurking outside its gates, in order for it to go deep within itself and ponder the debilitating impact that it has left on our city with its obstinate and oft self-serving beliefs of remaining an island in an otherwise expanding world of social interconnectedness.

In its seclusion, it may finally have a moment to ask itself some honest questions as to what kind of a relationship it wants with the local community - not just the co-dependent kind that it enjoys with a handful of aging elites of our city, but a collaborative one with the rapidly changing population at large, across all its diverse communities.

It needs to truly live the nightmares of its fondest wish of remaining an island within a city. It is from such introspection that a new and rejuvenated institution of higher learning has a chance of emerging, possibly with a new song that resonates with aspirations of this city. Failing which it most surely will continue to waddle in the colossal missteps of its past.

"He ain't heavy, he is my brother" may not be the exact lines taught in this institution's religious program, but surely such sentiments ought to have crossed its institutional intelligence somewhere along the way in its much touted cross-discipline pedantry. And surely as an institution it may have occasionally sensed an imperative for a higher purpose outside of the trite academic outcomes of degrees and such - and desired a meaningful engagement with the community beyond the realm of consumption and gratification.

Instead of: "His welfare is my concern, No burden is he to bear, we'll get there...", we have sadly witnessed supposed bright minds following in the footsteps of a tradition deeply embedded in an institutional culture, dismiss the lives and communities that fall outside the comfort zone of their gated perception.

In a saner world, this institution of higher learning could have easily stepped up years ago and looked at the entire lower city as a living laboratory, and realigned its geography, history, social sciences and engineering courses to invent a most unique international college of urban ecology - a college which could have been located east of James where the wolves now appear to roam freely for lack of an institution of higher learning - a most relevant location to learn from first-hand, and even directly facilitate its re-growth.

But we are not living in such times. Introspection no longer guarantees an awakening; our jaded synapses may generate remorse at best or even the occasional fear of being sued with its perfunctory apologies.

It is far easier in our times to continue developing empty visions of growth which projects two million more square feet over the next thirty years on an already saturated island (while innocently appropriating terms like core, sustainability and infill development from city building jargon), rather than make a concerted move into the real-world core - a living lab, from which to influence real world outcomes.

Downtown is sick, don't go there. The wolves will get you.

It needs more health care. More doctors? Yes!! And we will get you feeling well again soon. Thanks! Meanwhile, we also need more social workers to look after all our needs. Two hundred and fifty more coming up at the end of this term. What? There is a drop in patient inflow? No sweat, we will have some more shipped in to the core next week...

Are you convinced now? do you feel sick to your stomach? I don't know? Is it the unending spiral of growth on an island, or is it the swaths of red blinding my eyes? Maybe... yes, sure! I am convinced. I think I am sick to my stomach. Will the new health care centre be here soon?

Mahesh P. Butani is a non-architect, and a developer by default. He is involved in re-developing properties in downtown Hamilton; and has an MA in Arts Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, NYC (1986), and bachelors in Architecture from Bombay, India (1982). Currently he is not an architect in Ontario on account of not having enough Canadian Experience; and does not qualify to teach as he carries too much baggage to fit into the Canadian education system. He refuses to be re-trained to fit in, on a matter of principle, and is a passionate disbeliever of icons and self-regulation of professions in Canada - but still maintains his belief in collective self-organizing behavior; and feels that the large swath of intellectual brownfields across Ontario are far more harmful to the economy than the brownfields left over from deindustrialization - and in response has set up a social network called Metropolitan Hamilton. http://metrohamilton.ning.com/


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By Sometimes (anonymous) | Posted July 14, 2011 at 12:01:28

Pure gobleedygook right to the end of this. Sometimes RTH needs to take a pass on posting certain submissions. This is one of those sometimes.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted July 14, 2011 at 14:05:51

Mahesh, you raise some good points. McMaster is not alone in the approach it has taken, effectively "isolating" itself as a bastion of higher learning in a "good" neighbourhood in a "rough" city. York University similar seems to have arranged its campus, and its mentality, to promote itself as "safe haven" for learning in a bad neighbourhood, surrounded by heavy industry and therefore isolated from the surrounding community.

Universities have a great opportunity, as Joey Coleman also pointed out in his article, to reach out to the city they're in, and really integrate themselves into every facet of it. Doing so not only helps the community, but provides valuable real-life experience, something that many universities are introducing to add value to the educational services they're providing.

I know when I was at McMaster, our marketing class helped develop marketing plans for local businesses, and there was a competitive internship program - but neither was geographically focussed on Hamilton, and I'm certian there are many other potential local initiatives that are being overlooked.

Geographically speaking, McMaster is also very similar to York University in that they are located on the periphery of the city, and this makes integration difficult. That said, integration is possible, and there is no reason why, especially given the HSR and the discounted bus passes all McMaster students purchase, that McMaster could not become more integrated with the city.

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By geoff's two cents (registered) | Posted July 14, 2011 at 18:41:59

My personal feeling is that this so-called "directive" has been taken way out of context. It was part of a registration package for a Gender Studies and Feminist Research Program, for which I imagine the majority of applicants would be women. Personally, despite my genuine affections for the lower city, were I concerned for a woman's safety, those areas aren't ones I'd primarily recommend for women living alone - unless one knows what one is getting into, or one is street-wise generally. These characteristics cannot of course be merely assumed.

To illustrate, my partner and I lived in a gorgeous building in the Durand neighbourhood (definitely among Hamilton's nicest), but she had some pretty unsavoury encounters nonetheless - among them a near sexual assault at the HAAA grounds, with me jogging nearby at that.

Having lived in both Durand and Westdale, though I'd personally prefer the former any day of the week, there's no question from our experience that Westdale would be the safer of the two for young women living alone.

Comment edited by geoff's two cents on 2011-07-14 18:44:44

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By BillToni (anonymous) | Posted July 14, 2011 at 22:53:35

Mahesh....what the hell are you saying?

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted July 14, 2011 at 23:33:55

I have warned people off of certain parts of this city over the years. In turn others have warned me off of certain parts of other cities. Until one really gets to know a city these little tidbits are well worth knowing. Not to say someone can never go to certain neighbourhoods but it is nice to know what you are letting yourself in for. I certainly would not recommend moving to the north east end of the city (say Mars Ave) to any of my friends who are contemplating moving to Hamilton from Toronto. Some parts of this city just are not very nice.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 15, 2011 at 09:46:26

Personally, despite my genuine affections for the lower city, were I concerned for a woman's safety, those areas aren't ones I'd primarily recommend for women living alone - unless one knows what one is getting into, or one is street-wise generally.

I have warned people off of certain parts of this city over the years.

I don't think anyone is arguing that there aren't rough areas of the city. What has many people incensed about the Mac directive is that it wrote off everything east of James - roughly three quarters of the lower city. This advice could only come from a profound ignorance of the city, and plays right into the 'Here be dragons!' mentality that Mac has traditionally had toward it's host city. Let's hope there will be a sea change under the new President.

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By geoff's two cents (registered) | Posted July 15, 2011 at 21:27:53 in reply to Comment 66215

I should add that while I feel obliged to defend the specific document in question, I agree that it stems from a much wider problem - i.e. an almost antiquarian belief on the part of west siders that downtown Hamilton (and perhaps cities generally) is an inherently dangerous, god-forsaken place. In other words, there's a point at which fear of the lower city becomes a cause as well as a symptom of some neighbourhoods' potentially dangerous lack of evening pedestrian traffic. Student housing downtown - perhaps in conjunction with a new president's vision - would of course work wonders in helping correct this.

I should also add that I agree that writing off the entire eastern half of downtown is profoundly ignorant. Given my own experience, there are many quiet residential areas adjacent to downtown which I wouldn't necessarily recommend to young, single women who enjoy being mobile after 8pm, but there are definitely neighbourhoods within that area (International Village, say) that I'd have no trouble recommending. The fact that the document (along with many west siders generally) can't distinguish between the two suggests that its author(s) know very little about the city.

Likewise, any difficulties we had of this kind actually occurred on or WEST of James, which I think bolsters your point about just how ill-conceived and arbitrary the document's east-west boundary is.

Comment edited by geoff's two cents on 2011-07-15 21:28:50

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted July 15, 2011 at 14:48:45

Thanks you all for your insights!

It is always interesting to share ones perceptions and experiences of a place. Co-existence of divergent viewpoints and opinions is what makes most cities vibrant.

Denying others the opportunity or privilege of forming their own firsthand experience of a place in any city – is what transferring place bias looks like in action.

While appearing to be well meaning or harmlessly patronizing at first, any denial of opportunity for first hand discovery is an antithesis of higher learning.

Downtown Hamilton was never the Bronx of the 70’s.

Even Bronx is no longer the Bronx of the 70’s. People evolve, places change. Hamilton’s downtown core has changed in the last decade from the ‘imaginary Bronx’ to an urban core which is pretty much a blank canvas that is simply waiting for innovative conversations on urban ideas to begin. Conversations which do not rip the canvas into two – but the kind which allows the weaknesses of deferring positions to become the building blocks of a new kind of shared space which still evades our imagination.

How and why Hamilton's urban fabric got damaged so badly is part of public records, and one can go on dwelling on it endlessly. This won't bring change.

To set a new course which can alter the trajectory and the fortunes of this community, one needs to adopt a new openness to the imaginary tragic landscapes of this city, and attempt first hand discovery of neighbourhoods which have defied many odds and are already coming back to life.

Our university if it chooses can play a very critical role in starting such positive conversations in the many communities of our lower city. Not the kind seen at annual economic development summits or in its spin-off infomercials, or even in tax-payer funded medical research junkets into the bowels of our imaginary Bronx – but the more sincere kind that are based on a social conscience that has gotten tired of posturing on the campus and is seeking to build tangible legacies in living communities.

On cannot emphasis enough the importance of urban campuses in our times.

Below are some links to ideas and directions that many urban centered universities are taking across North America. Directions which our institution of higher learning in Hamilton needs to examine and adopt urgently if it wants to be more than just a provider of health services to the downtown core:

1)"University Park is an exciting opportunity to return to a traditional urban neighborhood where interesting people live, great ideas thrive and community is key. And we see a clear path for getting there."University Park Alliance: "...it’s important that this bill: The Urban University Renaissance Act of the 21st Century is out there to set a marker and help universities begin to actively engage in a long-overdue conversation..."

2) Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU):

Institutions located in metropolitan areas often do not fit the common definition of more traditional colleges and universities. Over two decades ago, leaders of metropolitan and urban universities realized the unique challenges and opportunities of their types of institutions as they looked to the future of higher education. CUMU was created in 1990 in recognition of their shared mission to use the power of their campuses in education, research, and service to enhance the communities in which they are located.

From the 21st Century Declaration of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities: " We, the leaders of urban and metropolitan universities, declare that our future as knowledge organizations will continue to be forged by sustained, reciprocal engagement with our cities."

3) Zoom out of this map and you will see the depth and scope of one such urban university's sustained engagement with its city.

To understand the steep challenges Hamilton faces in becoming a true knowledge economy, in spite of having a university on its edge or even a college on its brow – it is worth exploring our legacy of poor planning and its impact on our urban communities.

Lastly, this from the past may give us surprising insight into the dynamics behind the continuing lack of an alternate institution of higher learning in our downtown core.

Mahesh P. Butani

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-07-15 14:56:48

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