10 local photo works

The following is an artistic reflection on a series of photos of my Hamilton neighbourhood that I’ve been publishing on Twitter. It describes why I started taking street photos and why I am taking the street photos I am taking. I am attempting to describe this process with using only 10 photos.  Mt twitter handle is @muskoxen (tweets & links are also in the margin of this post). 

This was a difficult but a very valuable endeavour. The tight constraint of choosing 10 photos over a scope of over three years was challenging. I found it almost an all-consuming activity to scroll through the 40,000 digital images I’ve accumulated during that time. During this exercise of self-curation, I’ve realized it is only possible to understand my photo work by understanding why it suddenly became such a prolific activity in my life. It’s quite a pathetic story but has a well as you could expect ending. So far.

I was pretty much just a painter and drawer until just over three years ago. At that time I finally found some time and studio space to work and so I did — but, as it turned out, only for a month. Then a condition that would only be accurately identified years later as “Frozen Shoulder” struck my right arm and everything stopped. Except for the debilitating pain.

Of course … I paint and draw, write, get dressed and even piss with my right hand. You don’t think about how many times a day you need to use an arm in certain way. How many times a day you need to reach up above your shoulder? How would you get dressed or even stand in busy bus? Even a touch, a jolt, a sway or simply standing was agony.

Unable to get off of the couch for more than a few minutes at a time, I was very frustrated at my lot. Lying down was the only way to keep manage the pain. No work, no walking and not even my fair share of house chores.  However, I could have a laptop resting on top of me, hunting-and-pecking awkwardly with my left hand.

Decided to keep myself busy as possible and proceed with this scheduled studio time. Produce as much work as possible.  Keep my sanity through artistic insanity. It worked for me through worse.

I started to scour my hard drive for digital work perhaps I’ve forgotten about. I had done some previous photo based work but not substantially. I found lots of videos and some earlier studio and travel photos I had messed around with and, as with most abandoned work, had always intended to return to. “Well, I guess now was the time.” I thought and started to pull stills from the videos and started to finally create some collage work.

This was very rewarding and liberating.  I felt I was appealing to the frustrated painter me by working with digital images as if they were scraps of paint. Through the ease of today’s software I became enthralled with creating many variations of grid work with every digital image I could muster. You can see some of that work here but for the purposes of this post / assignment I want to stick with the street photography that began at this time as well.

I needed more photos. I was invigorated and motivated to get more source material and, at the same time, exercise my brain with composition studies.

I loved walking and exploring, at first around interesting parks and industrial areas then through neighbourhoods and streets. I never really took many photos as I did this but now I was living somewhere inaccessible to most people. I was living in the depressed area of my city most noted for crime, poverty and abandoned storefronts. It’s a place you drive through to get to another part of the city. With the drugs and street prostitution some don’t admit to coming here. To most they simply hear about it, read about and see the smudge of it from the scenic lookout overlooking Hamilton from the escarpment. They don’t come here because they don’t have to. They are afraid of who lives here.

Ward 3 House

There are many boarded up houses. Not for sale, not with any plan or project but just …. there. There is an odd acceptance of these neatly ignored derelicts in a community. I can always feel myself forgetting to find and look at them.

Fair enough but not for the people who do live here.  One of the insights I’ve had since arriving in Barton Village is that the problems of the area are not the fault of the people who live here. Rather, they are here because this is the area that many marginalized people and communities can go to because this where they are expected to go to.

You can see this attitude reflected in the blowing garbage and oversized one way roads leading in, through and out of this place. You can see it in the thriving parking lot industry sheltering the hospital, shelter and school employees who don’t live here.  You see it at night where the only food available is at the convenience stores. You see it the empty and neglected buildings that absentee owners sit on until it’s worth their while to sell. Some have been waiting for decades. There is no local drugstore or bank where I live but there is a jail and a drive through beer store. Charities, churches and police also thrive here.

Corner Store

Unless you have motorized transport, this is it for anything you might need. It is the only community gathering place that is always open. I like the almost holy light emanating in this shot and the estate of asphalt.

So when I decided to start walking as much as I could (I was thinking this may help my mysterious should ailment) everyday I decided to take street photos of my area but not of the people. I was interested in the narrative of the spaces and buildings. Especially when compared with the blandness of the suburbs this area turned out to be a rich visual environment beyond my expectations. Even almost beautiful at times. If I slept soundly, went out first thing in the morning and used my left hand then I could take some photos.

Sign

I started to take photos of abandoned signs and billboards. To me, there is a tension between the beautiful formality of these surfaces and the symbolism of what their continued existence.

It was very interesting to work with a new medium with my opposite hand. I am convinced it used different parts of my brain to approach and process this act. I started to adopt a “no cropping” rule for myself; I found it is almost always a stronger composition if you get it right when you take the photo.  Especially with a mobile device camera it is all about your body position and reflexivity to your subject. I started to prefer squared and defined areas devoid of meaningful community communications – an area of visual cognitive atrophy as induced by the conditions of this place.

Sometimes I made more collages and sometimes I posted these to my blog but otherwise I collected these works on my hard drive and dreamed of painting and drawing very large works.

Window

It’s amazing what you can see in the windows of sketchy buildings. The grime adds to muted blurs of the reflection with the assorted storage items and makeshift glass repair adding up a rather luscious and problematic composition. I’ve taken lots and lots of window shots.

The other half of the story of my street photo series came about a year later when things got political. I started posting my street photos as a critical reaction to some decisions affecting  my community.

At this time, I had gone through unsuccessful diagnosis, prescriptions and physiotherapy until my right shoulder just ended up getting better anyways on its own. It was still kind of delicate.  The worst part was not knowing if I could or would aggravate this injury.

I then discovered that the big, beautiful 1932 heritage school building close to my house had suddenly been slated to be torn down. The school board had already been issued a demolition permit. This place was a no-brainer to be renovated and turned into all kinds of community things, and I discovered later there would of been a line-up of developers with more profitable ideas for preserving it.

Poor areas are typically vulnerable to these kind of bad decisions. Similar public school buildings in more affluent wards of the city are still standing and are important hubs for their communities. The one near my house was purposefully neglected for a decade. It’s part of a strategy I learned about since living here called “demolition by neglect”.

A small group of us fought to save it, to at least head of the demolition until developers could present proposals to re-purpose it. That was a bitter couple of months as I learned there really was no hope all along. It was a total sham, a farce. There is a community that cares here, but that group of us were too small and outside of influential circles. Why didn’t more people fight to save it? Perhaps for the same reasons this area also has very low voter turn out.

There is hopelessness and resignation embedded in these decisions. T found more hope for this area when talking the locals, but they tend to be non-participants in these decisions. The decision to demolish this otherwise sound and important example of historic architecture was not a community based one.

This is a very small town with blind spots the size of cities. The biggest argument I encountered for tearing the building down was so there would be plenty of parking. I actually watched a city politician and a school board trustee tell us, at the same meeting, about how difficult working with each other’s bureaucracy is. Thus they had agreed to demolish the building and maybe someday other politicians would build something there. There was and is no funding to replace it with much needed community facilities.

It seemed the plan was a patch of grass beside an empty parking lot. I was told they had not and would not consider using that parking lot for the green space instead. Later, as you’ll read, I found out why, and why they were in such a rush.

We lost. The building was demolished in early 2013.

Sanford Avenue School mid-demolition

One of many panoramic works with Sanford Avenue School. I tried to brings a sense of Victorian paintings of ruins sensibility to many of these shots. To hint at what I felt was a great tragedy worthy of immortalizing in art.

I felt powerless. Local politics had made roadkill of my sense of civic pride. Though my blog posts, tweets and speeches at meetings had garnered some attention it did not matter. I become background noise as my voice was taken away. Activism has spawned an industry of marketing, propaganda and political lingo and I felt my voice was just currency in some sort of giant babble machine.

House

I messed around with Instagram for awhile and enjoyed adding popular filters to contrast with the decay and neglect of even the most innocuous surfaces.

So I decided to stop talking. I wanted to reach beyond this wall of my ward and show the world what was happening here. Through posting my pictures of my neighbourhood on my Twitter account I wanted to let anyone anywhere decide what they were seeing.

I followed the demolition of Sanford closely and posted pictures of the process. I posted photos of the empty storefronts. I posted photos of garbage in the parks and sagging houses.

Sign

Another neglected sign of this time. The surface texture is fascinating to me. I literally wish I could paint paintings as beautiful as this. I wish I could paint text like this.

At this time my left arm then succumbed to the same pain that my right arm did. I switched back to using my weakened and slightly atrophied right arm and continued to take as much street photography as I could. I could not renovate my house, I could not work, I could not leave this place. I wanted to and still do, but until then I intended to work with everything I could handle.

I tried my best to be as good as painter with these photos as I could be. I really did enjoy the formal and artistic qualities of doing this. The peeling facade of derelict store sign, or the mesh of brutually assembled plywood boards over a window. Sometimes the way garbage has collected around an open sewer grate. These are beautiful to me now, and they are political. I am no longer held back by my physical ailment or my political powerlessness. I am no longer toiling in artistic obscurity, isolated from the western arts district of Hamilton. These threads of self-empowerment converged through this textual act of taking photos of my neighbourhood and posting them to social media. I have reached up and beyond my ward with these photos and they cannot be demolished or obscured from history. When this place is completely changed, many years from now, people will see this is the way it was.

House

Another condemned house. I think there was a fire in this one. There are many fires in this area. Mostly in empty buildings. I’ve photographed as many as I run across. When I hear of a fire now nearby I try to go and find it.

That was not enough. I decided to represent my community by hash-tagging these photos #panam in preparation for the 2015 Pan-Am Games taking place in this ward.

By addition to the local hash tag #hamont and geo-location info, I have been preparing my tweeted photos for mass scrutiny.

My photos of my neighbourhood are as a real and valid as any other representation of my neighbourhood. I will not self-censor the defining visual characteristics of my landscape.

As these games approach more people will search online for information about this city and the Pan Am Stadium that is being built in my neighbourhood. Many will find my photos and many already have.

Left

Trash is everywhere here. There are huge streets and few trees so the wind pushes it everywhere. I’ve been seeing compositions in these too when I look straight down where I am walking. This is another series within this series.

You see, this isn’t all sour grapes and hurt feelings. This has made a material and tangible positive difference already. I have heard from a “friend of a friend” that the purpose of the demolition of the school was not even to put in a patch of grass but actually to create a giant parking lot for the Pan-Am games! So that’s why there were in such a rush to tear it down and sell of the pieces…

Since my little group and I put up a such a public fuss, especially with social media efforts such as my neighbourhood street photos and documentation of Sanford School being demolished, they felt there was suddenly too much scrutiny focused on this issue.

It is also an election year. So there is a really nice expanse of grass with a state-of-the-art self-watering system and fences all the way round to try to keep the neighbourhood dogs out. We’ll see.

Store

I took many photos of the local store fronts here. They are sad, but so full of potential. They are ruins. Someday no one will believe it looked like this. Even worse, someday no one will care. Again though, I find this beautiful, even liberating compared to what my life was like in the bland suburbs. It is an opportunity  to live in a place like this with time to explore and work with it like I have.

My left arm is much better now. I am relieved that this nightmare is almost over and the currently the single biggest obstacle to my taking street photos is the cold weather draining the batteries quickly on my iPhone. That and the awfully nice patch of grass makes for boring photos.

I think my relationship now to photography is one of activity, as performance on par with memory and communication.  It was not an approach to create an object so much as a record of meaningful work or even a meaningful presence in a certain time and place.

Now I see compositions everywhere I go, but in the uncelebrated parts of our daily realities. I know I am sending missives from an outpost. I am an outcast here, a silent walker some may see stop, raise my iPhone briefly and then quickly walk on. Sometimes people will confront me — who am I? What am I doing here? This area has seen enough exploitation and colonization by speculators, developers and other representatives and I look like just another middle class, middle aged entitled white asshole traipsing through their community. When I explain I live here and I’m an artist and that this is art, there is surprise and then acceptance.

Mostly.

Often I will hear stories about where this area has been, what is going on and what they hope will happen. These are the same narratives as my photos.

I am almost well enough to move from here. We are hoping to have the house on the market by April. The real estate market is heating up here because prices are lower than in Toronto or even in other parts of Hamilton.

I know I’ll probably never come back here.

You can see more of my Barton Village images here. After the jump I’ve added 14 photos that did not “make the cut” for the above post. 

Read More

The last days of Sanford Avenue School – a raw video walk around

It was a cold and windy evening…

This heritage worthy building we fought for is now in mid-demolition and I am not sure how much longer there will be any structure left. It really was suddenly cold and windy, but I felt the urgency to document this last stand of one of the last of the great Barton Village classic buildings.

This is pretty raw footage of me walking around the building. I do make a brief statement at the beginning, but this is for reference for … future use. Hopefully, we’ve made a difference overall in Hamilton for other communities going forward.

Sanford Avenue School was a very special heritage building, built in 1932 during the great depression. One of the gems of a notoriously poor neighbourhood, this is the sort of structure that is attractive for a very wide range of opportunities including a college, a community centre or health facility. Despite well documented flaws in the public consultation process and the demolition / heritage process, the HWDSB, the City of Hamilton and then the Government of Ontario failed the future interests of  the Barton Village community and allowed the first 100% steel framed building in Canada to be sold as scrap. No public interest from developers was allowed to be entertained.

For the record, below is a list of  trustees who voted to allow Sanford Avenue School to be demolished, and not to allow any alternatives to be presented by private or non-governmental organizational interest. Also included on this list of “Heritage & Community Shame” are the City and Provincial elected officials without whose express support and approval this tragedy could not have happened.

At the time of this posting, there is no secured funding or concrete plans for any development of the site into a park, soccer field or Recreation Complex expansion.  The most frustrating part for most of us? There would of been enough room for all of this if they had agreed to re-arrange parking instead of demolishing this beautiful structure that would have served nicely economic tool for revitalization. There is a need for new leadership in Hamilton, and the following elected officials should not trusted with public office again:

Ward 3 Councilor 

Bernie Morelli

Hamilton Wentworth District School Board Chair

Tim Simmons

HWDSB Trustees:

Bob Barlow

Todd White

Lillian Orban

Wes Hicks

Jessica Brennan

Karen Turkstra

Ray Mulholland

(Former) Liberal Education Minister

Laurel Broten

sanford last video 023

friend, fellow heritage activist and Photographer Joanna St. Jacques

sanford last video 017 sanford last video 018 sanford last video 019 sanford last video 021 sanford last video 025 sanford last video 026 sanford last video 028 sanford last video 029 sanford last video 031 sanford last video 036 sanford last video 037 sanford last video 053 sanford last video 055 sanford last video 040 sanford last video 041 sanford last video 042 sanford last video 043 sanford last video 044 sanford last video 047 sanford last video 048 sanford last video 049 sanford last video 050 sanford last video 051 sanford last video 052

See also http://hamiltonsusualsuspects.blogspot.ca/?m=1 for more photos and discussion

Sanford Avenue School shines bright – photography by artist Joanna St.Jacques

Sanford Avenue School

A friend here in Hamilton, Ontario came over to my hood and took this photo. When she emailed it to me later, I was blown away – not only because I’ve developed a personal attachment to it while fighting to save it from being demolished, but because it has been stubbornly difficult to being able to be photographed as a whole, with its character intact. This is the best contemporary  impression of this 1932 depression-era heritage I have seen.

I love this photo for many reasons. Formally, I love the grid of windows, each with it’s own variance tells a story of when it was last used (can you spot the Mona Lisa lurking in one of the windows? a neat cardboard cutout I had not noticed before…). I look at the accents on top the building and how this is like something straight out of the Art Deco influenced movie “Metropolis“. I look at this and it makes me want to learn more about architecture.

Sadly and beautifully, the neglect and stress of the last ten years is all over this building. The atmosphere of this work is troubling, brooding and somehow majestic. I had the pleasure of hanging out with St. Jacques while she took this photo with some special techniques, but I won’t reveal them.

The grit and dirt of it’s exterior is a texture that contrasts with the solid frame and spectacular craftsmanship that would hold this structure together for hundreds of years – if we let it. The school board has rebuffed those who wanted to re-vitalize it over the last ten years, while not maintaining it or making repairs.

Currently, the building is still slated for demolition as early as three weeks from now. They have no funds to replace it with anything but a rubble strewn empty lot, and they are essentially tearing down this building because the “big machine” of bureaucracy considers a mostly empty parking lot beside it as untouchable. Insurance, of course, is also an issue and the school board could clear this liability off their books, regardless of the developers and community members asking to be allowed to present alternatives for using it. Exactly how could these considerations be any less inspiring, noble or even necessary?

There is a Hamilton Wentworth District School Board Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, December 17th. This is the last meeting before they can go ahead and demolish it and leave this poor neighbourhood another empty lot to live with.

Please consider contacting your local Trustee and expressing your concerns about this situation – our community voices are making a difference:

Ward 3
Lower City

Tim Simmons
Chair of the Board
Chair’s Office: 905.527.5092 x 2279
Phone: 905.308.6832
tim.simmons@hwdsb.on.ca

Ward 9 & 10
West Stoney Creek
(lower and mountain)

Robert Barlow
Vice-Chair
Phone: 905.308.2483
robert.barlow@hwdsb.on.ca

Ward 1 & 2
West Lower city

Judith Bishop
Phone: 905.512.5713
judith.bishop@hwdsb.on.ca

Ward 4
East Lower City

Ray Mulholland
Phone: 905.547.2237
ray.mulholland@hwdsb.on.ca

Ward 5
East City

Todd White
Phone: 289.237.1644
todd.white@hwdsb.on.ca

Ward 6
East Mountain

Laura Peddle
Phone: 289.238.9284
Cell: 905.308.3367
laura.peddle@hwdsb.on.ca

Ward 7
Central Mountain

Lillian Orban
Phone: 905.573.8181
lillian.orban@hwdsb.on.ca

Ward 8
West Mountain

Wes Hicks
Phone: 905.383.2222
wes.hicks@hwdsb.on.ca

Ward 11 & 12
East Stoney Creek
Ancaster
Glanbrook

Alex Johnstone
Phone: 905.515.7082
alex.johnstone@hwdsb.on.ca

Ward 13
Dundas

Jessica Brennan
Message Line 905.627.3820.
jessica.brennan@hwdsb.on.ca

Ward 14 & 15
Flamborough

Karen Turkstra
Phone: 905.515.8726
karen.turkstra@hwdsb.on.ca

A view of the parking lot the City and School Board bureaucracy want to preserve (note the wide and underused street suitable for street parking)

Sanford School, street and parking

Sanford School, street and parking

 

Moments of Zen: Saving Sanford School becomes theatre of the absurd

I had a Jon Stewart type “moment of Zen” last night at the special community meeting organized to discuss the looming demolition of the 1932 Sanford Avenue School. Actually, I had several and perhaps that’s the best way to report back on what happened. I felt in danger last night of spontaneously turning into a giant insect – or at the very least, that I was viewed as one by many of the Cathy Wever School posse that composed the majority of the over 90 people in the room.

This Parking Lot brought to you by 1984

I’ll start with the moment that stands out for me and will probably haunt me for the rest of my life: A staff member of the Cathy Wever School actually stood up and passionately – emotionally even – defended keeping the east end of the parking lot as her friends “drive to work everyday. Where are they going to park!?!”. She was offended and angry at my idea of putting the proposed soccer field there *instead of* demolishing a perfectly good heritage building.

My mind unpleasantly expanded then contracted in that instant. Here was a public school staff member advocating tearing down a historically significant piece of architecture in favour of parking. Maybe the bureaucracy of a school board taking that posistion is not a surprise, but one tends to hold a romantic idea that individual people in the public education industry would see the intrinsic value in a historic building of world-class design as an ideal environment for young minds – for now and future generations in the community. But she doesn’t think that way. She wants to see it leveled as soon as possible, erased from the landscape of the neighbourhood and the community’s memory. If you wonder where the problem with kids being disengaged from the value of academics comes from, then the culture of the adults working with them in the public school system is probably as good a place as any to look at. Actions like this is how attitudes become ingrained in children.

Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy works in Ward 3

The next moment of Zen for me was suddenly feeling like I understood Barack Obama’s flustered frustrations in debating Mitt Romney’s overly simplistic and misleading “I’ll give you all jobs” mantra. Last night, simply take out “jobs” and drop in “parks for the kids” and you have the position of the School Board staff, City officials and parents in the face of overwhelming evidence that demolishing Sanford School was not desirable or necessary in order for the kids to have parks and a soccer field on that site.

We tried to point out that there is no approved funding for replacing Sanford School with anything but an empty lot. We pointed out that a mere 40 parking spots could be moved to get that park, that soccer pitch there. We proved there were parties with the expertise and means to turn the empty school into a vibrant community fixture. We proclaimed our support for everything the parents wanted for their children – but none of this reality seemed to matter. It fell on deaf ears. It truly was a moment where any meaningful discussion was simply not possible in the face of what bizarrely could be called “park propaganda”. Effectively, all they did was help ensure local kids will likely grow up with another giant, empty lot that acts as another barrier to this area’s chances of economic recovery. Has anyone actually calculated the loss of tax revenue for the City of Hamilton in allowing a development friendly building to be demolished?

One developer told me property taxes would be “about $150,000 a year”. Imagine what that kind of injection could do this for this community. I keep thinking that is one expensive parking lot.

A warbling, sentimental speech about how kids love parks

This was the first moment where many of us looked at each other with incredulity. The chair and trustee of the school board read off a rambling speech about how he grew up in a more affluent area of town where there were parks for the kids. As a kid, he loved parks. His kids love parks. Kids love parks. Parks are important for kids. Kids here should have parks. Parks for kids is what the kids want. Parents want their kids to be in parks.

This turned out to be perhaps the most strategically clever moment of the entire night – he set the divisive tone to set the two groups against each other . The Cathy Wever School crowd clung to this “all or nothing / with us or against us / you’re for the kids or against the kids” politics that reminded me of the playbook of Vic Toews. They opted for passion over reason, and framed those of us trying to participate in this process as the agents of passion over reason. A neat trick.

Another deft result this long winded prepared speech had was to eat up valuable time, as the meeting had an expiration date of two hours. Two hours to somehow fight through the noise, and several times our Trustee and Councilor dismissed presented options because they were not “concrete enough”. It was impossible to present what they claimed was needed to earn a reprieve in the demolition of Sanford. This was crazy. Some might call it a sham.

It must also be pointed out that the childhood neighbourhood Tim Simmons waxed sentimental about is Westdale – an area that was allowed to keep their heritage school building. They have green space and bike paths. They have two way streets, with parking spots on them, in lieu of the vast parking lots that are central to the Sanford School debate. Westdale is an area of town that is one of the best places to live in Hamilton, with a very high quality of life.

Uncovering a conspiracy of lazy neighbours and developers

“You’re lying” one parent outright accused us, in response to our claim that our neighbours and ourselves were not provided an opportunity to participate in the consultation process. This ugly acccusation was the tone for the pro-demolotion group of school staff and parents in dismissing our concerns, and was dramatically presented enough to warrant being repeated in some news reports of this meeting.

If we think about this for moment, it makes no sense that we are lying about not knowing. I’ve probably put in more than a hundred hours over the last ten days to this decisision, and there are my neighbours and development professionals in the community all expressing alarm at being caught off guard. Almost ninety people showed up to this meeting precisely because of this public consultation process being flawed from the outset. I, and almost certainly the rest of the citizens protesting this process, would rather have had a chance to attend a more civil, constructive and publicly announced community meeting *before* this decision was made. Claiming we knew this was going to happen all along, and that we knew there was a meeting and simply were too lazy to attend and do anything about it until a Herculean last ditch effort is ridiculous.

But this meeting was not about thinking this through. This meeting was about stirring up emotions and hurling accusations at a community that does not happen to be part of the Cathy Wever School. These are classic political strategies for dividing a community, isolating the group that disagrees with you and then conquering your opposition.

Why did the chicken cross the road? For every other reason but to get to a park.

The same parent then described how one of her children got hit by a car crossing the street to the extremely close Woodlands Park. This was to demonstrate that there needed to be a park beside the school.

Remember when I mentioned earlier that no one is arguing against having a park or soccer field at Cathy Wever School? Any reasonable position that was not pro-demolition got swept aside by dramatics and emotional statements. The councilor, school trustree and city officials in attendance did nothing to record the conversation so as to dissuade this sort of distraction.

The vast majority of these parents and children have to cross these dangerous streets twice a day to get to the school and then return home. Many of them cross the vast soccer field at Woodlands Park to get to the school, which is about a one minute walk away.

This also, astonishingly, did not spark the notion for this group that the neighbourhood would be better served by safer streets, including segregated bike lanes. It further eroded the validity of my side’s position – we were forced to somehow try to justify small children getting hit by cars or do crazy things to the streets that these people did not care about at all. Most of the staff and decision makers drive in and out of this community to arrive at an area with an excess of parking. Why would they care about that extraneous, unrealistic solutions we were putting forward? This is, of course, more absurdity. This emphasis on driving on dangerous, huge streets that are virtual highways in this community is what put this parent’s child in danger in the first place, and is directly correlated to the view point that Sanford School needs to be demolished to make a park that is safer for the kids to get to.

No one mentioned the crossing guards who attend the intersection to and from Woodlands Park before and after school. In retrospect, I don’t feel like pointing that out would make any difference at all.

Back to the Future … of Parking

I need to make clear here, as I tried to make clear over and over to the crowd last night, that the core issue here is the city planners not considering shifting 40 parking spots to somewhere else. They could move the spots to the street, which is huge and under utilized. They could have the staff and employees of Cathy Wever School and the Norman “Pinky” Lewis Recreation Centre park at one of numerous empty lots close by and save the remainder of spots for clients and parents. Who has not had to walk a block to work or home after parking? Apparently, the staff of Cathy Wever School find this concept unthinkable. In turn, I find this deeply disturbing and frankly irresponsible.

Did this proposed solution gain any traction? None at all. Did any other option proposed get considered? Nope.

Seems like what we needed was a community developer with a proven track record to show up and present another option that would benefit the community by keeping and developing the school, and with some frank professional criticisms of the current plan that some of the parents and staff may be unaware of. Michael Clarke, a local lawyer and developer who was involved in key parts of the success of James Street North, did just that.

He was dismissed immediately by the Trustee for his “sales pitch”. Yet, his was the message that the school board and councilor claimed was absent that led to the decision to demolish Sanford School. The only thing he could have done that might of immediatly changed some minds was show up with a giant pile of money and perhaps NickelBack to play a pro-Sanford concert on the gymnasium stage while tossing out free bottles of vodka and soccer balls to the assembled crowd.

Clarke was asking for some time to be able to propose a plan – something that was impossible to do given he has had only 10 days to prepare and further hindered by the fact demolition can start next month

I have to list these other obvious questions that were not addressed last night:

Why is the rec centre expansion not incorporated into the Sanford School building?

Why was the Cathy Wever School building not incorporated into the Sanford School building?

If parking is and will be such a large problem, then why are solutions such as a underground parking and / or a parking structure not considered?

Would the millions of dollars saved by not demolishing Sanford and by utilizing it as part of the Cathy Wever School / Norman “Pinky” Lewis centre instead of re-building a structure from scratch be better used for a parking structure?

A passionate plea for our insurance and bureaucracy heritage.

More existential angst inducing moments have to be credited to the various public officials who offered helpful insights as to the impossibility of simple actions like fixing the broken boilers at Sanford School or spending any of the millions of dollars supposedly earmarked for demolition and expansion on any other option. If it’s not insurance issues, well then it’s an issue with the Ministry. Or the bureaucracy is “too big a machine” to change direction on – and the trustee and the councilor could not change anything because there were other people involved. People who were not there last night and will only hear our side of the debate via the councilor and the trustee.  And there is absolutely no way to consider moving parking spaces.

You would think the common threads of elected officials and our tax money might be more important to finding a better solution than not trying at all – but you would be mistaken in this case.

Crouching community, Hidden agenda

To me the most terrible aspect of this sordid affair was the manufactured nature of the community consent for demolishing Sanford. When the City and School Board “consulted” the community, they only consulted stakeholders inside the Norman “Pinky” Lewis and Cathy Wever School organizations and not any of the residents who are not part of these organizations. They are of course supposed to, and there is a mention of a public information meeting in 2010, on paper, but there was no notice posted outside the school and no notices distributed to the community. Not to my house, and not to my neighbours.

Other disturbing facts about this process is that Sanford was declared “surplus” 10 years ago – meaning no developer or organization was even allowed to present any other option for the building. And now, incredibly, the school trustee and councilor claim that there was no interest in it so they had no choice.  It is a fact organizations and developers did approach the school board about Sanford – and they are lining up now to take a shot at acquiring it – but were rebuffed because it was unavailable. One organization was told “the city has plans for it, so we can’t accept any other interest in it”.

A few more of my hairs went grey just typing that, and I think I’m developing an eye tick.

One of the victims of this boondoggle is the Cathy Wever Hub – a service provider for this area that wants expanded green space, more basketball courts and more facilities for the kids. They did not advocate destroying our built heritage but sort of got blamed for it by the politics of the situation – the city, the school board and the Cathy Wever School group all point to them as a “community” that were consulted. The Hub called this special meeting last night to correct this assumption and bring the community – my neighbours and myself – together to talk to the real forces behind these decisions. When I first spoke, I tried to help clarify this as well by citing Hamilton Community Foundation policy that Hubs are not neighbourhood associations (and neither are school or recreation staff, for that matter). I think that was a tactical mistake on my part – the Hub people thought I was attacking them and the parents / school staff thought I was undermining their place in the debate. It was ridiculous.

To me, the real victims last night are the duped parents and kids of Cathy Wever School who unfortunately think they are getting green space anytime soon. If it happens, and that’s a big if, then it would be earliest at 2016 and may take to 2022 or even later. To me, some of the worst culprits in this misinformation are those who happen not to be elected, or at all accountable to the larger community but exert great influence over the thinking of the parents and kids in attendance last night – the staff of Cathy Wever School. The feedback of the staff at Cathy Wever School, while  important, is not a community consultation. There was no proper community consultation or public notifications. This is kinda indisputable at this point but, in another moment of zen, appears to simply not matter. The rules of process do not matter here. This is not democracy – this is my local public school.

An apology from the worst culprit of all

That would be me, because last night I allowed the emotion and passion of the immediate situation to affect me. I sneered, I snorted and I quipped out of turn – it was very rude of me and I apologize to everyone there. It did not reflect well on the point my neighbours and I were trying to make, and played into the perception that we were being unreasonable. There is a saying that you should never argue with an idiot because they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. I was beat by engaging on a gut reaction emotional level and that compromises any future dialogues with the same groups of people. Though those who were there from start to finish can attest to the many triggers that led to such emotion, I can only imagine what those arriving half way through must have thought.

A tool for preserving our democratic heritage emerges from the rubble

Incredible. Out of the blue and without any knowledge of the Sanford School situation, a Toronto based architect phoned me today to help him build a special website. He is concerned because he is going to help with a new development in a small city and wants to make sure there is communication with the community, and an online forum for tracking feedback on the proposed public project. Citing problems with public meetings where a few aggressive people can dominate any conversation, he thinks together we can help define a template for developers and a community to engage meaningfully over the course of “at least two years” before the project is started.

Compared to what has been happening here, I almost cried. There are people out there who want the same things, there is hope. Together, we are going to build this tool which may help prevent what culminated in the frustrations of last night.

Perhaps the best part of all is that I am going to name this content management tool for developers “Sanford”. This beautiful building may become an empty lot, but the lessons learned here may help other communities. In this way, I will help preserve some of our built heritage the best way I can.

Cannon Knitting Mill, East Wall 2012

Cannon Knitting Mill, East Wall #3

Cannon Knitting Mill, East Wall 2012

There has been focus lately in the community regarding the local school board trustees and a bad, short-sighted “oh, Hamilton…” kind of decision they made to re-locate in the suburbs instead of staying downtown and re-animating a historic building. You can read about it better than I can talk about it at this excellent blog here.

Since I moved to Hamilton the importance and dynamic of architecture, especially in a post-growth community, has been an influence. I’ve been past this building many, many times and I love, artistically, the monolithic ruin of a once grand building. Since seeing the Lister Block restored, and the importance of “Built Heritage” to a city, I can also start to see the opportunity that the Cannon Knitting Mill provides.

With this perception in mind, and with my photo collage work this year I decided to work this neglected but popular building. I am not interested so much in portraying a building or neighbourhood, but in trying to construct an experience of looking at something. In this case, it is the east wall of the building and the surface is full of angles, details, decay and is completely out of sequence and not to scale at all. I like this process so far, for it seems to be most like memory and attention – this building still looks like this building, and all the parts of it are real, but you are forced to look at it through someone else’s interest and perception.

As the good people in the Beasley neighbourhood found out, fighting perceptions (some might say call it other things) is very hard to do.

So I’ve created this husk of a photo collage work that reminds me of a children’s book illustration or perhaps a horror movie post – but I like it. I like the challenge this building presents as a model, and the richness of it’s surface scarred by history and many hands (I have already taken about 2,000 photos). I also like constructing an image about Hamilton with a process that reflects some of Hamilton’s character – embracing the grit, exploring the rich heritage and confronting the subject directly. Ever since I was a kid, I really do love looking at factories and abandoned buildings, and imaging where this doorway led to, or why was that window different than the one beside, or what machine was bolted to that wall. I am dying to know what it looks like inside.

Right now the work for print measures 60″ x 9″ and I am considering making a gift a signed and frame edition to anybody who buys/saves this building. Did I just offer an art bounty? I guess that depends whether you like the art or not. I won’t be giving one to the Ward 2 Trustee, that’s for sure.