Commentary

Memo to Brantford: Hamilton Heritage Demolition 101

The process of decimating heritage, though it appears to be swift and easy, is a long-drawn and rigorous affair. We should know; after all, we wrote the manual on this.

By Mahesh P. Butani
Published February 22, 2010

Memo

To: The People of Brantford
From: The People of Hamilton

We can only tell you this: the path you have chosen for your heritage buildings on Colborne Street is the path we have been trying to get off for the last forty years.

The process of decimating heritage, though it appears to be swift and easy, is a long-drawn and rigorous affair. We should know; after all, we wrote the manual on this.

Our audacity to destroy our heritage was built painstakingly over years on substantive scientific principles, such as: slow leaking roofs, open windows, pigeon poop, popping walls, and our latest innovation – the pancaking floors.

Your unprincipled approach has left us in a state of shock. You just cannot rush such matters without following the proper protocol that we have developed exclusively for the task of erasing heritage and memory.

For a while, you seemed to have all that we craved: a buzzing industrial park on your edge; a super-smooth parkway from the highway into town; a downtown with a cool theater and many more cooler cafes; and best of all, live students and classrooms in your core.

Besides that college you snagged, which rightfully belonged to our core – you were doing just great!

Now having got all this, you want to smash it to bits? Why!?

We know that it is not our place to ask such a question. After all, we are presently sitting out here in the middle of a fresh pile of hundred-year-old bricks.

But trust us: we started out the same way, and before we knew it, we did not know how to stop! We kept going, block after block after block.

Block after block after demolished block (RTH file photo)
Block after block after demolished block (RTH file photo)

Today, the only history that we are left with is on our websites and we take great pleasure in saving this by right-clicking the images, just in case even the websites are taken down.

So if you insist on undertaking what you think is a long overdue correction, we are here to guide you in any manner you wish – as you really would learn a thing or two from our people.

Firstly, given the awkwardness of your approach, could there be a possibility of an administrative goof up with your demolition order? Seriously - from the looks of things there, we feel it is the botox-laden north side of Colborne that is begging for mercy - and not the gracefully aging south side. But it is your call.

Next, here are some pointers from our very popular Demolition 101 class: Never ever attract attention to yourself. You merely give permission to destroy based on reports of unknown specialists, and then offer a public sigh!

And for godz sake you do not ever indicate that it was your idea backed by a council order! The council never ever should know anything about such things.

Trust us. We know how to make this work.

So here is a bit of your personal story which you are about to alter.

Unlike your buildings, this version of Colborne below, can be preserved for posterity - with no effort at all. Simply right-click and select save...

You may even want to look into right-click enabling your economic development policy. Since our demolition orgy, we are too heavily invested in our parking lots and the promised investment to rebuild has not shown up for forty years now. As we said earlier, you can only learn from us.

PS: There is a very good possibility that Google, upon learning about this heritage massacre, may get peeved and never again send their van to Brantford – just to give your people a message that this is not cool at all.

Or they could even decide to exercise their international clout by continuing to show the older images of Colborne for posterity on Google maps – instead of updating your maps with the shiny new boxes that you have been dreaming of.

(Anyone up for a memo to Google? Brantford could only benefit from international attention!)

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 jason (registered) | Posted February 22, 2010 at 09:05:34

I have a hard time feeling any sympathy for Brantford. I mean, even Hamilton has been completely ignorant by not learning from US cities that already showed us what NOT to do several decades ago. But Brantford hasn't had to look very far - 25 minutes up the 403 - to see a present day, Canadian model of what NOT to do. Like you said Mahesh, we wrote the manual on this (and sadly continue to add many more chapters each year). Hey Brantford, take a loooooooong look at the google image Mahesh posed looking down at urban nothingness and weedy, gross, unsafe multi-block parking lots.
Welcome to your future. You deserve it.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted February 22, 2010 at 09:23:43

People are, by nature, resistant to learning from the mistakes of others. (If they weren't, there would be more successful, more thriving relationships.)

Some of this can be chalked up to ignorance. Some to arrogance.

No matter the cause, it's all so sad.

What's fascinating is that athletics has more of a learning community tradition than civic planning and politics in general do.

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By MarieJ (registered) | Posted February 22, 2010 at 16:01:53

I really wish people would also contact our local newspapers, and our councillors, etc. There are so many people uninformed, and others misinformed for so long. They need to read this locally also.

BrantNews (editor) jzronik@brantnews.com Brantford Expositor; http://www.brantfordexpositor.ca/Article... BrantConnection

Contact your city councillor about this issue: dmccreary@brantford.ca, MCeschi-Smith@brantford.ca, jcalnan@brantford.ca, jkinneman@brantford.ca, jsless@brantford.ca, vbucci@brantford.ca, MLittell@brantford.ca, jbradford@brantford.ca, gmartin@brantford.ca, rcarpenter@brantford.ca, mhancock@brantford.ca

Or give them a call: http://www.brantford.ca/content/publishi...

Our MP, Phil McColeman: McColeman.P@parl.gc.ca

Our MPP, Dave Levac: dlevac.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org

Funding agency: FedDev Ontario Key players: B.A. Archibald, President The Hon. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State, FedDev Ontario (in charge of funding) goodyg@parl.gc.ca

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By MarieJ (registered) | Posted February 22, 2010 at 16:03:34

We do NOT deserve it. That statement angers me.

No one deserves this.

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted February 22, 2010 at 16:04:17

Brantford has a variety of residents. I have no sympathy for the goons who want to tear down this street. For all the rest I have great sympathy. I get the feeling that some are heartbroken over this.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 22, 2010 at 21:04:31

MarieJ. My comment was directed to the decision-makers, not folks like you.

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By morethannicebuildings (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2010 at 09:57:42

Good article. I can’t understand why in this day and age we still think demolishing heritage buildings is a sign of progress. Aside from the value they bring to creating a sense of place, there is mounting evidence about the economic value of heritage (e.g. http://www.communitystudy.ca/pdfs/Heritage_Value.pdf). Maybe it’s something to do with the whole disposable culture we have created because it can’t be just a matter of taste – I have yet to meet anyone who sees beauty in a new Wal-Mart. It seems to boil down to “new is better” period – even if that “new” is a freshly paved parking lot.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 23, 2010 at 10:32:24

there is mounting evidence about the economic value of heritage

Also mounting evidence of the economic value of the physical assets of existing buildings themselves, whether or not they are designated. Not to mention the economic and environmental costs of tossing these assets into landfill.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2010 at 12:27:24

schmadrian>> "...No matter the cause, it's all so sad. What's fascinating is that athletics has more of a learning community tradition than civic planning and politics in general do."

In Ontario, while much good has come from the actions of Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and the Ontario Heritage Trust – a phenomenal amount of heritage has been lost in the last fifty years on account of our inability to look at the whole picture.

Back in the eighties even in a developing country like India, people got together to fight the destruction of heritage. The result was INTACH

Much heritage has been saved in India since then by: "Sensitizing the public about the pluralistic cultural legacy; instilling a sense of social responsibility towards preserving its common heritage; and protecting and conserving its living, built, and natural heritage by undertaking necessary actions and measures."

We can clearly see in many examples from across the world that economic development and heritage preservation are not mutually exclusive – Buildings and structures that have been saved from neglect and willful destruction, are now some of the most vibrant and financially lucrative cultural and tourism destinations.

"The Facelift and the Wrecking Ball: Urban Renewal and Hamilton’s King Street West, 1957–1971" by Margaret T. Rockwell is one paper that Ontario's politician, councils and now sadly even university presidents must be made to read - before being elected to office.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted February 23, 2010 at 19:28:46

Mahesh:

Yes, I've got a copy of 'Facelift and Wrecking Ball'. I've read it a half-dozen times and I've sent a copy to my mom to refresh her memory about what Hamilton 'used to be like'. (She came over in '57.)

At the individual's level, North America is an insular and self-referential place. Even the notion of 'family' has lost some of its value, never mind the concept of 'neighbourhood', or 'community' or 'city'. I know I'll catch flack for this...and I'm not saying there's a causal relationship going on...but the propensity to shut one's self off from the surrounding environment by way of devices such as iPods is a simple example of the barriers we now construct. (Naturally, the most visible barrier is the car.)

I see a direct line between creating a culture of respect for our architectural heritage, our living spaces, and the notion of community itself. The more 'human' our interaction is, the more 'humane' our habits become.

Thanks again for an invaluable commentary.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2010 at 21:56:56

Mr. Butani, it was a indeed a pleasure meeting you for the first time at the Hamilton Civic League's 'Speaker's Series' last night. I wish more folks would get off their rumps and attend these thought provoking events.

The last lines of theRecord.com link you provided echo my sentiments:

"If they want to keep and attract the creative class to this city, part of that is the attraction of heritage and history," Dearlove said. "People like that in a community, especially educated and cultured people."

And what is one of the most important ingredients we need to realize this?

...socially enlightened developers.

I agree. So what is preventing this enlightenment? Mr. Jeremy Freidburger caused a small commotion last night when he exclaimed, "Which developers are criminals!?" The applause he received was an indication that his 'touch of grey' was a shade of something everyone in the room felt in the marrow of their bones. How did you put IT awhile back? Oh yeah, now I remember:

Reeling from the resulting issues aggregation effect, we have been searching for a magic bullet to fight this mythical multi-headed Hydra...

Eureka, that's IT! I love your imagery Mahesh, IT riles my Herculean flesh. Mr. DiIanni perhaps gave us a clue last night when he made reference to 'The Sword of Damocles' hanging over our heads. I imagine we could lure the hydra beneath the sword and snip the thread; Done done, right quick, bing bang boom DEAD!

Sha la la la that ain't no crime . Thanks for sharing Mahesh.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted February 24, 2010 at 00:58:14

Thank you schmadrian, WRCU2 and all for your kind comments! And it was my pleasure meeting up with you too, WRCU2!

Did anyone have the opportunity to watch the video on the INTACH home web page referred to in my earlier post? – It is titled: Play Intach Film, and is at the bottom of the page.

This is a must see to understand how phenomenal progress can be achieved in heritage conservation, at the grassroots level – in one of the most complex cultural and economic environments.

What comes through in this video is what schmadrian so well points out above: "The more 'human' our interaction is, the more 'humane' our habits become."

There is indeed a direct line – as schmadrian sees: "between creating a culture of respect for our architectural heritage, our living spaces, and the notion of community itself."

Our biggest challenge in Hamilton, is creating the 'conditions' (environment) for socially relevant developments to occur pervasively.

Our sciences tell us that among the most powerful human instincts are: parental care and social instincts.

We all are already hardwired for it. We just have to figure out a way to create the right conditions for Morphogenesis.

Maybe by replacing confrontation with inquiry and open discussions; and by making the unconditional acceptance of the other, the new cool thing to do – the 'conditions' (environment) needed for socially relevant developments to occur could just evolve naturally.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted February 24, 2010 at 21:59:58

Mahesh, I wish to show my appreciation for your "Valuable Insight" and have submitted a comment at Hall Marks containing a link to this article. Well done my friend!

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By M.P.B. (anonymous) | Posted February 25, 2010 at 09:46:57

Thank you WRCU2:-) Much appreciated!!

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By z jones (registered) | Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:25:52

Awright guys, go rent a hotel room.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:48:59

Are there any left in Hamilton? (they might have to go to Toronto...;) )

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By MareiJ (anonymous) | Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:03:01

Mahesh P. Butani, I wish that your voice could be heard at our city council meeting.

Unfortunately, the fact they rejected a wealthy heritage developer who proved he could save "some" of our 41 historic buildings... and insulted him in order to raise the pedastal of a local developer who has done NOTHING for heritage in our city (but keeps being used as the example of us preserving and saving heritage), well, that makes it seem like nobody will be listened to.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted February 25, 2010 at 20:31:05

It's capital, plain and simple. If you have lots of power, influence and capital (either landholdings or the means to acquire them), it makes a hell of a lot of sense to push for whatever option uses the most capital, takes the least work and provides the most reliable returns. The providers and consumers of the goods and services, as well as community members, though, require something far different: a large variety of small, affordable spaces in which to experiment - studios, stores, workshops galleries, appartments, cafes etc.

Guess which one is represented by a block of shop-fronted heritage buildings, and which one is represented by a Taco Bell.

Want to empower the people of Hamilton to create a better city? Try empowering the people themselves. We have more un-or-under-employed skilled workers than we know what to do with, and more idle factories and storefronts idle than we can handle, and the few places (ie: the Imperial Cotton Centre etc) which have been given over to less profitable but more productive groups like artists and artisans have been a tremendous success.

How about free rent in a few of the many empty shops in Jackson Square to whoever can create the most comfortable spaces for people to simply chill, rest and gather? Somewhere that patrons could drink their coffees, read their newspapers and scratch their lotto tickets that's more pleasant than the food courts or hallway benches? A few discarded furnishings from swanky offices in the towers, some volunteers, and perhaps even some musicians and local art. A few dedicated people could do this without spending a single dollar, and anyone familiar with any neighbourhood in the lower city could probably name 10 places where something like this off the top of their head.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted February 27, 2010 at 10:24:03

Undustrail: I think your idea is a great one. It should be about empowering the people and there are few ways to do that.

If we created spaces where those who struggle and want to do somethng positive about changing things can come together, work together to participate in enacting change.

It is a given that the life experiences of those who struggle need to be heard. It could be possible to have people setting up opportunities to present in front labour groups, local businessess, even at community events.

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By Nick W (anonymous) | Posted March 01, 2010 at 12:22:26

Nigel Terpstra of Urban Toronto has written an article about this issue for Spacing Toronto:

http://spacing.ca/wire/2010/03/01/brantfords-downtown-destruction/

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