Accidental Activist

A Refreshing Outcome

My old home town finally did something I never thought I'd see them do: they turned a corner.

By Ben Bull
Published November 23, 2006

Is it just me, or was Monday November 13 a figment of my adolescent and under-stimulated imagination?

Wow. What a night. Right when most people were settling down to watch a re-run of Coronation Street or CSI Miami, I was busy doing what countless other Hamiltonians were doing: refreshing my computer screen.

It was almost ten o'clock and I had not yet recovered from my nine o'clock shock - the unsuspecting Google search that led me to the Hamilton municipal election page and the curious stats that suggested Larry Di Ianni was trailing Fred Eisenberger by, what, half a percent?

What the hell was going on?

A few email exchanges later, I realized that all was well and this was really happening! How sad am I? I wondered as I willed the polls to close, one by one, and blinked my eyes in an effort to make the numbers go the way I wanted. I don't even live here anymore...

By ten o'clock I was ecstatic: We did it! In truth, I wasn't sure what 'we' had done or even who 'we' were.

I had never heard of Fred Eisenberger until Hamilton's Community Action Network (CAN) endorsed him a few days before, and I was highly suspicious of his intentions now. I was certain of one thing however: The people had spoken.

The fact that Hamilton's electorate had chosen to turf out their sprawl-friendly Mayor was a confirmation to me that my old home town had finally done something I never thought I'd see them do: they'd turned a corner.

"If they'd done this two years ago," my wife remarked on hearing the news, "we'd have never moved."

I doubt that's true. My wife and I returned to Toronto earlier this year after an exasperating five and a half years in the Hammer, in part because of the backward political culture and diminishing quality of life.

Still, the sentiment was honest enough. Even after eight months away, the old town feels closer than ever.

Of course, Our Fred has yet to pull up a chair at the council table, and the columnists and cartoonists at the Hamilton Spectator have already unsheathed their snide remarks. There's a long way to go yet, but one thing's for sure - the change feels good.

As the night wore on and I scuttled down the stairs to catch Randy Steele's interview with the giddy Mayor-Elect, I couldn't help but give myself a little pat on the back.

("What the hell are you doing?" asked my wife. "Do you have an itch?")

Having been heavily involved with CAN and Raise the Hammer over the past couple of years, I felt an uncharacteristic surge of pride that my modest efforts as an accidental activist may have had just at least a little something to do with the way the events were unfolding.

452 votes, I thought to myself. That's not a lot. But of course, it's not about me. No, wait, it is. OK - it's not.

If I'm being magnanimous I would at least spare a thought for the real hard workers of Hamilton's activist community - CAN's Alice Smith, Mayday's Kevin McKay, and CATCH's Don McLean, to name but a few.

If I'm being truly honest I would give credit to the real architects of Di Ianni's decline - the overburdened, overtaxed and long suffering people of Hamilton.

But whatever the reasons behind the new climate of change, I hope we can all embrace the challenges ahead and allow ourselves a certain amount of uncharacteristic Hamilton optimism. Whether you like it or not, I have the distinct feeling that Hamilton is on the right track.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By (anonymous) | Posted November 29, 2006 at 22:18:44

What happened? Here's my take.
Voters in municipal elections are hard core. These are people who will turn out for all elections because they see it as a duty. Last time out, we had a very divisive election, and some 40% came out to vote for Christopherson. DiIanni won, but in his three years as mayor, he did nothing to reach out to the Christopherson voters or their vision. In fact, he repeatedly made decisions to remind those voters that he had no time for their vision, and those actions in turn maintained an activist base opposed to him (seen for instance in many of the opinions on this site).

Well, that 40% of voters certainly had little reason to embrace Fred Eisenberger, who seemed to be in a similar policy space as DiIanni. But they did see some attempts to reach out to them, for instance on transit and on a slightly less gung-ho approach to Aerotropolis and sprawl. So, when they went out to vote, as per their duty, they held their nose and voted for Fred.

So all Fred really had to do was to steal some votes from Larry in the outlying wards to add to that 40%. As a bland, right of centre, former Conservative candidate, he had much more suburban appeal than an urban NDP firebrand like Christopherson. And let's face it, DiIanni has not been great for suburbanites either, as his Red Hill Cargo Cult and sprawl failed to attract large business investment, and thus increased property taxes. Plus, for many suburbanites, sprawl is not great either, since it increases traffic and consumes neighbouring green spaces which are seen as benefits of suburban living.

In short, while I too did not see the Fred victory coming at all, it was in a sense predictable if one thought about who goes to vote in these things, and about how DiIanni failed to deliver for suburban voters while also failing to reach out to those who voted against him last time. It is of course most amusing that the Spec backed DiIanni as a team builder, because the main reason he lost was that he refused to build an inclusive team that brought in some of David Christopherson's supporters and ideas, and instead stuck to the narrower coalition that elected him last time.

The lesson for Fred Eisenberger is this: If you don't keep your promises to that 40%, someone else may do the same thing to you next time around.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 30, 2006 at 10:58:37

perfectly said. I'm sure Fred knows that's exactly what happened, and we'll see if he holds true to campaign promises or just becomes like the rest of them once they win.

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By King James (anonymous) | Posted November 30, 2006 at 17:03:40

Except that DiIanni did reach out to one very large subset of the Christopherson vote from '03 -Labour. The Steelworkers and Construction trades both backed Dave last time and Larry this time. Same goes for the firefighters. Larry lost because the burbs turned on him. What worries me is that Fred must realise that he won because of that demographic and is thus more likely to work to appease them.

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By Queen Mary (anonymous) | Posted November 30, 2006 at 21:26:22

But how many unionized workers actually vote the way they're told by their union leaders?

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 30, 2006 at 23:19:25

Fred actually had strong support in the downtown/west end area, along with parts of the north mountain and rural farming suburbs and Dundas. That's not 'suburban' like the meadowlands or upper stoney creek - downtown residents like myself have much more in common ideologically speaking with farmers than suburban sprawl residents. Having a strong base of farmers should help Fred follow through on his plans to curb sprawl....and having support in urban neighbourhoods like the north Mountain, downtown/west end and Dundas - all proper, walkable, urban areas - should also help keep Fred and council in line regarding proper infill, transit, safety and re-investment into the city.

I like what I'm seeing take shape for this 4-year term. I just hope he gets moving quick on things like BRT, bike lanes, brownfields, waterfront he's got a lot of excellent projects being built and completed by the next election. We don't need 4 years of studies, talk and more talk. We've had that for years.

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By Carl Wilson (anonymous) | Posted December 02, 2006 at 21:29:02

I think England can win the Ashes.

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By w willy (registered) | Posted December 04, 2006 at 15:22:35

Construction trades were split last time, with many leaning to Di Ianni, because they could see where their bread was buttered (ie. Red Hill). Di Ianni also appeared to have a broad tent this time, because a lot of people misread the electorate, and felt it was better to be on his side and have a little pull at City Hall, than to spend another four years railing against City Hall but having no swing. While I saw Tony DePaulo from the USWA as an endorser, I saw little evidence of steel lending any logistical or activist support to his candidacy -- but again, I would be happy to hear otherwise from those in the know.

I would love to see some analysis of the vote in different wards. I would guess that Fred did pretty well across the downtown waterfront (wards 1-4), as Jason argues. Those who support the general line of this blog might be surprised at the support some of their views would have in suburbia. There is a lot of conservatism in the suburbs, a pathological fear of the urban as "dangerous", and a NIMBY-mindedness that resists attempts to re-invent the burbs (like intensification along major arteries and more mixed-use), but you often will find some concerted and high powered opposition to more sprawl in the 'burbs, in part because it reduces some of the benefits of surburbia (like being close to the urban limit, and thus to green space). An example would be to look at who has led and supported the opposition to developing the Oak Ridges moraine. The costs of sprawl to existing taxpayers could also be more effectively mobilized to bring them around.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 04, 2006 at 22:10:15're right on about suburban NIMBYism. Read the Brabant papers any given week and there are plenty of stories about neighbours who all live in townhomes or single homes on suburban streets who organize meetings to try and prevent a builder (perhaps the same one who built their recently-built home) from building more townhomes or singles in the area. It's really fascinating to me. I've read several in the past few months where residents were 'up in arms' and talking about 'traffic chaos' and 'crime' because the builder wanted to build 13 homes and they were demanding 12. I'm not kidding either. Huge fights and crazy stuff about 'ruining our neighbourhood' can be heard from these folks over one house! Fred did well in the rural areas, as was expected by anyone who knows a farmer or rural (not suburban) resident.

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By KJ (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2006 at 23:01:44

It was more than DePaulo. The USWA sent letters to all of their members with their council endorsements.

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By A reader (anonymous) | Posted December 05, 2006 at 01:15:51


When us folks in long-established mountain neighbourhoods are complaining about "in-filling", it's because Di Iannni and Jackson orchestrated selling off schoolyards and greenspaces that we all thought were public park space.

In my neighbourhood, there are now 20 new monster homes in a 40+year-old one-floor neighbourhood. And they are planning on selling off and ripping down at least one more school for another 20 McCracker homes next door. And in the next block east, the "improved" water lines have already been laid so at least another 50 ticky-tacky homes can be built. Unless they rip down THAT school as well, then it will be closer to 100... And there is another 30+ 10-day wonders going up in the block immediately west on another former Separate School site. And to the north, at least 50 crapo-box houses on the former site of two schools.

Don't worry, we don't need those little neighbourhood schools or that open space, future kids will just run around in X-Box/Nintendo Land, and be warehoused in a mega-school. If it was stupid for downtown, it's stupid for the mountain as well.

It would be one thing if they were building homes matching the size and character of the existing neighbourhood. But no, let's build more monsters, because that drives up the "average" price. Nice way of increasing my taxes while reducing the value of my house. I used to live two blocks from a big park with a school. Not for long...

I support revitalizing downtown and keeping established neighbourhoods liveable. But the insane level of in-filling taking place on established mountain greenspace and former schoolyards is unacceptable and no less a drain on infrastructure/taxes than the hinterland sprawl you are all protesting. Remember, Mr. Lumberjack came to power suggesting that all public holdings must show financial self-reliance of be sold off. Including public pools. parks and open spaces. And that mentality still carries a lot of inertia with the "new" council.

And exactly how much north-end industrial brownspace has been recovered and turned to mixed medium density housing/retail/light commercial? Not nearly the space that has been turned from school/greenspace into McMonster homes in the established mountain neighbourhoods.

Don't be fooled, this setting downtown against other wards is divide and conquor by the developers at it's most insidious.

We have a common enemy, and we must hold Fred's feet to the fire so he deals with these parasites once and for all. Portland did it. So must we.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 05, 2006 at 09:28:49

A Reader - absolutely wonderful insight. I had no idea this was going on in the suburbs! Although I should have figured it out - I used to live on the east Mountain when I was a kid and was told recently that a large part of the park that backed onto my old house (near Barton high school/Richard Beasley school) had been built on with homes.

This is an issue that needs more coverage in this publication and city-wide. We've got so many empty lots, empty buildings and parking lots in Hamilton, yet we're paving over parkland and closing local schools for more homes??? crazy.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 05, 2006 at 11:15:19

Bravo, A reader!

We definitely need to advocate for high-quality intensification that enhances neighbourhoods, not cheap developer dreck.

One way this can happen is by freeing up property owners to add to and adaptively reuse existing properties. This lets a neighbourhood evolve toward higher density and better use mixing without that jarring inconsistency between the existing layout and the shoehorned-in mcboxes developers love so much (mainly because they're so cheap to build).

Think of "granny flats" for a traditional example, but this can extend to adding second- and third-floor apartments to one-storey strip malls; running small businesses out of part of a house (e.g. converting, say, a garage into a storefront); and so on.

One of the reasons those community schools are being closed down and sold off is that there are not enough local kids to keep them filled. The solution, in this case, is to raise the population density of the neighbourhood until there are enough children to justify keeping the schools open and the playgrounds filled.

That will take some creativity on the part of homeowners and investors, plus some flexibility on the part of local residents to accept intensification **as long as it is of a high quality, adds to the set of local amenities, and preserves those elements of the neighbourhood - like local schools and parks - that are worth preserving.

Another part of the solution, which has been mentioned by the Ontario government, is to adaptively reuse those small schools by having them double as local community centres so the physical resource is more effectively leveraged.

To a large extent, this has to be an organic process, and each neighbourhood will evolve differently. However, it's possible to set incentives and disincentives that encourage more people in a given area, a richer, more diverse mix of amenities and destinations (and the corresponding reduced need to drive), and a more convenient, better-connected transit system for more distant destinations, which will flow partly out of the higher density.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 05, 2006 at 12:13:22

also, I think more flexible zoning to allow proper commercial uses in residential neighbourhoods....for example, see the Speakeasy Cafe at Ferguson and Picton. Great example of a local cafe that fits nicely into the rowdy, late night bar fights.. the city can easily have strict rules for this sort of 'residential mixed use' zoning into already-existing neighbourhoods. of course, proper neighbourhoods with many retail establishments within walking distance is the best type of development.

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By A reader (anonymous) | Posted December 06, 2006 at 09:00:22

All good points Ryan, BUT...

Actually, the schools up here are full, or at least used to the capacity they were originally built for, and most have portables. The Provincial funding and BFU density (Basic Funding Units, what students were once called to in Min of Ed parlance) formulas are what make then "seem" empty to the bean counters. These schools were never intended to be overcrowded like they are now. Educators knew back then how to build schools that weren't just warehouses.

Then there's the "these schools are run down and need $millions in repairs" BS.

As I recall, the school in Lynden was slated for closure and demolition because of long-overdue repairs. Concerned citizens got together and had local contractors come in and estimate the repairs the board said were needed. If memory serves, the estimates were at least 3/4 less than the inflated claims of the board. The same tactic is being played out at Beasley, with Lisgar likely to follow.

The Lawfield replacement (why they don't just fix the damn gym, they did all the rest!!!) has been scaled back to 600 students, but the original rumours had it as a Templemead size school. My guess is that any "excess" land resulting from a consolidated Lawfield/Templemead/Beasley will be quietly sold off to developers, if not essentially a fait accompli already. If you thought the survey next to Beasley is big, take a look at the huge hunk the developers got with the St. Cecilia property. It was such a little school, but the property was close to 20% of that park/school/rec-center block. Too late now!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 06, 2006 at 09:20:38

Hi A Reader,

You make some excellent points. The McGuinty government came into power with promises to fix the broken school funding formula and change the incentives that favour demolition and new consturction (to wit: the province would give school boards money to construct new, but would not give them money to repair or renovate existing).

They announced their 'Good Places to Learn' legislation with some fanfare in early 2005, and it struck all the right notes.

At the time, I wrote: "cramming as many units as possible into fewer facilities might make sense if those units were, say, tins of sardines. Humans are another matter.

"The economics of the funding formula neglect the profound educational and developmental value of smaller buildings where students, teachers, and parents get to know each other by name, students can walk to school, and the school interacts with the surrounding community."

Unfortunately, this does not yet seem to have translated into real policy change, especially of the funding formula, which still forces an overly technocratic approach to educating children.

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By david (anonymous) | Posted December 06, 2006 at 21:38:31


It's not Mr DiIanni's fault that Hamilton is overtaxed. Put the blame where it really lies - with the provincial governments, past and present for downloading social services onto economically hard hit communities like Hamilton. I am so sick of reading that somehow Hamilton or its politicians are to blame. Turf out Mc Guinty as a first step in the solution to this downloading mess !!!

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 06, 2006 at 22:01:40

Ben, yes the province screws us time and again, especially with downloading and more recently by not allowing us access to GTA social money because poor little Toronto might get upset. BUT, Hamilton's politicians must be held accountable for their reckless spending and for doing absolutely nothing to increase the tax base in this city. Spending 3/4 of a billion dollars on two highways in order to bring us more debt-producing sprawl isn't my idea of generating money or using the money we have wisely. Hamilton could have done a lot with 3/4 of a billion dollars.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted December 07, 2006 at 12:40:41

One of the main reasons Hamiltonians are so highly taxed is because our largest employer, Hamilton Health Sciences/McMaster, is government funded and therefore pays only a fraction of the tax that private sector employers pay. This is an unfortunate reality that is not going to change any time soon.

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By poppo (anonymous) | Posted January 28, 2010 at 20:36:37

How long did it take to find out Eisenburger was the worst mayor ever? not very. Can't wait til the next election. bye bye.

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