The lower city and particularly the downtown core do belong to everyone, and that means everyone has a legitimate interest to ensure that it flourishes and thrives.
By Ryan McGreal
Published October 02, 2013
Imagine a nightclub - let's call it The Hammer - that has a long-standing tradition of slapping patrons in the face. The club has been face-slapping for decades, and a small number of face-slappers have been able to make a decent living at it.
Very few people actually like getting their face slapped, and there are many other, non-face-slapping nightclubs people could choose instead. As a result, The Hammer has to practically give drinks away for free to get anyone at all to come, and indeed the place has been losing money for a long time.
Over the years, many people have called for face-slapping to come to an end, including a parade of consultants and experts called in to help the management figure out how to make The Hammer more successful.
Indeed, it's the one refrain they hear over and over from every expert they talk to: "For heaven's sake, stop slapping people! Your nightclub will never be a desirable place for lots of people to choose as long as you keep slapping them."
There are a few booths and nooks at the nightclub that are relatively protected from slapping, and they're the most popular, desirable corners of the club. People who do go to The Hammer tend to gravitate to those tables, and when they look around, they wonder why the rest of the club is left as a free rein for the face-slappers.
But despite all this, it has been surprisingly difficult to put an end to the practice.
For one thing, the face-slappers cry bloody murder at the prospect of having to find something else to do for a living. They have a lot of pull with the management, who are afraid they won't be able to keep operating if the face-slappers leave.
For another, The Hammer has a certain reputation after all those decades of face-slapping, and the management worries that if they stop slapping faces, the small (and dwindling) number of people who don't mind having their faces slapped might stop coming and no one else will come in their place.
Sure, the experts and consultants keep telling them: If you stop slapping them, they will come. But in their risk-averse hearts they don't really believe it. That fear of change makes them conservative, even in the (many-times-slapped) face of overwhelming evidence that the policy of face-slapping is not working well for anyone.
There's a certain snobbery at work as well. People with the option to frequent more exclusive, non-face-slapping clubs worry that their exclusivity might be diluted if the people who have no choice but to drink at a reduced-price, face-slapping club start spreading out instead.
Finally, there's a kind of shaky philosophical underpinning to the whole face-slapping tradition, an ex post facto rationalization for keeping things the way they are. It takes the form of a loose coalition of face-slapping apologists who actually argue that face-slapping is a good thing that should be continued on the strength of its benefits.
"Face-slapping is The Hammer's competitive advantage," they say, from the comfort of their slap-free clubs and hotspots. "It's your value proposition. The Hammer has a strong market position in the face-slapping industry. After all, hardly any other clubs around here are still slapping faces!"
In this tortuous (pun intended) metaphor, The Hammer is lower city Hamilton, and face-slapping is the network of community-destroying, multi-lane, one-way expressways that we continue, year after year, to maintain and defend against all evidence to the contrary.
Even now, there are still one-way expressway apologists around the council table, on the airwaves, in the newspaper bylines and letters to the editor and the comment boxes of local websites, still telling us with straight faces that Hamilton needs to keep stunting and deforming its urban neighbourhoods to accommodate a relentless demand for fast, dangerous automobile traffic that increasingly doesn't even exist outside the feverish imaginations of cut-through commuters who regard a 30-second delay at a red light as an intolerable intrusion on their convenience.
Overall traffic volumes on lower city arterials fell significantly between 2000 and 2010 - in some locations by as much as 38 percent - but our four- and five-lane one-way juggernauts continue to blast through vulnerable urban neighbourhoods long after the economic patterns that led to their creation in 1956 have dissolved.
|Cannon E of Sherman
|Cannon W of Sherman
|Cannon near James
|Bay N of Main
|James S of Herkimer
|Main at Dundurn
|Main E of Bay
|Main near Kenilworth
|Queen S of Charlton
|Hunter W of John
Traffic volumes on lower city streets are low and falling, and all the lane capacity that is currently dedicated to automobile lanes could be much better used to build a continuous network of bike lanes and wider, safer, more comfortable sidewalks.
Councillor Lloyd Ferguson and Terry Whitehead continue to insist against common sense, logic and the overwhelming weight of evidence that maintaining these community-destroying expressways is somehow good for the city as a whole.
It is particularly disturbing to hear this insanity coming from Ferguson, who is widely expected to announce a mayoral run next year. Anyone who is serious about running to be the elected leader of the city should at a minimum understand that no city can be healthy and economically sustainable without a strong, healthy centre - and that no neighbourhood can thrive with fast, multi-lane expressways cutting through it.
Even if we set aside the sheer injustice of this willingness to trade a large "sacrifice zone" of urban neighbourhoods for a marginal increment of convenience, it is economically self-defeating for a city to give up on the essential urban economies of scale, agglomeration, density, association and extension that an intact, functional urban form make possible.
It is laughable to present oneself as a fiscally responsible choice and then promote an economic development model that has been proven to hollow out the city's economic development engine and saddle taxpayers with steadily increasing net lifecycle debt obligations.
The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce understands this: Chamber President Keanin Loomis argues eloquently that the lower-city expressways Ferguson and Whitehead love so much are "the biggest drag on our future success" and need to change quickly for the city's nascent renaissance to take root and deepen.
Our elected leaders no longer have an excuse not to understand how cities work. The lower city and particularly the downtown core do belong to everyone, and that means everyone has a legitimate interest to ensure that it flourishes and thrives.
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