Saturday, September 25, 2010

Regarding 'de-amalgamation', Part Two

I want to say at the outset that I’ve formed my opinions as a resident of 'The Amalgamated City of Hamilton'. So while I may not be privy to the overview a Councillor or a City-department comptroller or otherwise-bureaucrat might possess, I am speaking as a citizen, someone for whom all these people work. I may not have their 'insight' into the workings of the City of Hamilton vis a vis potential 'de-amalgamation', but I’m willing to bet I probably have a better handle on the 'insight' of a person on the street than someone on the inside might...especially as I consider myself particularly aligned both with Stoney Creek and Hamilton.

The Stoney Creek News editorial 'Hamilton break-up' was a refreshing -if somewhat badly articulated- read. In the first portion of my 'analysis/commentary', I took a look at its message. But here, I'd like to address the common biases the piece reveals, illustrating truths that have been evident from the start of this arbitrary ‘experiment’. Truths that, were this a marriage, would have ended in either annulment, divorce...or the public spectacle of a household under extreme duress...with denial being its strange succor.

I suppose the best place to start is to acknowledge the internecine 'squabbling' that commonly goes in all cities. (Truth be told, it goes on in provinces, states and countries themselves...never mind larger conglomerations of associations, such as the European Union. But on a far more basic level, you see it in families. Witness the dynamic when there are, say, four brothers under the same roof.) Stark and staunch perceptions and entrenchments of place, of neighbourhoods, of community, of towns...of belonging. Pockets of pride. Healthy levels of self-interest. 'Uptown' vs 'Downtown' vs 'The University District' vs 'The Industrial Area' vs 'Entertainment Row' vs 'Sleepy Neighbourhood Enclaves, etc. No matter how you label the ‘frisson’, it’s there. It’s how Nature operates. Everywhere.

But the ties that bind in those situations -being part of the same city, the same 'family' as a result of organic growth- are not extant in this creature known as ‘The Amalgamated City Of Hamilton’. Regardless, from very start of Mike Harris's bullying initiative, we've sighed, rolled up our sleeves and expected that we'd make it work. (Or at the very least, make the best of the situation.) Why?

Probably because Canadians have such a strong sense of 'doing the right thing'...also known as 'manners', or 'being polite'...but also because for the longest time, Hamilton (and here I’m talking about the original city, not the amalgamation) has been in decline, resulting in undeniable protracted self-esteem issues, not to mention a questionable maturity level...meaning we’ve decided en masse to just accept our lot and soldier on. (The ramifications of all this will be looked at in the concluding portion of this series.)

From my perspective, all of the usual pride-and-competition-and-disinterest stuff that goes on within organically-developed cities have been accentuated in this amalgamation. Only because there's nothing 'organic' about the development, there's no 'blood', we're talking entirely different communities with entirely different histories, and (within limits) entirely different priorities.

So keeping this in mind, explain to me why should/would someone in Waterdown have any interest in the North End’s woes? Why should someone in Stoney Creek really have any concern about economic development in Downtown Hamilton? Why should someone living in Dundas feel compelled to weep about the travails of what is another city entirely? Other than the fact that we’ve all become inextricably connected, dependent on each other’s success. (Or so ‘they’ would remind you...while rationalizing to their hearts' content why we have to stay the course.)

Moreover, why, oh why would anyone expect that everything would work out fine? The various entities involved might not, as the Brits say, be a case of 'chalk and cheese', but seriously; other than the commitment we took on at the behest (I'm being generous here) of Premier Mike Harris and his cronies, what other reasons are there for grand expectations as to its success? When you take independent towns and cities and force them to 'become The Borg', unlike on 'Star Trek', wouldn’t you expect that longstanding mindsets and all their concomitant energies are going to come back and bite you on the ass?

Here’s what current mayoral candidate Mahesh P. Butani had to say on The Hamiltonian’s feature '10 Tough Questions' from September of last year:

Strategic errors were made by dismantling the regional structure in our city in the name of efficiencies and parlaying it into a loosely cobbled amalgamation of towns with an appearance of a larger city. What we already had in place a decade ago was the structure and potential of 'Polycentricity', a planning and spatial policy notion, which has been gaining currency over this decade in Europe and other parts of the world. We dismantled it politically in the name of progress, and we have suffered for it since then.

From 2007, here’s what Ryan McGreal of Raise the Hammer had to say in his post 'Singing the Amalgamation Blues':

"But let's be blunt: the real reason for amalgamation was politics, not policy: the provincial Harris government was determined to download social services onto municipalities and knew that Hamilton could not afford to carry its disproportionately high expenses without the help of its suburbs.

In short, the purpose of amalgamation was to enlarge the tax base so the government could impose its ideological agenda. Ontario is still paying for the disastrous legacies of the Harris/Eves government, and amalgamation is part of the price.”

(Interestingly, there’s actually a comment from a ‘Larry Di Ianni’ on this post.)

Look; all of the formerly-independent entities absorbed into the single-tier city known as Hamilton each possessed their own individual charms upon entry, their own brands of distinctness. And nothing has diminished after amalgamation. Go to Dundas. To Ancaster. To Flamborough, to Glanbrook, to Stoney Creek. What they had going for them back pre-2001 is still there. They are never going to become 'outlying bits of Hamilton', no matter how much anyone exhorts them to...including the Stoney Creek News.






The people in those places never wanted amalgamation. (They still don't.)

And really, reversing course once again for a moment, Hamilton (and many Hamiltonians within the city-proper) have no desire to compromise what it is to be a Hamiltonian living in Hamilton by somehow blending into the mix notions of Dundas or Waterdown or wherever. They don't, in fact, give a rat's ass about these five 'boroughs'...because in their heads -and rightly so- they're ‘Manhattan’ in this analogy, and that pretty much ends the discussion.

So what we have here, if we can be honest with ourselves, is equanimity...though nobody in power seems to want to talk about it.

Before moving onto the final portion of this series, here’s three final points to consider:

-How differently do you suppose something like the Pan Am Games stadium site selection process would have unfolded had there never been an amalgamation? Think of the dearth of conflict; Stoney Creek definitely wouldn't care if the thing was built at the proposed West Harbour or the HIP or the East Mountain locations. (Just that it certainly wouldn't be put at Confederation Park.)

-Perhaps if they'd renamed the city, instead of keeping the moniker 'Hamilton', the amalgamation might have had a better chance. Because what does 'Hamilton' mean to most people outside the city-proper? If I'm from Dundas, I'm not giving up my identity in order to kowtow to Mike Harris and his ilk, and if people refuse to take on the identity of a ‘single-tier metropolis’, why would we expect that any degree of cohesiveness would result on any level being considered? (Empty, half-hearted rhetoric aside.)

-I suspect that most successful amalgamations begin with one of two scenarios. The first sees a strong core city around which the ancillary cities will be affixed...eventually -and consistently- benefiting all parties through mutual goals, varied contributions, and a sense of synergy. If the Stoney Creek News is to be believed ("The original goal of amalgamating six municipalities into one city was a last ditch effort by the former PC provincial government to keep Hamilton from going bankrupt."), then this certainly wasn't the case.

The second involves more or less ‘equal partners’. Which we definitely didn’t have here, don't have...and never will.

Part Three: If it is ‘broken’, what then?

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I'm always interested in feedback, differing opinions, even contrarian long as they're delivered with decorum...with panache and flair always helping.