Tuesday, December 28, 2010

As Petula Clark sang...

The other day, I was chatting with a friend. She's a First Cook in a team of four personnel. The place she's working at has only been managed by the current company for one year. Nobody in the kitchen worked there last year.

She was telling me about the hassles of having to have someone working the till. How it meant they often had to juggle things in the kitchen in order to have someone out front. She described various mishaps, some inconvenience caused to customers, the general grief being generated.

I was a little confused. Because it seemed to me...admittedly, from a distance...that it made no sense whatsoever to have 'specialists' (cooks) spending valuable time ringing up sales and busing tables, the kind of chores anyone can do.

Wouldn't ya know it, after discussing it all amongst themselves, including the management, they're beginning to effect changes so that kitchen staff is not under-utilized at the till and in cleaning up the eating area. In other words, use your strengths, don't handicap yourself by ignoring or diminishing them.

I mention this because of another conversation I had this morning. This one was about Downtown Hamilton, the Topic of The Week so far. My focus was Jackson Square. And the role it plays in some conversations when downtown revitalization is bandied about. The antimony, the anger about its very construction, and most importantly, how it's almost always left out of the revitalization discussion by those who I've named The Willful Ones.

When I've analyzed Downtown Stoney Creek, one of the things I've harped on about (here, for example) is the fact that because it's a very small 'main street' (admittedly, I consider it to run from Elm to Lake, though a case can be made for New Mountain to Second Street), one of the primary concerns should be to make the best possible use of real estate. (So no Legions, no Veterans' Parkette...and no more 'professional' offices, thankyouverymuch.) The point being that when you're having to create something wonderful under compression...say, a haiku...you must be mindful of the limitation of the form, and make the absolute most of what's at your disposal. 'The most bang for your buck', if you will.

The same with Downtown Hamilton.

Only in a completely different way...and yet...not.

'Downtown Hamilton' for me...and again, I'm being completely and entirely arbitrary here...and somewhat generous...runs from the south side of King to Barton, from Bay to Wellington.

Now, as I've explained ad nauseam, my memories of this area go back more than four decades. I remember what things were like 'back in the day', I remember when things were great, I remember when they got especially bad, I've seen what's been lost, I shake my head at what was used to replace them. In the late 70s, my best friend and I painted a mural at a comic shop on King west of Wellington, and were featured in The Spec. (We were beaten out of a front-page Saturday slot by a murder.) I saw movies at The Palace and The Capitol, two Thomas Lamb masterpieces. I remember my three friends and I getting into an altercation outside The Century with a guy who had taken offense to the Chinese Fire Drill we'd performed en route to the cinema. I went to both movies and concerts at The Tivoli. (Keeping with the theme, another friend and I created t-shirts that read: 'Pave the Broadway'.) I shopped at Marvin Caplan's. I worked in Jackson Square. I lived on Market Street. I had a cool moment with Holly Cole in the much-lamented Sam The Record Man on James North. For years, Saturday mornings at 7 am used to find me at the Farmers' Market. So I feel that my perspective...one I can guarantee has little actual 'nostalgia' attached to it....is a little more 'informed', a little less 'academic' than those of some.

I won't get into the whole 'Jackson Square was the worst possible thing to happen to Downtown Hamilton!' debate. Frankly, I find it more than a little ridiculous, mostly because The Willful Ones- Actually, just go here to see how I feel about it all.) But as a result of this morning's conversation, I've come to see how bizarre it is when Jackson Square is shunted aside in downtown revitalization discussions.

I don't think I've ever actually seen anyone presenting anything about Jackson Square other than 'It sucks'. People talk about how wonderful the Library is going to be, how great the Farmers' Market is going to be, this, that and the other...but I have yet to hear anyone frame things this way:

"You know, given what Downtown Hamilton currently is...from James to Wellington, from King to Wilson...don't you think it's kinda strange that the Number One Feature, Jackson Square, is never mentioned as being something that needs to be returned to its status of Desirable Retail Excursion Destination The Way it Was Thirty Years Ago'?"

Because it's not. It's never mentioned in that context.

People bitch and complain about 'Concrete Alley', King Street from James to Bay. They mourn 'what used to be'. (I can't resist pointing out that most were never ALIVE when things were 'the way they used to be', never mind that they have a distorted impression of 'what used to be', a decidedly 'seen through rose-coloured glasses' impression.) But nobody has presented the notion that maybe it might be a good idea when considering revitalizing a fixed area, resurrecting it (although even this is problematic, given some of the businesses that used to exist, because I believe it goes without saying that they could never return, that in fact, 'gentrification' would have to ensue for a true rebirth to occur...therefore making the term 'resurrection' ill-applied), to consider addressing the Number One Feature.

I think I know why. Most of The Willful Ones are anti-sprawl. Meaning they're anti-malls. (Most malls are not set in urban settings. The Eaton Centre in Downtown Toronto is a glorious exception.) So I believe there's a small part of a Willful One's brain...a teeny, tiny portion...that takes this innate enmity towards traditional malls and big-box developments and unconsciously transfers these energies towards Jackson Square. I won't even try to guess what the process is like, save to say that everything must get muddled, because the dismissiveness makes no sense whatsoever.

Even if they wish it, do they really believe for even a second that Jackson Square is going to disappear, opening things up for 'do-over', space where 'what used to be' can be reinstated? And that as a result of this salvation unfolding, that this would lead to a Brand New Day in Downtown Hamilton?

Ow. My brain hurts from passively considering that idea.

Jackson Square isn't going away. It's here to stay. But that doesn't mean that it's this ogre we simply have to resign ourselves to putting up with, to effectively ignore while we lovingly and laboriously construct a re-envisioned downtown.

It shouldn't be a liability.

It's an asset.

It just needs to be reassessed and readdressed.

Most malls go through a regular cycle of reinvention. Though it was suggested to me that the conventional cycle is 25-30 years, my experiences tell me otherwise.

Eastgate Square. Limeridge Mall. The Centre Mall. Mapleview Centre. Oakville Place. Sherway Gardens. Yorkdale Mall. All of these have gone through at least one 'refurbishment', if not more.

I'd say the current cycle is averaging fifteen years. And as the landscape continues to morph, I wouldn't be surprised if the cycle is reduced.

The last substantial 'change' Jackson Square went through (Sorry, I'm not counting anything to do with the Farmers' Market or the shifting of the Food Court.) was in 1985, when the Sheraton Hotel opened.

That's twenty-five years. (And I'm being generous.)

It's been pointed out to me already (by someone in the know) that complicated and entrenched mechanisms are in play where anything to do with a 'reworking' of Jackson Square is concerned, specifically with Yale Properties being the owner. Mechanisms having to do with corporate strategies, with mortgage financing, yadda, yadda, yadda.

All fine and well.

Jackson Square is a private concern. We don't get a vote as to what it features, what it looks like, any of that. Except in the form of 'dollars spent'. That is, you vote negatively by staying away.

But does this mean that we have to pretend that we're going to ignore the elephant in the room?

Surely we're better than that.

Re-imagining, re-inventing, revitalizing Downtown Hamilton is a phenomenally exciting prospect. And to the extent that we all have the right to contribute to the conversation, even if we're not directly empowered to effect the changes we crave, don't you think we owe it to ourselves to open our minds, to try to produce the sort of result downtown that some of us...The Willful Ones, anyway...wish that those-who-came-before would have accomplished?

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