Register Sunday | December 5 | 2021

How I Love thee, Hamilton

John Terpstra counts the ways

Facing up to the occasional clichés about love, John Terpstra takes on the environmental quagmire that blemishes the reputation of the city he loves in “Steeling Beauty” (Issue 18). Recently, Rachel Harvey invited John to dispel the myth that Hamilton is little more than a steel town down the road from Toronto.

You begin your piece lamenting the fact that you can no longer ignore Hamilton’s industrial landscape and the mark it leaves on the city you love. Do you feel that it was this love for Hamilton that made you willing to confront the ways that Hamilton’s industrial landscape challenges that sentiment?

When I was invited to write an article, my interest was primarily in the inlets, their disappearance and persistence over the past 200 years. Living in Hamilton, no one has to tell you that industry comes with problems, that there’s pollution of air, water and soil. And no one has to tell the rest of the country, do they? Doesn’t the country already think that? My initial hope was to blast some of the stereotypes of the city as an ugly, dirty place, and when I began to be led down the editorial garden path of dealing with the pollution, I felt that I was just contributing to that stereotype, confirming the general negative opinion.

Having said that, I realize that I was myself avoiding the issue, and may have done a greater disservice to the city by writing something that did not admit to some of its toxic truths. Which would have made what I wrote suspect, and less believeable. I’m hoping that in not varnishing over those truths I have also shown why and how the place has much to recommend it.

Could you explain your love for Hamilton in a little more detail?

Where to begin?

I love where we are. The physical geography at the head of Lake Ontario; the bay that is our harbour, hidden from the lake by a long sandbar; the marsh, called Cootes Paradise, that is hidden from the harbour by another, glacial sandbar. I love the way the Niagara Escarpment runs through the city and practically through my backyard. The way the escarpment turns a corner around the end of Lake Ontario and … breaks into a valley of rolling hills. And the sixty waterfalls the escarpment hosts within city limits. The 300-step staircases that let you climb the escarpment. The new waterfront trail that runs along the western end of the bay and Cootes Paradise.

I also love the downtown neighbourhood, where I’ve lived for the past twenty-five years and the small commercial street half a block away that has recently seen revival. The writing community. The artistic community in general. The twenty- and thirtysomethings who are initiating a lot of new commercial and artistic endeavours.

The love that others share for the place—as someone recently said to me: everyone has to work here, there are not many slackers, and it’s not the kind of city where you can nurse your pretensions.

What aspects of Hamilton’s working class industrial dynamic do you feel are endearing to the city?

Endearing. Interesting word. Hard to get endeared to a mountain of slag.

If you enter the north-end neighbourhoods closest to the bay, you will find people who have lived in their homes for several generations, who have worked either in the steel industries or in one of the many industries associated with steel, people who spent their childhoods in and around the water. The feeling of community is strong, so is the sense of people living beside water. They have a generational connection to the urban and natural environment that is very compelling. They also have great stories. You touch them and they talk.

The lack of pretension is perhaps an endearing feature that comes with a working environment. Does any other city in the country have a football stadium in the middle of a residential neighbourhood? You park on people’s lawns (five dollars). You walk past people sitting on their porches, listening to the game on the radio. You sit in the stands and watch the sun set over the escarpment if you’re in the north stands, and over the brown stacks by the bay if you’re sitting in the south stands.

Why do you think that Hamilton’s placement on the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes “Areas of Concern” list was sufficient to launch the formation of Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC) and the subsequent attempts to address Hamilton’s industrial nature with its ecological problems?

The Joint Commission issued its report, I think, at a time when there happened to be a critical mass of people who were ready to be committed to doing something, and did not yet know that there were others like themselves. These included, importantly, scientists from McMaster University, and from the Canada Centre for Inland Waters (a federal institution which is headquartered by the bay). They brought one heck of a lot of knowledge and research ability to the effort.

But somehow a corner had also been turned in people’s perceptions of the city, especially people who may have snubbed the place before. They were ready to be honest about the environmental damage but not let that overwhelm their feeling for the natural location of the city itself and its beauty. Rather than allow the industries to continue to dominate their view of the city, they decided to take the city back, so to speak, and work for its restoration.

You’ve indicated that BARC’s approach to Hamilton’s environmental problems, while pragmatic, may not be sufficient to solve some of Hamilton’s more difficult environmental challenges. Where do you think these solutions might come from?

The next glacier? Honestly, some of the stuff that we human beings are doing to the planet is only going to be solved with another ice age or two. Scrub the place clean. I guess that might still not deal with the chemical problems, but I think you know what I’m getting at.

The problem with some of the environmental problems, specifically one as intransigent as Randle Reef, is that the amount of money needed to remove the problem is astronomical. And here we get into an area that is sometimes sensitive to those who live in Hamilton. Everyone is quite happy to live with the benefits that steel provides, but not everyone is willing to live with its garbage. Hamilton also typically has to work very hard to get either federal or provincial money, for cleanup or anything else. It was described to me once as the Toronto Factor. If either government gives money to Toronto they seem reluctant to aim the same cash conduit to a city that is so close to Toronto.

The amount of money needed to thoroughly clean up a site like Randle Reef will not be forthcoming, so the solution chosen is now less than ideal. In the end, it will be like any other typical hazardous landfill site: contained and capped. But to put this into an even broader context, where should the money be put? To cleaning the reef thoroughly or to halting the 50 percent rise in toxic pollution that has occurred in this country over the past ten years?

What were the main points of contrast between your vision and the BARC members’ vision?

They’re willing to work with what is. You see, unlike Pittsburgh, we still have a steel industry, and because we are a port, the Port Authority, which has its own vision, governs our waterfront. And though the Port Authority’s vision may [currently] be a little more gentle to the landscape than it has been in the past, and though it is more willing to work with the city’s vision of the harbour than it was in the past, it’s still in the development business.

So BARC folk have the tougher job. I’m too dreamy and uninvolved. I can ignore the impracticalities and impossibilities of my vision. In that way, my vision next to theirs is useless.

If I were more involved, there would likely be very little contrast between my own and BARC’s vision. I respect those people one heck of a lot.

Are you willing to share your post-industrial vision with us?

The vision I had of the 3,600 acres of bay landfill where the steel companies sit had to do with the complete disappearance of industry, the remediation of the land—a task equivalent to several Randle Reefs, I’m sure—and then turning the site into a neighbourhood of homes, schools, parks and small businesses.

The families who have been employed by industry through the generations would have first dibs on the properties and the houses built would not exceed, say, 1,500 square feet. The oldest families would get the waterfront properties, though a path and perhaps a road, a two-lane road (25 km/h), would run between their homes and the waterline.

But who am I kidding? If the industry did leave, I’m cynical enough to believe that what happened in Toronto (where the decision to turn the waterfront over to the people morphed into the building of one condominium tower after another) would also happen here.

So though I prefer in many ways simply redeeming the manufactured landscape we have been given, I might take things even further than my first vision of a neighbourhood. In my new vision of the shoreline of Hamilton harbour, I would remove the 3,600 acres of landfill and do whatever was necessary to restore it to its original, natural landscape of inlets. And then I would have that summer hotel that was advertised in the newspaper in 1884 built on Huckleberry Point. It’s more than a century due now.

What do you think will have to happen in Hamilton to resolve the tension you feel about loving Hamilton and hating to love Hamilton?

I certainly do dislike some things here, but they are the same things I would dislike in any city: stupidity and short-sightedness in city government, the tyranny of big developers, neglect of small businesses, four-lane highways being carved through valleys (which is currently happening), lack of commitment to mass transit, poverty, the gutting of downtown to build a shopping mall, disrespect for the small stuff that makes a city liveable and enjoyable.

What would have to happen here is for the feelings of affection for this city … to continue to blossom into, for instance, efforts like turning the old Imperial Cotton Mill factory into an artist community, or launching city magazines like H (four new magazines have been launched in the past year or so) or opening a cultural centre in the former Salvation Army building downtown.

And for Hamilton to be glad that it is not on the glamour bandwagon.

Now that you’ve come head to head with the problems created by Hamilton’s industrial past and have witnessed some progress in attempting to solve these problems and perhaps even some beauty in these attempts, would you say your love for Hamilton has been made weaker or stronger?

My love for Hamilton is as it ever was. The research did not change that one way or another. My love is now better informed. When you love another person, you may not want to know all their dirty truths, but if you find out those truths, it doesn’t necessarily change how you feel about them.

My civic grief has always been more geographically based than based on pollution. I lament the inalterable changes that are brought to the landscape by human beings, particularly when they build our cities—the reshaping, or obliteration, of natural features. I am exhilarated by the persistence of the landscape, in whatever shape it finds itself after 200 years of settlement. It seems a miracle. It gives me hope. I’m drawn to the relationship between people and the city in its natural setting. That is what my earlier book [Falling Into Place] was about. I feel that I am in it for the long haul. My comment earlier about the glaciers was not flippant. My timelines are long.