When the Fix Isn’t Big and Small is Beautiful

Walter Furlan of Furlan Conservation teaches students from the Willobank School of Restoration Arts at his shop in Hamilton. Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

By Chris Wiebe

I was recently in Hamilton, Ontario doing reconnaissance work for the National Trust Conference 2016 (October 20-22, 2016) and was reminded that when it comes to interventions in the urban fabric, small and incremental regeneration can be extraordinarily beautiful.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the psychology and allure of the big fix or silver bullet solution. They’re dramatic, they create politically useful announceables, and they send a signal to residents and outsiders alike of “progress” and civic ambition.

For Hamilton, the previous generation’s Urban Renewal-fueled “big fix” involved the creation of two superblocks in the late 1960s which flattened much of the city’s historic core for the Jackson Square mall, a hotel/convention centre and a series of office towers. Sadly, the bloom was off the rose quite early. The Jackson Square mall has been struggling since the mid-1980s and one of those office towers, the striking modernist Hamilton-Wentworth Board of Education, has been demolished. While a rearview mirror critique of this radical makeover would be relatively easy, we would do well to keep in mind that the impulse to go big is never far away today.

Thankfully Hamilton is teeming with small scale regeneration projects that are quietly transforming the city. Walter Furlan, for instance, is the owner of Furlan Conservation which specializes in heritage carpentry. His workshop is housed in two storefronts on a struggling stretch of Barton Street dotted with empty shops, but a warm community spirit. The shop has become a sort of informal community outreach centre. “People see me working in the window and they come in to chat,” he tells me. “There is something about the freshly cut wood and tools that draws them in.”

On the day I came by, Walter was teaching a group of Willowbank School of Restoration Arts students about how to repair older windows. During the lunch hour he took me down a bewildering array of alleys and industrial side streets to give me a taste of some of the smaller heritage projects on the go and others ripe for rebirth.

The Pearl Company Theatre, Gallery and Arts Centre is housed in a former factory east of downtown. Photo by Joanna St. Jacques.

One highlight was the Cotton Factory, a sprawling red brick textile mill complex that now hosts arts events and is home to over 60 tenants involved in the creative industries. It’s now regularly used for film shoots like Murdoch Mysteries. Another was the Pearl Company Theatre, Gallery and Arts Centre housed in a former factory just east of downtown. In 2006, Gary Santucci and arts activist Barbara Milne rehabbed the building – once home to casket, paper boxes and costume jewellery manufacturers – creating arts spaces on two floors and shoehorn their residence on the upper level. When I visited there was a photo exhibition on display – “Dispossessed but Defiant: Indigenous Struggles from Around the World” – and that evening feature a performance piece “’Spirit of the Narrows’: One Woman’s Journey into the World of Aboriginal Fiddling.” Gary and Barbara have plans for regenerating vacant buildings nearby.

I parted ways with Walter feeling aglow and inspired by all the grassroots regeneration activity going on in this layered, post-industrial city. That evening, as I walked back to my hotel through deserted Jackson Square mall, I wondered if some of that small-scale energy and pixie dust magic could help revive a “big fix” that had seen better days.

Chris Wiebe is the Manager, Heritage Policy & Government Relations for the National Trust for Canada and organizer of the National Trust Conference 2016 in Hamilton (October 20-22, 2016). Have an idea for a conference workshop, tour or talk? Write us at conference@nationaltrustcanada.ca.

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