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Barton Street: Bound For Glory Or …?

Posted: May 30, 2013

There are signs that the street is ready to take off in a new direction, but it won’t be a fast or easy flight.

“The city is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” — Plato

Right across the street from her place of work on Barton Street East, there appeared to be an outdoor market — boxes of fruit and flowers, folks gathering, colour and bustle.

It couldn’t be, not on that beaten-down side of the street. It will never change’? Stop that. Get over it. I look at an acorn and I don’t see squirrel food. I see a forest.”

Seeing this make-believe version of Barton was bittersweet.It couldn’t be — and it wasn’t. It was a movie shoot.

But Ribeiro, like those who notice half-full glasses and silver-lined clouds, focused on the sweet.

“At that moment, Barton felt like home. It was what Barton could be,” she said. “I believe in the potential for this street.”

If anyone might feel otherwise about Barton, it’s Jacinta Ribeiro. She is director of Portuguese Support Services for Quality Living, which assists special-needs adults from all communities and cultures.

Its new, bright, spacious office at 760 Barton E. was robbed last September. They took everything — computers, TVs, the Wii. It is a non-profit business; she had to fundraise to replace what was lost. No one has been caught by police.

She’s heard the darkly rueful tone from others when she says where the agency is located: “You’re on Barton? Oh …”

Ribeiro understands the reaction. Her business is here mostly because the building was affordable. But she also believes the community can evolve and one day be prosperous and warm and inviting.

There are others like her who speak positively of Barton in the here and now, of businesses and people who are among Hamilton’s best and brightest.

When speaking of Barton’s future, there are those who use the P-word and the O-word. Potential. Opportunity.

Others use different words, equating Barton with a hole, adding modifiers invoking biblical purgatory and human excrement, and insist that will never change.

What is Barton? And what can it be?

“The measure of us as a city is how we respond in that area,” said Glen Norton, Hamilton’s manager of urban renewal. “And it’s past due time.”


A red brush

While they are works in progress, the iconic streets of Hamilton’s core present different faces of the city, and ourselves, from happening Locke Street to club-infused Hess, artistic James North to internationally flavoured King East and commercially hopping Ottawa Street.

Barton? Barton East, from about Wellington Street to Ottawa is the core at its grittiest, which is to say its most real and unpredictable. And this is both a weakness and, yes, a strength.

No name has a longer history in this area — Barton existed before Hamilton. It was the name given to the first township surveyed here at the turn of the 18th century, named by Upper Canada Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe after a township in England.

It wasn’t until 1960 that Barton Township ceased to exist, annexed by the City of Hamilton. All that was left was the street and what was called Barton Village — the name of the current BIA that covers the stretch from Ferguson Avenue to Sherman Avenue.

The fortunes of Barton East and its neighbourhoods have risen and fallen with the fortunes of industry at Big Steel hard to the north.

It used to be that everyone wanted to live near Barton or run a business there. The boom times are long gone and the fallout on Barton is well-documented: vacant stores, decrepit apartments, many residents leading painfully stunted lives, the area infected with drugs and prostitution.

This part of the city was branded a Code Red area in The Hamilton Spectator’s 2010 series of the same name.

It was a label that drew attention of city officials to take action — “there probably isn’t a neighbourhood development office without Code Red,” said Paul Johnson, director of Hamilton’s neighbourhood development strategies office.

“But there’s a stigma from that, too,” he added. “The story that residents want to tell is about where they are headed. That’s not to downplay the realities — they live them. But they also have hopes and aspirations.”

Robert Carley, an acclaimed artist who lives on Bristol Street, just off Barton, is more blunt.

“Everything gets painted with the same red brush. It’s bull—-.”


Seeds of the possible

Barton’s problems are easy to see but also stereotype.

“People ask where I live and I’m ashamed to answer sometimes,” said Stephanie DiPietro, who lives in the area. “They are judgmental, but I used to be that way, too. But I love it here, the neighbours are like family. You don’t judge a book by its cover.”

That cover can be jarring. Visit Barton and you’ll see broken buildings and broken people, including a prostitute who regularly works a corner in daylight. Nights are worse with drug dealers and hookers jockeying for territory, sometimes yelling at law-abiding residents to get out of their working space.

But it’s illustrative of the hill Barton must climb that, for Hamiltonians on the outside looking in, its weaknesses have come to define the essence of the street.

In contrast, on James Street North or Ottawa Street, the sight of boarded-up businesses or folks visibly down on their luck is considered an anomaly, not the frame through which the entire street is seen.

Barton has prominent warts and needs an infusion of more investment and productive residents, but, if you look closely enough, you’ll see good things, too, including engaging and unique businesses.

There is the legendary 98-year old Kenesky’s Sports store, where manufactured goalie pads were invented, and the father-and-son Armellini Music Store; hairstyling places such as DL Salon and Transitions; and vibrant art on display in the cosy and inviting Tiger Gallery.

You can get your fill, and then some, at delis such as Duartes and Starpolskie, serving are-you-kidding-me inexpensive yet heaping sandwiches, rich fruity crepes at Hargitai’s Crepes & Ice Cream, and melt-your-heart baked goods at Gibson Bakery, Vagueira Bakery and Karlik Pastry. You can sample the renowned charcoal-grilled Portuguese chicken at Churrasqueira & Café O Cantinho or the Purple Pear’s bacon-wrapped roasted pear.

Meanwhile, behind some doors along Barton, there are residents and living spaces that are definitely not broken.

In an apartment near Barton and Wentworth lives Judy, a straight-shooting mother, and her daughter, Samantha, who is a star high-school athlete and honour student. The place is warm and bright and Sam’s room is decorated in pastels and Bieber. (Friends make fun of her Belieber status. She doesn’t care.)

From their window, they often see the woman who works the corner. They hate that she is there. But they don’t want to move from their home.

And there’s Alex Kadet, a 26-year old man who lives in a former bank building at Westinghouse and Barton, in a spacious apartment with hardwood floors and two fireplaces.

“You know what?” said Kadet, sipping a glass of red wine on the couch. “I have a cool place.”

He runs a music lessons business called Think Feel Music. He has an eclectic view of his craft and his street. What is required on Barton, he said, is an attitude change. If you believe Barton is a lost cause, he said, it becomes self-fulfilling.

Kadet knows his view is unconventional, but he is someone whose craft is about recognizing the seeds of the possible and finding ways to make them grow, even in those who are convinced it’s impossible.

“These people saying, ‘Barton Street is ugly, it will never change’? Stop that. Get over it. I look at an acorn and I don’t see squirrel food. I see a forest.”

Renewal is in no small measure about a vibe, and vibe is what helped changed perceptions of areas in Hamilton like Locke Street, James North and the waterfront, all of which are now considered hip places to be.

Clearly, it will take more than attitude to transform Barton Street. But there are three fundamental reasons, beyond positive thinking, why it could be poised to rise again.

Call them the three Ps: potential, precedent and present.


It’s got bones

Potential is difficult for many people to equate with Barton but it exists, and not just in an academic sense, either. You can see it.

First is the existing architecture, the old churches and buildings, and also the narrow street. (Try walking across multi-lane Upper James Street, and then try Barton. Which is the more pleasant experience?)

While there are plenty of buildings that are beyond redemption and should be demolished, one benefit of Barton’s Street’s long period of economic depression has been that other, classic structures have remained preserved from development.

Consider the former Gibson School on Barton, which was one of the properties featured in a city-produced pamphlet distributed in Toronto called Urban Spaces, designed to attract investors: “With soaring 12-foot ceilings, hardwood floors, large windows, the Gibson school would be ideal as affordable minimalist condos.”

In that vein, there’s the attractive West Avenue school-turned-apartment building near Wellington and Barton.

“The urban design of the street, the village feel, the built form, it’s got the bones,” said Hamilton architect Paul Shaker, a partner with architect David Premi in the Rethink/Renewal consulting group.

Location is another plus for Barton. It’s close to downtown, revitalized James Street North, Ottawa Street and the waterfront. (It would take you six minutes to drive your Duartes hoagie from Barton to Pier 4 park for lunch.)

For some, Barton’s proximity to industry is the elephant in the room, a handicap of location it may never overcome. And yet, in some ways, that is a red herring. Consider that the Beach Strip is even closer to industry than Barton — and almost directly underneath the Skyway, and yet it has been renewed and become a trendy place to live.

Put another way, it’s a short drive to the steel mills for those who live or own businesses in the heart of Barton Street. But on a hot summer day, those same people can be at Baranga’s on the Beach, margarita in hand and an unobstructed view of Lake Ontario, within a few more minutes.

To the extent that Barton continues to be seen as a gritty place to live, it may well attract artists, replacing James North as the place to be.


Ripple effect

Also working to the street’s advantage are what Shaker and Premi call “nodes” of activity on or near Barton. In addition to the Barton Village itself, these nodes are, from west to east, James North, Hamilton General Hospital, the stadium precinct and Ottawa Street.

“(James and Ottawa) are two already known pre-established urban success stories anchoring it,” said Premi, adding that the economic and cultural successes of these areas can spill onto Barton over time.

One small example of this happening is the recent experience of Jeff Valentine and his wife, Sarene, who own the Jet Café on King Street East. They were looking to buy a new commercial property. They had explored James North as a possibility three years ago, but waited too long, and, with that street’s increased popularity, it became too expensive.

Instead, they found a place at 746 Barton that had been listed for just a week at a price they could afford, a former banquet hall that was in great condition. They will turn it into an affordable venue for weddings or, perhaps, a live/work space for musicians and artists to lease.

“We’re open to ideas and we’re really happy to be there,” said Valentine. “Barton has the potential to develop that Bohemian feeling that artists like. I think James North may have peaked, but Barton is going to be the next place to be in Hamilton.”

Meanwhile, the new stadium under construction — home to the 2015 Pan Am Games and the Ticats in 2014 — is a wild card, in terms of its future impact on Barton Street’s success, and so is the hospital.

Football stadiums and hospitals — like casinos — are often considered “black holes” that people drop into for an activity and then leave, without having any economic or social spinoffs for the immediate community.

But when done right, an arena or stadium — such as those built in downtown London, Ont., and downtown Detroit — can help create a whole new vibe.

Premi and Shaker suggest that the stadium, if designed and managed with foresight to interact and open up to the community and businesses, could positively impact Barton.

The potential for benefits flowing from the health-care sector would seem to be much greater.

In 2016, McMaster Children’s Hospital will open a new health facility on Wellington near Barton, which will offer greater health benefits to the community and perhaps attract more people to live in the area.

As for Hamilton General Hospital, about 2,000 staff, volunteers, and patients come and go every day from the facility at Victoria and Barton.

The Barton area has not yet felt a positive economic ripple effect from the hospital behemoth, although some staffers do wander off the property to frequent Hargitai’s crêperie and Duartes.

That will change, if hospital president Teresa Smith has anything to say about it. She has caught the Renewing Barton bug and has met with Shelly Wonch, executive director of the Barton Village BIA to talk about it.

“I do think the General could and should play an important role in the revitalization of the Barton Street area,” Smith said.

“We are a big place, an anchor organization, and we are not going anywhere. We have lots of people who come and go. It’s a huge opportunity from a business perspective for (Barton) merchants. Can we make our staff more aware of what’s there?”

She suggested that if staff at the hospital become more integrated in the community where they work — patronizing stores and restaurants, even living there — then the community will get healthier economically, and, in the long run, fewer patients from the area will end up inside her doors.

“We need to play a role in addressing the question of how we help to combat the social determinants of health.”

She speaks of breaking down the wall that exists between the hospital and the Barton community, figuratively and literally, during the redesign of the hospital over the next 15 to 20 years.

The building itself seems physically closed off from Barton, its massive windowless brick wall the only face of the hospital along the street, and a front entrance on Victoria that is not welcoming.

“We are doing some facility master planning about what the building will look like. We’ve made it clear with the architects that we’re a part of the community, and that needs to be incorporated into the design, such as having a community space of some kind to connect with the community better.”


Success stories

Given its issues, renewing Barton might seem a doomed Sisyphean task. But it seems less insurmountable when measured against other challenged urban areas that have been revived.

Close to home, James North is one such success story, although it is a shorter stretch of street than Barton East, and its problems were perhaps not as entrenched.

More striking is the rebirth of Hamilton’s waterfront. With its parks, restaurants, skating rink and boat tours, the waterfront is now accepted as a jewel of the city. Newer residents may not realize that 20 to 25 years ago, no one could even access the waterfront. It was polluted and fenced-off by industry.

The notion of attractive public parks at the harbour piers was unthinkable. But the area has been completely transformed, although not without long and sometimes painful political and citizen engagement

Further afield, in New York City, Harlem and Brooklyn are examples of urban areas with deep-rooted social ills and crime that found new life. Or consider Times Square, which now teems with tourists every day in a family-friendly environment, but 30 years ago was dirty and ridden with crime and peep-show theatres.

Toronto’s Ossington strip, reports Toronto Life magazine, has evolved from a “no-go set of dodgy storefronts to an edgy Queen West offshoot to the city’s hippest drag … once a strip littered with booze cans and long-dead storefronts, Ossington is quickly becoming a stylish destination.”

The challenge urban theorists write about is whether a depressed area becomes gentrified to the extent that lower-income residents are forced out — or, conversely, if it can be “unslummed,” as the late Canadian urbanist Jane Jacobs called it.

Jacobs wrote favourably of “unslumming,” opining that it “hinges on whether a considerable number of the residents and businesses … find it both desirable and practical to make and carry out their own plans right there, or whether they must move elsewhere.”

In Winnipeg, mass demolition and gentrification seemed to be the future for a beaten-down neighbourhood called Point Douglas. Instead, Point Douglas reportedly unslummed itself; residents stayed put and took pride in their homes, the streets were cleaned up.

Can Barton Street East join the list of success stories? McMaster University geography professor Richard Harris believes so, although he predicts that other parts of the city may experience renewal faster.

“But will it happen for Barton? I think it has to,” he said. “I see this as a long-term thing, Hamilton and the GTA will continue to expand, and so places like Barton Street will eventually rise again. The question is how soon.”

Terry Cooke, CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Barton’s future. The challenge in gentrification or urban renewal, he said, is building confidence in middle-class families that an area is one where they want to live and raise their kids.

“If you look at Barton, there are some signs of life, but they are fragile. For Barton to turn the corner, it needs a larger nucleus of people who own properties and who live there and are committed to the community over the long haul.”


Rising phoenix

Architect Drew Hauser is one of those who believe that Barton can one day become, if not a gentrified high-end part of town, then a much cleaner and safer and prosperous area.

Theory and practice come together with Hauser, a principal at McCallum Sather Architects Inc. He not only sees what Barton can be, but has put his money where his hopes are. Hauser bought the former bank building at 541 Barton and renovated the units.

The ground floor unit may become a signature location on the street once a new café opens there this summer. The café, to be called The 541 Eatery and Exchange, will be managed in part by Michael Bowyer, a pastor, community volunteer, and self-described foodie who once worked as a chef.

Bowyer calls the café business a “for benefit” enterprise – for the benefit of the community, a place to assist and empower those who live in a mixed-income part of the city.

The café will offer top drawer food and coffee/espresso products for those who live and work in the area, catering to everyone from young professionals to business people and artists. The space should also offer a productive environment with Wi-Fi for students to do homework.

One day, if the story of the rebirth of Barton is written, Drew Hauser will be spoken about as one of those who took risks and had vision.

“My friends thought I had lost it, buying on Barton. They told me I’d get no more than $500 a month rent. But I said if you offer a good product you will get a good tenant.”

He said he’s getting $800 rent on those same units.

Hauser is not looking to hit the jackpot with his investment in Barton, at least not in the short term. But he speaks with passion about building something beautiful and lasting and important in the community, something that will make money and contribute toward renewal.

“This is an up-and-coming neighbourhood. It has had low self-esteem, but it doesn’t need to have it.”

Other property owners on Barton would not share Hauser’s optimism, especially those who can’t afford to finance renovations that would allow them to charge the kind of rent that would attract responsible tenants.

Other owners have tried to spruce up their properties, but have still been burned by tenants. For example, The Spectator’s Steve Buist wrote earlier in this series about a property owner who renovated three units and rented them out, only to see tenants destroy two of them.

In the here and now, investors with vision and financial means would seem to be the exception on Barton Street East.

Drew Hauser is no doubt aware of this, yet he speaks of the area rising from its challenges like a phoenix — because he has seen it happen elsewhere. Years ago, he bought and renovated a building in the depressed Junction area of Toronto. Over time, the neighbourhood bounced back, drove drugs and prostitution away.

He believes that Barton will never become a gentrified Cabbagetown — the community in east Toronto that was rundown but revived, its Victorian homes restored by young professionals in the 1970s.

Hauser thinks that’s a good thing, though. He sees a future Barton as a quilt of mixed-income, culturally diverse people.

“It will always be a bit more gritty, have a bit more reality to it. I think it could become more like the Junction, Queen East. But Barton is its own neighbourhood, it’s hard to compare to something in Toronto. Barton is more special. And it takes people who are a bit brave to move into the area and make it shine.”


Citizen engagement

Perhaps the biggest reason to believe Barton may rise again is that there are signs of it happening already.

That’s the impression left by Shelly Wonch, director of the Barton Village BIA and a tireless promoter of the area.

“I see the tide turning here,” she said. “There has always been life on Barton Street, always been life and hope and hardworking businesses. But I see something else: it’s been slowly changing the last few years … there is more support from community organizations in the area and the city as a whole.”

Wonch is a passionate salesperson, but she could use a nicer place to do business. The BIA office is set well back from the street next to an auto garage, the furniture and flooring beyond redemption. It’s not the face she should be showing to investors looking at Barton.

Today, she pops across the street for lunch at Duartes. Alcino Duarte says “Shelly is the best thing to happen to the village in years. She gets things done.”

Wonch bows her head at the praise.

“He told me that same thing a while back and I swear it brought a tear to my eye,” she said.

She loves these people, this neighbourhood. It is not an act.

The BIA has been engaged in several initiatives. One of them was having two signs built, for $30,000 each, announcing the boundaries of the village.

Some might roll their eyes at spending that kind of money on signage, but small bits of beautification — signs, flowers on the median, lights at Christmas time — are all pieces of the urban renewal mix.

This is the gist of the “broken window” theory, which helped Manhattan change its image from dangerous and filthy to the most popular tourist destination in the U.S.

The theory, championed by former mayor Rudy Giuliani and developed by social scientist James Q. Wilson, suggests that the way to renew a neighbourhood and a city is, in part, to develop intolerance for even the smallest blemish on the face of the community — if one building window is broken, one wall defaced with graffiti, you fix it immediately, because one piece of blight leads to others.

This has clearly been the case on Barton Street, where one beaten-down property has enabled another to unhappily coexist next to it.

Other ongoing initiatives that are part of the Barton Village BIA’s strategic plan include:

• Engaging in strategies to aggressively tackle zoning infractions, property standards violations, and vacant storefronts within their boundaries;

•Petitioning Hamilton Police for surveillance cameras and increasing police presence;

•Embarking on a program to make Barton Village the most accessible shopping area in the city, and perhaps province, for those with physical challenges.

•Exploring potential sites for a Barton farmers’ market and approaching the city for startup funds;

•Form a Barton Village Business team to provide expertise and experience regarding properties, mortgages, inspections, real estate law, and city incentive programs. Their first meeting will be held in a vacant property on June 13 and will include a tour of other available properties.

Wonch applauds a recent city initiative where $100,000 has been allocated from the capital budget to conduct a land use strategy on Barton Street East, studying the area block-by-block to reassess zoning and other needs and explore how the area can be rejuvenated more quickly.

A request for proposals will soon be sent out and a consultant hired, followed by public input discussions, with a final report due next fall.

Glen Norton, Hamilton’s manager of urban renewal, said the exercise is all about determining what will make Barton a successful street and neighbourhood, and what the people there want to see happen.

“A big part of the study will be finding that out from those who work and live there. It’s half a planning exercise and half an economic feasibility exercise. What makes sense for the area?”

A development that could one day assist citizens to envision and impact plans for the area is virtual modelling software. The city is partnering with McMaster University and Mitacs, a national not-for-profit research organization, to develop Virtual Hamilton, an urban planning tool. Barton Street is the first area that will be mapped on the model.

Paul Johnson, who directs the city’s neighbourhood development office, said it’s important that people realize it’s not just huge projects that will take Barton forward.

“It’s not about waiting for the home run, it’s about the small things, hitting some singles and doubles, and if you do that, I believe … the crowd will go nuts and be energized. I’m not speaking of a wishful exercise, but tangible things.”

He added that, in the end, renewal initiatives require citizen engagement — and he has seen plenty of it from neighbourhood residents like Steve Calverley, who is one of those people who goes to planning meetings to listen and speak up.

Calverley said he is optimistic for the future of the area because of the fibre of its people.

“I see a wealth in the people in this neighbourhood that I don’t see in other places. I see neighbours doing things for each other, putting themselves out there, that blows me away, that almost chokes me up. With people like that we can easily raise this neighbourhood to be an awesome place.”

Courtesy Of The Hamilton Spectatorr