A marriage of art and science in Hamilton's most infamous alley

Beasley Neighbourhood Association and a group of McMaster students teamed up to put a ‘weather station’ in one of the city's most infamous alleys. The station will monitor air pollution, noise, humidity, temperature and other factors.

The alley's makeover now includes a colourful weather and air quality monitoring station

The weather station is a collaborative project between McMaster University and the Beasley Neighbourhood Association. (Sarah Peterson)

It's a project that embraces art, science, and the down-and-out history of the alley it's in. 

The Beasley Neighbourhood Association and a group of McMaster students teamed up to put a multi-coloured piece of art — that also monitors the neighbourhood's air pollution — in one of the city's most infamous alleys. 

The entrance of the Beasley alleyway with its new weather and air monitoring station. (Sarah Peterson)

It was once known as 'Listerine Alley' — and not because it was minty fresh. The alley behind Elgin Street was known as a dumping grounds for trash, needles and bottles. Its nickname came from all the discarded bottles of mouthwash that had been consumed there by addicts. Dirty needles were also a common sight.

In 2014, the city approved $230,000 for the 'alley beautification project' — an initiative to clean up and revitalize its alleyways. 'Listerine Alley' was cleaned, painted, lights were installed, and the city started looking for additional measures to improve the space.

The Beasley community has spent years trying to clean up the Elgin street alley. (Sarah Peterson)

One of those measures now includes a 'weather station' developed by a local community group and several McMaster engineering students. The station will monitor air pollution, noise, humidity, temperature and other factors.

11 or 12 students worked on the project for close to two years, according to Louise Gazzola, the project coordinator at McMaster.

"One of my passions is to get students out of the school and into the community so I loved this project," Gazzola said.

Adam Kappheim was one of those students. He'd just moved to the city with his wife and heard about the project at a neighbourhood meeting.

"I thought this would be a perfect way for me to use my skills and get involved in the community," he said. 

Kappheim says the data collected will help the neighbourhood better understand their local environment and ways to improve it.

For example, the alley is right next to a busy street with lots of truck traffic, he says. "Neighbours can use this data to take control of their environment and better their health."

The new weather station is part art piece, part science project. (Sarah Peterson)

These kinds of projects also change the way people think about alleys and neighbourhoods, says Karl Andrus from the community action group Beautiful Alleys.

"The space was starting to be reclaimed but there wasn't yet a focal point, this [project] provides that," he said.

Andrus says Hamilton's many alleyways hold a fountain of untapped potential.

"Alleys can be great places for neighbours to congregate, kids can run and bike down them," he said. "This is definitely the kind of project we like to see."

The structure was built with old industrial parts, and in keeping with the goal of 'beautification' – it's decorated with multi-coloured paint and a mural honouring Hamilton's homeless population.

"It's actually half art piece, half science station," Andrus said.

One of the colourful murals painted by Beasley residents in the alleyway. (Sarah Peterson)

You can find the new station in the alley wedged between Elgin and Mary streets, closest to the Cannon Street entrance. The structure is already in place, and the full monitoring device will be installed before the end of the year.

Andrus hopes this project is just the beginning.

"This shouldn't be considered a pilot or a stand-alone project, there needs to be dozens of these across the city."