How one Hamilton neighbourhood group keeps community confident

Hamilton's Vital Signs report says grassroots groups, like the Beasley Neighbourhood Association, is keeping the city moving.

Hamilton's Vital Signs 2012 report

The Beasley Neighbourhood Association hosted a successful skateboarding competition in the summer. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Sylvia Nickerson has learned a number of things during her few months as co-president of the Bealsey Neighbourhood Association. But one of those things has stood out.

"A little bit of recognition goes a long way," said Nickerson.

The BNA collaborated with the Hamilton Skateboard Assembly to put on both a community skateboarding and breakdancing competition in the summer. Neighbourhood kids had big smiles on their faces as they accepted awards, happy to be recognized for their skilled moves on boards and dance floors.

Nickerson beams as she tells the story. It was a successful event, showing the importance of grassroots initiatives to her community.

Hamilton's Vital Signs report, released Tuesday by the Hamilton Community Foundation, hails grassroots community groups as a key to improving local communities.

Terry Cooke, HCF president and CEO, pointed to a neighbourhood improvement plan the BNA presented to a city committee just last week. Councillors approved the plan.

"They were powerful, they were informed, mature and sophisticated grassroots groups that challenged leaders but also extended the hand of partnership," Cooke said.

This plan also includes a charter between the neighbourhood association and local agencies or institutions in the community — the City of Hamilton, the Good Shepherd Centre and the Boys and Girls Club are a few.

"It was signed as a way of saying we'll work together, listen to each other and provide services," said Nickerson.

Beasley is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Hamilton, said co-president Mike Borelli. There have been waves of immigrants setting in the downtown neighbourhood for decades, starting with Portuguese and Italian and now Middle Easterns and Africans.

Borelli has lived in Beasley for six years, but has only been a member of the neighbourhood association for about a year. He's impressed with how the BNA accommodates diversity.

"I was blown away by the professionalism," he said. "There is an energy you need to do something when you meet people at the meetings."

While it's a challenge to integrate immigrants and newcomers, Nickerson said they integrate their "working together approach" by bringing translators to meetings when needed.

The BNA is a good mix of members. There are the residents who have lived in the neighbourhood all their lives and bring history, perspective and toughness. The newer residents who have been there for only a few years bring fresh eyes and a do-it-yourself philosophy, Nickerson said.

"Those two communities have embraced each other," she said. "There is respect between members."

This neighbourhood association asks questions of their residents like: what is in your dream neighbourhood? and what does a safe neighbourhood mean to you?

They have a "working together approach" and see the glass as half-full.

"In Beasley, it's about taking a negative and seeing it as a positive," Nickerson said. "We have underused buildings and flat parking lots and see the potential."

Just because the BNA is leading the game in this neighbourhood, it doesn't mean they haven't fought some battles. Nickerson said the BNA isn't afraid to show local leaders the residents living in the neighbourhood are the ones who know best.

"At times, Bealsey has had to be scrappy," she said.

"That's why we have the Beasley Badger," Borelli said, of the neighbourhood's mascot.

Now that the neighbourhood improvement plan has been approved, Nickerson said the BNA's next step includes meetings to address community safety and working on a neighbourhood mural.

Nickerson said the Beasley Park will be up for re-design by the city in the next few years. The BNA wants a park that can work for everyone, with space for events, a skateboard park and murals, so they will be moving ahead with their own community consultation.

"Who else is going to do it?" Nickerson said. "With neighbourhood improvements, people take ownership and develop self-esteem."

That's where Beasley might differ from other communities. It's a confident neighbourhood, said Nickerson.

"What we can do is defy expectations," she said. "In Beasley, we have seen that we have an impact and that is motivating."