Paul Wilson: A factory lives, a neighbourhood struggles, a daily dies

American Can was a big employer in Hamilton. Same story in New Orleans, and the company's old buildings still stand in both cities. Ours now makes candy, theirs got turned into apartments with a very nice pool. Plus, Brad Pitt's houses and diminished days for the Times Picayune.
The American Can name is long gone in Hamilton, but it's still in place by Bayou St. John in New Orleans. Empty for years, it's apartments now. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Back in Hamilton’s gold rush days, about a century ago, corporate giants in the U.S. rushed in to set up branch plants here. In the space of some 15 years, Westinghouse, Otis Elevator, Hoover Vacuum, National Steel Car, Procter & Gamble all came to town.

Oh, and one more big one – American Can. It put up a sprawling brick factory at Emerald and Shaw, just north of the tracks, in 1911. About 600 worked in production there. It had a head office in the Royal Connaught.

American Can was important to this city. Many breadwinners got 40-year careers there. In 1972, when Hamilton hosted the Grey Cup, the menu for the gala dinner was inscribed on steel – courtesy of American Can.

The name has been gone 25 years now, but the building still stands. It’s Karma Candy in there now.

I’m telling you this because we’re just back from New Orleans – and there is a link.

The gators were white

In a portion of the American Can factory that had been burned out while abandoned, developers have installed a pool and patio. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Marnie and I had never been before and there is little we did not do in our week there. The bars on Bourbon. Sunday morning jazz mass in the Treme. We went to a plantation, where a young black tour guide told us with passion what it was like for slaves there. We boated through the swamps, saw no gators.

We did find them though at the Audubon Zoo – two of them, rare white ones.

To get there, we took the St. Charles line, aboard a streetcar built in the 1920s. LRT works – it’s the busiest line in the city, and 70 per cent of the riders are residents.

We watched high school jazz bands warm up for a big competition in Louis Armstrong Park. We cheered for the pudgy Brando stand-in at the "Stella" shouting contest, part of the annual Tennessee Williams festival. (There is no streetcar named Desire anymore.)

We ate gumbo and jambalaya and jumbo sandwiches, mine loaded with alligator sausage.

And we toured American Can.

The first tourists

High school students warm up for a band competition in Louis Armstrong Park, just north of the French Quarter. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

We were hiking along the Bayou St. John, the mid-city section of New Orleans. And there, looming large, was the American Can building. That factory shut down in 1988, the same year the name vanished in Hamilton.

For many years, the New Orleans plant sat empty. But now it is the American Can Apartments.

We buzzed the front gate.

"Well, you’re our first tourists," said Gina Wiles, a leasing agent.

She has had visits from old American Can employees, who tell her the most common injury was sliced fingers. The factory ran around the clock, 1,500 workers who could turn out 5,000 cans an hour.

At the Tennessee Williams Festival, fans gather to see who can holler Stella the way Marlon Brando did in A Streetcar Named Desire. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

The developers showed great ingenuity in making the old building work. There are 65 floor plans for the 268 units. One-bedroom units start at $1,000 a month, two-bedrooms at $1,500.

For that you get hardwood floors, genuinely scarred from the factory days. High ceilings, about 16 feet. And a fabulous pool and patio, carved out of the ruins of the back portion of the plant, site of a fire in the days of abandonment.

For an old factory town like Hamilton, there is inspiration here.

Katrina swept the homes away

On the other side of town, in the Ninth Ward, they’re not retrofitting old buildings. The buildings are gone. Katrina swept them away nearly eight years ago.

The disaster took 1,836 lives, and 1,000 of those people lived in the Ninth Ward. The neighbourhood lost 4,000 homes.

Brad Pitt made it his business to replace some of them and a couple of dozen are sprinkled along several streets. They are designs from architects around the world. They’re raised high for the next flood and come in many colours.

The Ninth Ward lost 4,000 houses after Katrina. With Brad Pitt's help, a few colourful replacements are now springing up. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

We headed out there and walked those streets. It is a strange frontier, spacy new houses beside scrub lots empty since Katrina.

While waiting for a bus back downtown, we talked to Yvonne. She is 48, black, a grandmother several times over, and works seven days a week as a personal support worker for a family on the far side of town.

She got out of town the day before Katrina. She just came back four months ago. She and her husband are in a new home, she says, "but not a Brad Pitt house."

She says the neighbourhood is more mixed now, and she likes that. There were abandoned houses before, she said, and drug dealers. "I caught the bus early in the morning and I had to be watching my back."

Now, to encourage more homesteaders like Yvonne, a private security firm patrols the neighbourhood 24 hours a day.

A daily no more

Ryan McGreal is editor of Raise the Hammer. Terry Cooke is head of the Hamilton Community Foundation, and former regional chair. If you’re not following these two on Twitter, you should. They’re smart and they care about this city.

New Orleans still runs vintage streetcars, both red and green – but alas, the city no longer has a daily newspaper. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

On Family Day, Monday, Feb. 18, McGreal sent out this tweet: "It was very strange to get up this morning and not read The Spec with my breakfast."

Cooke followed up: "Sadly, given the state of daily newspapers generally and thin ad buy in Spec, I predict three print days a week in 2013."

I worked at The Spectator for 30 years and still read it every morning the old way. I’d hate to lose that.

The people of New Orleans already have. The paper there is the Times-Picayune, a Pulitzer prize winning publication that’s been around 175 years. But last fall it cut back to three times a week – Wednesday, Friday and Sunday – and directed its readers to

The population of New Orleans proper is now about 360,000. That’s 100,000 less than before Katrina, but the population is coming back at a good clip. The metropolitan area is just over one million people.

And New Orleans is now the biggest city in the U.S. without a daily newspaper.

There were staff cuts. The reporters who still had jobs don’t have assigned desks anymore. They do get a MacBook and an iPhone. The paper says traffic to the website is climbing fast. There are no plans for a paywall. |   @PaulWilsonCBC

You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.