In the Shadow of Steel: Hamilton and the search for a new future

Read a Q and A with CBC Ideas producer Mary O'Connell on her probing documentary look at Hamilton's past, present and future. 'In the Shadow of Steel' will air on September 12 at 9 p.m. on CBC Radio 1

'In the Shadow of Steel' will air on September 12 at 9 pm on CBC Radio 1- or listen online now

Consider it an exploration of the rise, fall and resurrection of a city.

In her latest documentary, 'In the Shadow of Steel,' CBC Ideas producer Mary O'Connell shines a light on Hamilton, a place she refers to as "the secret city."

Her work follows the modern history of a place born of the industrial revolution, its painful, globalization-induced downfall and its efforts to embrace a brave, post-heavy industry new world.

CBC Hamilton talked to O'Connell about what drew her to Steel Town, and why she thinks it is in the midst of reinvention. 

Why did you take on this project?

Hamilton seemed like an untold story. The most consistent fact that emerged again and again when I moved here three years ago was that outsiders were always caught by surprise when you mentioned something about Hamilton, be it the green space, the heritage properties, the kindness of the people. I've lived in half a dozen cities around the world and this is the kindest place I've ever lived in.

 Who are some of the people you talk to?

I speak with cultural writer/blogger Richey Piparinen who's made the idea of the rust-belt his life's work. He uses terms like rust-belt fatalism and rust-belt chic to frame both reinvention and what's going on in the psyche of those who live in rust-belt cities.

Tom Murphy is the former mayor of Pittsburgh, who oversaw much of the city's rebuilding. And it was like a war effort because in two decades, half a million people abandoned Pittsburgh when the mills started dying.

I speak with members of Hamilton's young creative class- like Martinus Gelenyse - who act as engaged urban activists because they have a deep and abiding passion for Hamilton and demand to be stake-holders in a future that includes them.

The series talks about a narrative of loss. What does that mean in this context?

For the better part of a century, steel fed people. It gave them homes. It funded theatres and festivals. As musician Tom Wilson says, 'those big flames that shot up in the sky set the tone for how life unfolded in this city.' Steel became embedded in the city's psyche– as it has in many rust-belt cities around the world. But what happens to a city's narrative when what sustained and comforted it starts to fade away? Hamilton has been underlined by a narrative of loss and I hear it when something negative happens here, and people shake their head and say, 'only in Hamilton', when in fact, it could be something that happens in any city in the world.

It's something that surprised me. This mentality underlines the narrative of loss and some believe it does affect city-building. What was also interesting was that historically, city fathers have felt ambivalent about steel– they believed it made the city look smoky and ugly– a feeling that fuelled a big downtown tear down in the 1970's.

Do you see evidence that Hamilton is re-inventing itself?

I do because there is another growing response here, a passion and hope in people's voices. I see it in the big 'eds and meds' projects that are changing the way this city hums along. And the downtown is already more dynamic than when I arrived several years ago.

One of the people in the documentary is architecture critic Christopher Hume. What were his insights about the city and its urban landscape?

Christopher Hume talks about Hamilton's 'urban bones' and that this will propel the city forward. The city has intact districts that frame the downtown– these are visually and historically pleasing. And these areas are walkable, a fact that will weigh in Hamilton's favour, as the 'suburban dream', he believes, will become less attractive a proposition over the next decade.

What does Hamilton have in common with other cities that have gone through this?

It's challenging to move forward when, as a city, you've managed decline for so long. Managing decline creates a fear of risk. City fathers in some rust-belt cities seem to suffer from indecision, confusion, timidity. A kind of political paralysis can seep in. Pittsburgh went through this cycle as it was letting go of steel. Bill Flanagan from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development says there was a decade of denial...ten years of argument and angst before the city could make decisions and move itself forward.

What struck you most about the city as you explored the project?

I get back to this idea that Hamilton is an 'untold story', as if the city doesn't quite believe what opportunity it presents and what it could present. I discussed this with City Manager Chris Murray who said, 'well, maybe we're just not very good at talking about ourselves, about telling our story, maybe it's a hyper-modesty.' I spoke with Dr. Parminder Raina at McMaster about this. He said, a city like Saskatoon has incredible self-esteem, and he's been struck by the fact that, since he moved to Hamilton over a decade ago, the city seems to have a deficit of self-esteem even though it has so much to offer.

Does Hamilton have the right attitude/ psychology to change itself?

That is a question that hangs in the balance– between a level of mediocrity that has been brought on by some decisions and a real desire to see change. I think Hamilton's 'engaged urban activitists' are creating a 'from the ground up' way of re-visioning the city but I think the political powers that be need to read their play-book. I think the recent participatory democracy idea where citizens in Ward 2 could actually vote on how to spend city funds was a great example of this move forward together.

What can Hamilton learn from other cities that have had to deal with losing a primary industry?

This is always a tricky question because each city has its own narrative. To think, well, we can try what Pittsburgh did, or we'll build a grand project like the Guggenheim Museum on the water-front like Bilbao, Spain can be simplistic and perhaps ill-conceived. I think that parochial politics (the suburbanites aren't always on board with city-building) must be put aside. Hamilton is the city that includes everyone and it's in everyone's interests, city folks and suburbanites to see Hamilton succeed. I think a poverty of imagination can dog rust-belt cities when they start to re-build and that certainly throws dreaming and risk out the window– qualities that can make a city's design exciting and inspiring for all its citizens. That can happen here too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.