Pearl Company says it's not budging after dodging bullets

The arts and theatre venue has had its share of challenges, owner Barbara Milne says.
Barbara Milne says despite a bullet piercing her bedroom window, she and The Pearl Company aren't going anywhere. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Perhaps Jian Ghomeshi put it best during his Q Live in Hamilton show Thursday night when he described the Pearl Company as "the tenacious, bullet-dodging Pearl Company."

After a bullet pierced the window of their top-floor apartment bedroom on Wednesday, some people may have expected co-owner Barbara Milne, 70, and her husband Gary Santucci, 61, to pack up and leave. But Milne said it's not the first obstacle they've encountered since opening the arts and theatre venue in 2006.

"We've dodged our share of bullets over the years, and I don't just mean the physical kind," Barbara Milne, the co-owner who runs and lives above the venue, said.

Located on the corner of Steven Street and King William Street in Landsdale, Milne said there was a high level of crime in the area when they first arrived.

"When we moved in here, this was street-worker central. This building was mostly empty, so they would sit on the steps and do a fair bit of their work behind the bushes," she said.

"The police even made it clear to us. They said 'you moved onto the worst block in the city.'"

The power of art

But Milne and Santucci were committed to bringing art and culture to the neighbourhood, while also using art as a way of raising awareness about some of the issues that community faced, like drugs and prostitution.

The pair has launched several arts initiatives, including festivals, workshops, concerts and theatre productions. 

They also started the Landsdale Area Neighbourhood Association, and have created art projects to draw attention to local issues, including a controversial exhibition of photographs of sex trade workers and video footage of criminal activity.

"We put on a show of things happening around us to say 'look, this is your Hamilton, too,'" Milne said.

"We wanted to bring attention to how little funding is going into helping people get out of crime."

Milne and Santucci have faced their share of critics along the way, particularly those opposed to gentrification, but Milne said they're not trying to push the problems away or sweep them under the rug with high-end development.

"We're not trying to turn it into Yorkville," she said. "We just returning the neighborhood to what it was before."

Digging in their heels

A bullet hole can still be seen in the window of the third-floor bedroom door after the shooting Wednesday. (Adam Carter/CBC)

As alarming as the shooting attack was — especially considering police say the incident was likely not a random event — Milne said they don't plan to pack up shop any time in the future, not with all the progress they've made in the neighbourhood so far.

"Absolutely not. What's happening now is that young people are moving in. People who are creative and willing to work with some of the issues," she said.

"Finding all these wonderful people in the neighbourhood really solidified the decision that we weren't going anywhere."