Paul Wilson: History vs highrises - the battle of Durand

There's no place in Hamilton to top Durand for history, architecture and density, but highrises once threatened to swallow it whole. The neighbourhood association that fought them off marks 40 years.
Diane Dent didn't want to move to Hamilton in the 1960's. But she stayed, and the Durand neighborhood is a better place for it. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Durand — James to Queen, Main to the Escarpment — is Hamilton's densest neighbourhood. City Hall is here. And CHCH, in the old Southam house. There are the stone shops that line James South. And corner stores. And Central School, the first proper grade school in English Canada.

But mostly, Durand is a place to live. It's home to 12,000 people.

There are new Canadians. And seniors for whom Hamilton has always been home. And young professionals who like living in old brick homes built before the car. And at the southern fringe of Durand, in mansions as fine as you'll find anywhere, there is old Hamilton money.

This neighbourhood is another reason why Hamilton is such an interesting place. But we nearly lost it, and that brings us to Diane Dent. Without her and a sturdy band of like-minded citizens, Durand would be but a shadow of what exists today.

Didn't want to come here

Dent didn't know Hamilton, let alone Durand, when she reluctantly moved here in the late 1960s. She was raised in Toronto. Husband Peter was lured to the city by the opportunity to get in on the ground floor at the new McMaster Hospital, and he eventually became chair of the Department of Pediatrics.

They bought a house on Park Street South. Dent, who had trained as a pediatric nurse, set to raising her pre-school daughters.

They went to a dinner party one night in Durand and met lawyer Herman Turkstra, then a young politician on the Hamilton board of control. And the next day he called and told Dent that Durand needed to organize. It needed to come together to protect the neighbourhood. Though she had a third daughter on the way, Dent agreed to take up the cause.

That was 40 years ago this summer. The other night, at the Dent house, old allies and new had an anniversary party for the Durand Neighbourhood Association.

Desirable backdrop

The challenge for the DNA in 1972 was unbridled development. It's said that at the new City Hall, some thought a wall of pristine white apartment towers would be a desirable backdrop. So those highrises went up. And many more too.

There was blockbusting underway. Houses got bought up, knocked down, and more towers filled the skies of Durand. If someone didn't get the situation under control, the unique neighbourhood would be just another urban jungle.

'But they didn't want to plan Durand, because it was ripe for development.'—Diane Dent, neighbourhood organizer

Hamilton had won an award for its neighbourhood planning. "But they didn't want to plan Durand, because it was ripe for development," Dent says. She was green, went alone to a meeting at City Hall, and said, "Excuse me, I would like to have our neighbourhood planned too."

Not right now, they said. But that did come. And in 1974 the DNA scored another big victory. They convinced the city to expropriate a parcel just south of Charlton, where developers had knocked down a block of homes to build another highrise.

Instead, the people got Durand Park — the only green space in the neighbourhood.

Movie crews like it

Sandyford Place, now a National Historic Site, nearly got knocked down. The 18-storey Concord apartment tower is right next door. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

There were other battles. A developer wanted to tear down Duke Street's Sandyford Place, a row of stone terrace houses from the mid-1800s. It's condos today, and a National Historic Site. Movie crews like shooting there. Indeed, they like all of Durand. Most cities don't have streets like this.

Dent knew how to work the phones, talk to the right people. Sometimes it was a call to ward councillors Bill McCulloch and Vince Agro. Or maybe to a contact in Montreal, who had influence in high places.

Dent enlisted the help of Toronto mayors John Sewell and David Crombie, who believed development needed rules. At Dent's request, both helped Hamilton.

The job's not done. Dent worries about demolition by neglect. "Where's the political will? Why isn't council proactive?"

When council doesn't take the lead, the people must. "If you care about your city," Dent says, "you have to step forward and make a contribution. And you have to work in a group."

Heart in Durand

And so there was the anniversary celebration on a fine night a couple of weeks ago. It must be said — the party was not held in Durand.

Years ago, Dent moved to the Mountain Brow. She wanted more room to grow her roses. They looked for that big lot in Durand, but found a place on the Brow at half the price.

"I do miss the community," Dent says. "There's no community here. My heart is still in Durand."

But her focus had become the whole city. She joined LACAC, now the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee, the city's architectural watchdog. She headed it for some 20 years. Along the way, they worked to save landmarks like the Hamilton Carnegie Library, the Bank of Montreal, the Pigott building.

"If you keep your old buildings," Dent says, "you have a past, a present and a future."

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