Gore Park as Urban Artifact

by John C. Weaver 

        A current theoretical fad, the accenting of continuity in historical processes, gets ample support from the study of cities. Physical continuities throughout urban North America during the last two hundred years include the triumph of the grid layout and early functional specialization among various sectors of the city. Social segregation has been found much more profoundly entrenched in earlier eras than was once thought. Notions about spatial organization – including major transit routes, residential areas, and even parks – have deep set routes. As planner Hans Blumenfeld has observed, “grey matter is more difficult to change than concrete.” Socio-economic elements too can indicate continuity. Civic promotion – hype and boosterism – lines of credit, and family or institutional concentrations of wealth and power have been central to the North-American city-building process. Self-interest, anxiety about property values, and naïve enthusiasm for economic cure-alls have never disappeared from civic politics.

In recent Hamilton affairs, the fiascos at Gore Park provide an emblem for these many themes. That oddly distinctive triangle had been the subject of earlier controversies, frequently arising from agendas for stimulating the town’s commercial beat or from warm interests in adjacent real estate values. Perhaps the attribution of motives is too unbalanced a reflection about human nature. Reliance on continuity is a potential enemy of a will to resist or to change. So it is worth stressing another dimension of continuity. The existence of the Gore for at least 150 years and its dedication as a park for over 120 have established it as venerable ground; its statues and war memorial have marked it even to newcomers as a place of tradition and special civic importance. It will survive as a park, modified perhaps, but not a complete monument of cinder blocks and Ready-Mix.

I am not about to present the inquiry that some senior administrators escaped. In essence, the opportunity to secure public works money from outside the local tax base was recognized near an expiry date and, since there had been rumblings about cleaning up the Gore, a hastily assembled scheme was pushed through. A meeting point for unemployed old men, HSR passengers, native Canadians, and brazen pigeons – the Gore was, for some, not a zippy complement to the big-town downtown that had come in halting stages since the early 1960s. Unlike Dundurn, the Gore had no aura of exclusivity; it did not radiate puissance; it expressed only common history. A plaque honoured the founding of the national co-operative movement in Canada. Queen Victoria was celebrated not as just as Queen Empress but as model Wife and Mother. Sir John A. Macdonald, honoured at the east end, had initiated the policy of protective tariffs so popular with industrial workingmen in Hamilton. From a downtown mercantile perspective – a perspective justifiably sensitive to falling trade and business failures – the open Gore offered a less manipulated environment than suburban malls or Jackson Square. Enclosed malls form controlled and private environments with security forces. The Gore was simply vulnerable. Such a detached attitude – no pose of outrage – comes from the knowledge that the Gore had survived, in this century, truly half-cocked proposals to use the site for an office building and then a bus terminal. Perhaps I’ve begun to see the world with rose-tinted glasses, after all no one exactly pushed for an elevated Go Transit station on the Gore. Well, not yet! Or at least not in public! More encouraging, the press and public rightly saw the construction as a desecration. The Gore has had a charmed existence and now sentimentality has been rallied. I have been told that construction workers on this summer’s “clean up” have been subjected to verbal abuse, as if they had been responsible for the felling of trees last summer.

A gore is a triangular piece of cloth inserted into a larger fabric to secure a desired shape. Land surveyors had taken the term with a related meaning: wedge of property. Around 1816, George Hamilton, land developer of the town tract south of King Street to the mountain, and his neighbour on the north, Nathaniel Hughson, agreed to cede land to form a town square where their lots joined. The square eventually would have enhanced the value of adjacent lots. It also would have absorbed the non-conforming bent road later named King Street and have completed a uniform grid layout for the nascent town. Hamilton followed through with the arrangement, but Hughson, it seems, decided to sell lots along the north edge of the original road. Thus a gore was created by a partially achieved land development measure. The first dust-up over the Gore came in 1833-34 when George Hamilton battled against a town plan to turn the open promenade into a public market. George, no early exponent of a “green is beautiful” movement, had his own market site to promote, a part of contemporary Hamilton around the now obscure Haymarket Street. The council or police board, as it was then termed, reacted by establishing the town market at what became the corner of James and York Streets – away from George’s land and thus a denial to him of economic benefits sure to favour landowners near the designated hub of commerce. Often enough, the Hamiltons behaved as if the town were their domain only to find a council with other ideas.

In 1847, the Gore again was threatened. A revenue-starved, very ambitious, and quite opportunistic council investigated the possible sale of the land. George’s son, Robert Hamilton, disputed this. He claimed the Gore belonged to him. The two parties resolved their differences by agreeing to subdivide the land and share the take. Land titles prior to 1849 were seldom registered and often in dispute so the deal was a prudent one. By the 1840s, however, the town held many vested interests and these now spoke out in protest. A petition to the government of Canada disclosed not men of great wisdon and civic virtue. True, they wrote that the sale would “destroy one of the chief ornaments of the town and the revenue which is said may be derived out of it will not in the opinion of your Memorialists prove an adequate compensation to the inhabitants of the city in general for being deprived of the enjoyment of it as a Public Square.” By “inhabitants” it is unlikely they meant all residents, for the city’s recently passed moral order by-laws and an exclusive voting franchise indicate a fear of uprooted outsiders at least the equal of last summer’s concerns about Gore Park regulars. No, the memorialists let the cat out of the bag. They feared “a decrease in the value of their property.”

The Gore was not sold and in 1851 a group of businessmen suggested to council that the space be developed as a beauty spot. “The Gore is the first place the stranger or the visitor meets with upon entering the city, and it stands as a sort of index to the whole. Its proper beautification is therefore an object of the first importance to the City.” “Proper beautification” is what was in dispute last summer and fall; the concept of making a good first impression on visitors was what had been disputed about the plans for a GO ALRT transit system entering above York Street. It is amazing that such fine sounding words, settling nothing, have staying power. Writers of political speeches could do worse than plagiarize from their spiritual ancestors.

The 1851 petition came in the midst of the city’s campaign to clarify legal control of the Gore. Robert Hamilton had pressed his claim. In 1852, an act of the Government of Canada empowered “the Mayor, aldermen and commonalty of the City of Hamilton, and their successors … to erect and build upon said piece of land such pubic buildings as they think necessary; or to enclose the same for the purposes of public square, and to ornament the same.” The act included a disclaimer that it neither admitted nor denied any claim in law to the land that Robert Hamilton might have. Thus legislation by a senior government had resolved little and left ambiguity. In tricky matters let the courts decide!

The city again proposed to split the land. Robert Hamilton would take the area east of Hughson Street, the city; now rolling in the fantasy and clover of a railway boom, intended to erect a new city hall on its own portion. Opposition was immense. Council relented. By November 1853 the city had cleared away rubbish and gravelled the Gore. All during the 1850s committees were struck and beautification plans discussed. In keeping with the prevailing park concepts, Gore Park was intended to be a formal adornment with trees, fountain, and geometrically-planned walkways enclosed by an iron gate. The naturalism explored by park landscapers like Frederick Law Olmstead in New York’s Central Park or in Montreal’s Mount Royal Park only came to Hamilton with Gage Park in the 1920s. Recreational parks with playing fields were introduced in Hamilton before 1900.

It took the prospect of a royal tour to finally convert talk into action. Outside scrutiny – attracted by fairs, Olympics, bicentennials, or tours by the heads of states or great institutions – have a wonderfully loosening effect on civic purse strings. The Prince of Wales planned a visit in 1860. For years council had ignored, delayed, or obstructed the Gore’s development as a park. Now beautification had legitimate purpose. Enhancement was something of a community effort. Individuals donated the ornamental hardware; a few Hamiltonians volunteered their labour.

A formality common to small public gardens in England first characterized the Gore. The style survives in Canada at the prim Public Gardens in Halifax. For many years access to the Gore was controlled and a lone custodian enforced regulations, but the pressure to use it for demonstrations helped to erode the original scheme. This was appropriate. At Halifax, the ranked social milieu of a naval base and parochial capital city sustained a fussy anachronism that now can be treasured as a pure link with the past. However, an industrial city with less toleration for iron gates and neat pathways nurtured a more dynamic and fluid park situation. When a full-blown social history of Hamilton’s parks is prepared, it surely will stress that public space has been contested terrain and that social conflict has been one influence in providing the city with a variety of parks having different attributes.

There is no excuse for last summer’s rash moves taken without adequate consultations, none for the inappropriate structures, and none for the muffled buck-passing. If the Gore is an emblem for continuity in Hamilton’s history then its ruin or survival will let us know which features have weighed more heavily in the city’s course – the impulse to exploit or contentment with tradition and social diversity. If it survives, renewed, the Gore will remain our civic palimpsest. Hamilton’s common history – a British working-class centre, deeply affected (for a North-American city) by the two wars, tossed about by the business cycle, -- could be read on the Gore. Perhaps it can be again.

     [Distillate © HA&L + John C. Weaver  |  {from the Greek bios} -- the course of a life.]