Brianna Smrke 

Silhouette Staff

The red brick building at 16 Steven Street in downtown Hamilton has housed caskets and costume jewellery for years. Since 2006 there has been something decidedly different within its four walls: arts and culture. It was then that Barbara Milne and Gary Santucci took over the old factory they would eventually call the Pearl Company, in honour of the plastic pearls, courtesy of the Canadian Costume Jewelry company, that are wedged between its floor boards.

They turned the top floor into an open-concept living space. The middle became an intimate performance venue and the bottom transformed into an art studio and gallery.

Six years later, Milne and Santucci’s vision of a thriving cultural hub appears threatened.

While the Pearl manages to attract high calibre talent, “We’re not attracting sustainable numbers of people,” Santucci explained, “because of the reputation of the neighbourhood. There have been problems with crime – there’s a perception of decrepitude and decay.”

The pair have turned crisis into opportunity. The Pearl Company is expanding, hoping to do the same for its Lansdale neighbourhood as it has done for its building –revitalize it while maintaining its character. Together with the Lansdale Neighbourhood Association they helped to create, they are expanding the Pearl Company into the Pearl District – a multi-use corridor that will see a grocery store and cafe added to the area, as well as a quarterly neighbourhood arts and culture magazine – the Pearl Review.

“Our goal is to create a collaborative economic model that will attract people to our community” said Santucci. “We’ve been working closely with neighbourhood businesses and they are excited to be part of the Pearl District.”

Santucci and partner Milne have faced their share of challenges. The same city that in 2008 honoured them with Lifetime Achievement awards in the arts has also charged them for illegal commercial use of the Steven Street property.

Changes to the area’s zoning in the 1980s relabelled most units residential. The legal battle continues, but the pair is optimistic about changes that the new Urban Hamilton Official Plan, currently being vetted by the Provincial Legislature, will bring to the city. The plan, according to the promotional materials from the Economic Development and Planning Committee, calls for “multi-sectoral collaboration to focus on such matters as job creation and retention, poverty…and arts and culture”.

“These are the changes we’ve been fighting for” said Santucci about the new plan. “Our perseverance will pay off”.

He and Milne hope their actions will make private citizens realize what they can accomplish without relying on government funding, as the Pearl has never sought any funds besides its own.

“With us, it’s not just a business, it’s our way of life – we live here, we create here, we work here” said Santucci of the Pearl building.

While there’s always work to do, he’s confident that the Pearl’s struggles have paved the way for others to make for themselves the communities they want to inhabit.

“With the new Urban Plan, conditions are now good for the kind of changes we want to make” he said. “Others likely won’t have to run up against the same problems.”

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