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[Un]Familiar Territory

“St. Catharines has certainly changed a lot” is a common statement around Niagara these days. Born and raised in St. Catharines and back after a fifteen year hiatus, I can certainly attest to the city’s metamorphosis. Increased automobile traffic, higher real estate prices and a thriving, creative downtown vibe are noteworthy additions.

Changes to the urban infrastructure are even more apparent. Granted, as a visual artist who adores the scraggle of decaying buildings and dense industrial environments, I pursue these aesthetics more than the average pedestrian. Regardless, most locals would likely agree that our popular icons are clearly changing.

The Ontario Street General Motors plant is a monument to the previous generation’s fleeting economy. And Port Dalhousie never quite lived up to the luxury-residential hype. Instead, we are gifted with fields of reconstruction and deconstruction, blurring the line between progress and abandonment.
The most exciting example of metamorphosis is the ongoing demolition of the historical General Hospital on Queenston Street. Despite being a hot topic of controversy amongst citizens, removing the icon has provided a treasure trove of curious exploration and creative documentation.

My obsession with the hospital began with the first photographs I captured in January. My relocation from Vancouver was fresh, and I was working away on illustrative paintings of West Coast city grit, based on photographs I’d shot around Chinatown or Main & Hastings. An old high school friend, aware of my interest in urban decay, casually messaged a proposition. “You should check out the old hospital they’re tearing down on Queenston, I think you’d dig it”. This small suggestion became a huge pivot point in my creative pursuits.

I remember the first visit. It was cold and grey, but not snowing. As I drove up Oakdale Avenue, there was a fantastic moment when I reached the hilltop bend and the corpse-like structure revealed itself, looming over the city like some monumental giant. I gasped. It was beautiful. My artistic sense always knows when I have discovered the perfect subjects to transform into paintings. In this instance, I knew that an entire series had already begun.

Subsequent visits began. Studying the fleeting and evolving nature of the building’s visage became the project’s primary focus. What is present one day is gone the next. To miss a day is to miss a unique bouquet of intertwined metallic remains and historical brick, where interior and exterior layers interact and converse with one another. Clear views into patient rooms reveal haunting narratives, presented to onlookers as excavators peel back layers like onion skins.

A noteworthy bi-product ongoing visitation is interaction with a variety of citizens. I have encountered photo enthusiasts doing exactly what I am doing. Some fly drones around the property, happily sharing their aerial videos. Street-level passerby are always happy to chat and recount stories. “I was born there!”…“My mother was a nurse there for thirty years!”. You come to realize what a strong connection people have to this place. “It’s a shame to see it go” proclaimed one fellow, contrasting the statement of another: “It’s about damn time!”.

Some encounters have been less than exciting. One lady was convinced I had just ransacked the property. Another fellow (of obviously questionable morals) accused me of plotting to steal the scraps he was gathering, prompting my hasty exit. One day I discovered a large nail in the sidewall of my vehicle’s rear tire, possibly an act of malice by a local resident frustrated by the increased activity on his street. I’ll never know for sure if it was ill-intent or coincidence that extinguished that particular Michelin.

In addition to photographs, I’ve reclaimed a number of interesting physical relics during my visits. The selection ranges from ornate bricks to twisted pipes, power outlets, ID tags and lonely shoes. Everything tells a story. A pair of tiny teddy bears, tethered together and pulled from an unassuming pile of rebar, was an intriguing and emotional discovery. What was their purpose? Was it congratulatory, or consolation to dire circumstances?

Of course the most intriguing discovery are three VHS tapes, found half-buried in a pile of dirt and trash. I have not yet attempted to view them, as a combination of fear and excitement grips me as to what imagery they contain.{

As I prepare this essay, there isn’t much left of the hospital, maybe a few more weeks before it is leveled completely. I will continue documenting its devolution until only stray bricks remain. Thirty-one photoshoots, thousands of images, dozens of relics and countless human interactions summize the project to date. While the physicality of the hospital will disappear, I am historicizing her final months through large scale paintings, memorializing the place so familiar to the citizens of St. Catharines. They will be exhibited at the Niagara Artists Centre this November.

Written by Jonathan Shaw

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