How does a city that has so much come to believe it has so little? How does a city with so many assets come to see them as liabilities? How does a city gain self-confidence and learn to love itself?
These are the sorts of questions that come to mind whenever I visit Hamilton. Like many Torontonians, I am expected to dismiss our neighbour down the QEW out of hand. It is assumed we Torontonians view Hamilton as a rust-belt lunch-bucket community, Steeltown, a little too rough around the edges for our liking or its own good.
But of course, there’s more to Hamilton than the cliches would have us believe. The 2012 Vital Signs Report paints a picture of a city that is working to overcome its problems and plant the seeds of its own regeneration at the same time as its residents are finding new ways to inhabit the city.
What’s obvious is that Hamilton is a city in flux. Certainly, it is not the same place it was in the heyday of Stelco and Dofasco, who between the two of them, used to employ upwards of 30,000 people. Though the once mighty steel industry still plays an important role in Hamilton, it is a shadow of its former self.
Globalization has devastated cities such as Hamilton whether they be in North America, Europe or beyond. For many corporations, it’s as easy to export jobs now as products.
At the same time, even more profound than globalization in its effects is the great urbanization now underway around the planet. In 2006, the United Nations told us that for the first time in human history, more than half of humanity lives in cities. Although the most explosive urban growth has been in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, Canada and North America have not been immune from this global phenomenon.
Coincidentally, if the suburban dream isn’t dead, it can no longer be assumed. Though sprawl continues apace, it is becoming clear that in an age of climate change, rising energy prices and growing gridlock, cities are inherently more efficient, sustainable and, therefore, more desirable than traditional car-dependent sub-divisions.
For Hamilton, a city that really is a city, the implications are huge – and almost entirely positive. But the transition from hollowed out centre of a highly dispersed suburban region to vibrant urban core at the heart of a network of hubs connected by transit won’t be easy. Hamilton, and the whole Greater Toronto Area, have failed to keep up with demand for public transit. As a result, we are 25 years behind advanced transit cities.
Through it all, Hamilton has been agonizingly slow to dismantle the car-dependent infrastructure put in place more than a half a century ago. Small changes, such as re-thinking the system of one way streets, can transform whole neighbourhoods and make them once again attractive to residents. More residents lead to enhanced street life which leads to more opportunities, commercial, cultural, retail and institutional.
With its outstanding housing stock and compact form, Hamilton is well poised for the kind of intensification that will occur whether civic officials are ready or not. Already, condos have started to pop up and several important heritage sites – most notably, the Lister Block – have been restored.
Still, Hamilton’s long-awaited urban revitalization has yet to unfold. Though rumours of an artist-led reclamation of downtown have been circulating for years, they have yet to materialize fully. But something is happening. Hamilton may not be the new Bohemia – at least not now – yet an arts scene is emerging. If history offers any clues, the forces of gentrification will not be far behind. In the beginning, artists rush in where developers fear to go, but that quickly changes.
The young professionals moving to Hamilton and buying houses that to them seem cheap don”t arrive with the baggage of earlier generations. They see what many don”t – a city. In the decades ahead, Hamilton’s strengths will be those very qualities it has long overlooked, everything from its architecture and its streets to its history and civic grittiness. Unburdened by memories of what Hamilton once was, this new generation will see only what the city could be.
LEARN MORE: Click Here to listen to Conversations with Christopher Hume and Guests recorded in Hamilton on June 14, 2012
Christopher Hume is the urban affairs columnist for The Toronto Star. He is also the moderator of Conversations with Christopher Hume and Guests, a speaker series hosted by The Renew Hamilton Project, an initiative of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. This opinion piece appears in Hamilton’s Vital Signs 2012, a citizens’ report from the Hamilton Community Foundation.