Commentary

Why I am a Hamilton Optimist

Anyone who buys even a bit of the idea that history is dialectical knows that, sometimes, the quicker and more utterly you hit rock bottom, the sooner the cycle turns.

By Jeff Mahoney
Published December 14, 2004

This town can suck the smile off a happy face button. It skins optimism alive. I saw optimism running down King Street the other day; it had no skin. It was begging people to finish it off. People just laughed.

Hamilton is a butcher of hope. It has blood on its apron. And hope in Hamilton is a frightened pig in a tractor-trailer, pressing its nose against the grate holes in its pen; it knows it's not going to Canada's Wonderland.

But, things could be worse. Okay, no, they couldn't. Yes, they could. Have you seen Baghdad? No, they couldn't. I don't know. Hi, how are ya? For as long as I've been in Hamilton - since just before they started cutting the trees down in Gore Park - people here have been urging each other to keep up hope.

Things then looked grim. This was the early '80s. There was a bad recession and Stelco had just come off an ugly strike. Everyone was talking about the future, but not in an excited, "are-we-there-yet?" kind of way. People were saying that Hamilton better diversify its economy - and quick. Or else.

Soon our various bids to bring an NHL team here started to tank. But when it looked as though people were getting a little too down, too dire, too panic-stricken, the empower-ers (and you know who you are) would remind us of all the good things there are about Hamilton. And they would rhapsodize about new cadres of civic leadership and the novel ways in which Hamilton could reshape itself.

This was a time when the downtown still had a faint pulse, when Stelco pensions still seemed rock-solid, when the expressway was not yet a fait accompli. Now look.

When DiIanni won the election, there was a visible sag in the left and centre of the city's political spirits. I heard people at city hall on election night talking about leaving the city. They couldn't stand to stay and watch. It was like a preview of what happened just a few weeks ago in the U.S.

But soon the empowerers were saying, "Yes, there are serious challenges, but Hamilton's got too much potential for us to throw in the towel." They were saying that even though WestJet was leaving the Mount Hope airport and Stelco went into receiversip.

Like the U.S., Hamilton seemed to split itself in two. The winners, in both cases, would deny this picture of a polarized body. But the "losers" feel as though they are outsiders in their own homes. Whether that feeling is self-imposed or a reflection of reality is for the two sides to debate. But either way the feeling is there.

So now the empowerers on the progressive left and centre are still putting on a brave face in Hamilton, as they are in the U.S. But even they have had to shift the hash marks of hope, so to speak. Now pessimism is the new optimism, and fatalism is the new pessimism.

The best that anyone with even an ounce of realism can hope for is that Hamilton will get a lot worse before it gets better but that it will, somehow, at some point, get better. If that's where you are, then I guess you could call yourself a pessimist with a parachute, which is, one could argue,a kind of optimist. Just hope it opens.

Alternately you could be a fatalist, secure in the conviction that this city will totally, irrecoverably destroy itself. And the bleakest among you think it already has, and that the new empowerers on the progressive left and centre are just fresh kill for the butchers of hope. The fatalists don't think the city is being run by idiots so much as by the puppets of idiots, perhaps even the flunkies of the puppets of the idiots.

I think I used to be one of those empowers. But how many times can you watch your puppies drown before you stop breeding them?

I know there are signs of hope. Locke Street. Some of the restaurants and art galleries. The new Imperial Cotton Centre project. The Staircase on Dundurn. Other bright spots. And, of course, the forum you're reading now; this new internet journal, which I welcome with the greatest enthusiasm and congratulations for its founders.

We've pinned our dreams on flickers like these before and seen the city continue to slide. Of course, I wish us well. But I'm not betting the farm. Or maybe I am. I'm not leaving. Get real - I can't leave. But even if I could, I wouldn't. I guess that makes me a pessimistic optimist or an optimistic pessimist.

Anyone who buys even a bit of the idea that history is dialectical knows that, sometimes, the quicker and more utterly you hit rock bottom, the sooner the cycle turns. That's why people like Nader are secretly happy Bush won again. Then more glaringly will the contradictions and frictions in the system become apparent and play the system out.

So here's to a quick demise and a steady recovery. Hear that scratching sound? That's the kitten in the poster letting go of the branch. "Hang in there"? Good luck. But maybe, just maybe, the kitten's wearing a parachute, or it can grab onto a branch below.

I hope so.

Jeff Mahoney is a columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and an all-around great guy. We paid him a lot of money to write nice things about us.

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By Trey (registered) | Posted None at

Concession Street is a bright spot too. IMO it offers more than Locke.

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By downtown (anonymous) | Posted None at

Great article. There are plenty of bright spots in the city, but we need a way to connect them physically and 'mentally' in the minds of residents...make more of the city a 'happening' place to be, not just isolated areas....Locke and Concession have a long way to go to equal the nightlife on James North, Hess or King William.

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By Locke (registered) | Posted None at

Thanks Jeff, You've expressed the frustration and hope that so many of us have with this home of ours... and make me laugh when I might otherwise cry. P.S. If it wasn't for you and a few other columnist, the spec would have lost my subscription a long time ago.

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By Shauna (registered) - website | Posted None at

Hamiltonians often become apathetic about our politicians (the recent sad turn out to the byelection in Ward 2 is a good example). Fresh faces offer new ideas to get this city back on it's feet, and yet the same people are elected year after year. We need to see change...but Hamiltonians need optimism and hope to implement that change through their power to vote. Good article. :)

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By kingwilliam1 (registered) | Posted None at

Leave the city? The core looks better on Diianni's watch than it ever did under Wade or Morrow. Here's to the future.

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By downtown (anonymous) | Posted None at

I must disagree - I personally am hoping that our city will set higher standards than simply 'looking better than it did under Wade or Morrow'. How could it look any worse?? The increased litter cleanup and sidewalk powerwashing is excellent, but is simply a small step in the right direction....I'm not raising a glass for a toast just because we got rid of the 'garbage tornadoes' from King and James. Much more investment and commitment from council is needed.

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By kingwilliam1 (registered) | Posted None at

It didn't just mean appearance-wise (although that has improved as well). The core is becoming safer and more liveable. The condos are a big improvement over the derelicts of yesterday. You can't reverse 30 years of decay overnight, but the direction is promising.

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By Locke (registered) | Posted None at

I really don't know if you can credit any politician with having any real direct affect on how livable the core is. Granted, keeping it clean does make it feel less neglected, but the reality is that council has invested very little in encouraging downtown development in comparison with how much is invested in suburban sprawl. When people line up to buy condos in the Core Lofts, my take on it is that improvement in the core will all happen because a large demographic cohort of first time buyers and empty nesters believe in urban living.

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By kingwilliam1 (registered) | Posted None at

Surely a balance is achievable. Suburban development is going to happen no matter what because a lot of people like living there. Fine, let them. You can't force people to live downtown, all you can do is make it an attractive option. But if you make it the only option, then people will go to other cities.

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By downtown (anonymous) | Posted None at

good point..although I don't think you have to worry about council ever making downtown Hamilton 'the only option'. Yes, there are more signs of life downtown and condo/loft buyers will improve the liveability, but in my opinion the biggest hindrance towards making downtown safe, friendly and liveable is the street/transportation network. Every purchaser at CoreLofts demanded a parking space. Why? Because who the heck wants to walk down Main or Bay or York or King etc....they're one-way highways out of town that kill any hope of pedestrian life in the core....I hate to say it, but all the new lofters downtown will simply add more cars to the streets since council doesn't understand this componenet of urban living. Suburbs are meant for cars, cities are meant for walking, cycling, transit and cars. etc- the 'revamped' Bay Street...what a joke.

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By rinnesbiz (registered) | Posted None at

Lets face it - we are residents of a huge slum with a greedy gouging landlord (read: City). As you acknowledge, getting out is tough as it always has been for slums but short of blowing up Stelco (pray they are not resuscitated), leaving is probably the only solution for mere mortals with only one lifetime to devote to batting ones head against the proverbial brick wall. No more than 5 years would be necessary but the incompetency amongst the empower-ers as you call them (including your employer, the Spec).... well I'm tired of waiting.

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By downtown (anonymous) | Posted None at

can't argue with any of that...what are we all still doing here????

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By Polish Pat (anonymous) | Posted April 09, 2009 at 23:13:53

There are certainly areas in Hamilton that could suck the smile off a happy face, but in general it's no so bad.
I don't have any first hand experience on the subject, but as I understand it, taxes are high in the downtown core, that keeps people away. If the downtown core was cleaned up and there was a higher police presents so people felt safe it would be well on it's way to recovery. Burlington, Ancaster and other areas surrounding Hamilton are amongst the wealthiest in the country, yet few of these people go downtown. I don't blame them, people want to feel safe and be in pleasant surroundings. Until this happens nothing will change.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2009 at 04:18:18

Why would we possibly want Stelco and all those well paying jobs back in our city, after all we have an abundance of jobs paying over $20 an hour. To date you are the only idiot I have heard of wishing Stelco does not make it back, everybody else has some humanity in them and wants people in our community to have well paying jobs. Obviously you did not lose your job and have absolutely no compassion for those who did. The human race would be better off without people like you.

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