City Life

Christmas Time in the City

Take the opportunity to do your Christmas shopping in a real neighbourhood instead of a suburban mall or big box strip.

By Jason Leach
Published November 28, 2005

Ah, the first snow has fallen and Hamilton's stores and streets are busy with shoppers, strollers, and folks like me who love to sip a coffee, read a book and watch the world go by.

Last issue, we discussed some Christmas-shopping ideas that would be a little more helpful to the local Hamilton economy and less favourable to the mega-corporations who usually dominate the retail scene.

This past weekend my wife and I went to Ottawa Street North to buy fabric for our living/­dining room curtains. I'm sure our neighbours have had enough of watching us eat dinner, watch TV, and chase our two-year-old.

Mind you, our neighbourhood is great for strolls at dusk. We've gotten ideas as to the colour of curtains, walls and accents that would suit our house simply by strolling the streets and casually glancing into each home along the way.

The homes in our area were built close to the sidewalk, with huge windows designed to maximize the natural light in an era before cheap, abundant electricity.

A steady light snow was falling on this particular Saturday and Ottawa Street was alive with shoppers from all over the city.

The early morning snowfall had just the right amount of snow on the trees and buildings. Shop owners were out shoveling their sidewalks and preparing for another day of serving customers and adding to the friendly ambiance of the neighbourhood.

Our fabric outing took an unfortunate turn when we were a mere 40 cm short of the full ten metres of fabric we needed for our two rooms. The folks at Fabricland sent us to the Upper James store.

Our daughter fell asleep on the way up so my wife ran into the Mountain store while I waited in the parking lot. I watched the street roar by for 15 minutes and tried to get a sense of the neighbourhood.

There were no pedestrians. Anyone driving less than 60 km was promptly honked at and cut off. Getting a feel for the neighbourhood was impossible because there isn't one.

I grew up near here and had no clue that it was so unfriendly and devoid of life. I had a perfect view of the never-ending hodgepodge of signs, cars, parking lots and the non-existent streetscape that is Upper James.

Folks are all streaming off the highway, jockying for a parking spot and putting their head down to avoid the winter snow as they head into the store. Then back out of the lot, down 12 driveways and back in for some more.

Going from one extreme to another in such a short time period made it easy to see the importance of design and urban planning on the health and feel of a neighbourhood. Why in the world would any sensible city planner or politician allow the developers to build Upper James in the way they did?

If they had added bike lanes, bus lanes, and trees, and had the buildings face the street with parking in behind, it might have had a chance to resemble a proper neighbourhood.

The real problem is the entire makeup and design of sprawl. Folks aren't concerned with beautiful building details, historic plaques or recently renovated facades. They want to drive fast, with few obstacles (pedestrians, bikes and buses fall into this category) and vast empty parking lots wherever they go.

Out here, the car truly is king.

Whether you live in the suburbs or in the city, take a fresh look at Hamilton's growing urban business districts. Take a look beyond the businesses and look at the neighbourhood.

Watch how folks interact on James North. Enjoy the families in Gore Park marveling at the lights and Christmas displays. Instead of always stopping at the Lister Block to admire its blight, walk down King William to John and check out the bustling cafes and restaurants along the way.

Hamilton is blessed to have an urban core with many streets and neighbourhoods still intact. James and John South are a bit more friendly for pedestrians, cyclists and shoppers now that the streets are two-way.

(Eliminating the goofy turning lanes and adding more on-street parking would be a logical next step, in case anyone from city hall is reading this.)

Most of all, it's our people that make the difference. The fellow who owns Goodness Me stopped to say hi and chat for a moment while shoveling his sidewalk on Locke Street. Real streets make these meetings possible.

The small business folks care about the customers. I know the staff by name at the Bad Dog Café, and guess what: they know mine too. Heck, just in the few shops on Locke that we frequent we know a Peter, Pat, Heather, Jodi, Sylvia, Ashley, Janet, Lou, Tony and another Tony.

You could shop at the Meadowlands for the next five years and not know that many names or have them know yours.

As corporate North America gets bigger, badder and more desperate for your money, the more appeal there is in supporting small, local businesses that will serve, help you out, and get to know you.

Not just for your money, but because they recognize their role in the fabric of a healthy city.

* * *

We want to hear from you! If you've been reading any of these Christmas planning articles and have taken the plunge to shop in a new neighbourhood or part of Hamilton that your previously hadn't, send an email to neighbourhoods@raisethehammer.org and share your story. We'll publish the stories we receive in an upcoming issue.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.

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