Accidental Activist

Touring Hamilton's Waterfront

With its simple, back-to-nature approach to lakeside strolling and stunning panoramas, Hamilton's Waterfront has something unique and truly pleasurable to offer.

By Ben Bull
Published September 20, 2006

Last Sunday I ventured into Hamilton after an absence of several months. I live in Toronto now and was curious to know what it would be like to view my old home town through the lens of a tourist.

With my Mum (over on holiday from England) and family in tow, we decided to tackle the much-heralded Waterfront. If nothing else, this would give me an opportunity to compare it to Toronto's Harbourfront, which I toured in our last issue of RTH.

Hamilton Harbourfront, Pier 4: Hey Toronto, what colour is this?
Hamilton Harbourfront, Pier 4: Hey Toronto, what colour is this?

We started out on James Street North with lunch at the Wild Orchid. As we sat on the patio, the first things I noticed were the same things I fell in love with when I came here, six or seven years ago.

There is an overbearing air of unpretentiousness about Hamilton. Coming from Toronto, where everything is upwardly mobile, the urge to just be yourself is refreshingly strong. Just like my childhood hometown of Leeds, the people in Hamilton are entirely unconcerned with what anyone else thinks about them.

A teenager in a Portugal football jersey pushed a cart full of pop across the street. A gaggle of elderly European gentlemen huddled in conversation across the road. With all the arm-waving they looked as if they must be talking about religion or politics; however, my experience with Spanish culture (my wife is Spanish) lends me to think they were probably talking about the weather, or the merits of Figo's inclusion in the 2006 World Cup squad...

Dinner over, we strolled down James towards LIUNA Station and the Waterfront. I marveled at how un-boarded-up James Street now appears and how stunning the architecture still is. I noticed that the old Fish Market is no longer, but was pleased to see a couple of new art galleries 'opening soon' on the other side of the road.

LIUNA Station: still beautiful, but why is it closed to the public?
LIUNA Station: still beautiful, but why is it closed to the public?

We reached the station and, as always, I was taken aback by the beauty of this old entranceway and the square that fronts it. I decided to take a proper look at the "Courage Hope and Dreams" Immigration Square statue, which I have thus far ignored, and found myself getting a little choked up by it all.

In our age of modern art, where every sculpture requires you to squint sideways and dream up your own obscure interpretation, the Immigration Square statue is beautifully apparent. The expressions of hope and apprehension - the look of poverty - how many new lives began here, and how did they all turn out?

I have never been inside the station. I sped a security guard hovering around outside, and asked him if I could go in. He informed me that there is a wedding party due shortly and that the station is, "not generally open to the public." He suggested I go into the office and ask for a tour, or better still, go to their website and check out the panoramic photos online.

Like many people, I salute LIUNA for restoring this fabulous building but, unlike most people, I resent the fact that the City of Hamilton sold the station for private interests. A public building should remain public - not sold for a quick profit.

There is something inherently wrong about being barred entry from a train station, church or post office. It's like Hamilton's dozen or so private waterfalls - why should such splendor be screened from the public's view?

Disappointed, we continued our stroll down James, towards the Bay.

I bored my Mum explaining how this stretch of road was subjected to the splendors of urban renewal back in the 196os and '70s. "There used to be so many beautiful buildings down here," I told her.

My Mum knows all about dense concentrations of affordable housing. In Leeds we used to live up the road from two of the most notorious council estates in England - Halton Moor and Gipton. You were just about guaranteed an encounter of the criminal kind whenever you took a shortcut down one of these streets.

Many of those Leeds houses have now been boarded up or burned down. Even Maggie Thatcher's policy of selling council properties to residents did little to spruce up the streets. For the most part the estates remain, as does the poverty and despair that accompanies them.

We reached the yacht club and turned to the left, to Pier 4 and the quaint little boat playground thingy. I'm impressed with how interconnected the whole trail has now become. From Princess Point to Bayfront Park, to Pier 4 and the Discovery Center and the Williams Coffee pub, there is now an abundance of reasons to just keep on walking. Hopefully the trail will soon be linked (properly) to the Haida, which seems a little, er, lost at sea in its hard-to-find mooring spot to the east.

I left the kids with their Mum and wandered off to the washroom. On the way down the slope I paused to take in the view (I wouldn't recommend this, by the way, as it involves loitering outside the men's washroom - it took me a few minutes to work out what all the worried glances were about).

As I stood there I found myself blinded by the colour: green! How pathetic Toronto's little $1 million strip of grass seems in comparison to this green expanse.

Mum and I perched on a rock and watched the yachts float by. Every now and again we turned our heads to keep tabs on the little terrors. Everybody was having fun. As kids' parks go, the little boat by the lake is a pretty modest structure - but the kids clearly love it. The water fountains in particular, were a great hit.

Nothing But Nature: Hamilton's Harbourfront is on the right path
Nothing But Nature: Hamilton's Harbourfront is on the right path

As I looked around the harbourfront it occured to me just how unobtrusive the "interference" from our municipal planners has been. Toronto's Harbourfront is all about commercialism - restaurants and shops consume the strip of concrete from Spadina to Bay - but all we seem to have here is a modest trail, lots of grass, and a little boat.

Even the Princess Point boardwalk and Bayfront Park have been created with one primary purpose in mind - walking. I hope that Hamilton takes note of this and avoids the temptation to go overboard as it contemplates its future waterfront enhancements.

After another hour of simple pleasures - scoffing ice-cream, watching boats go by and cleaning up the odd scuffed knee - we headed over to the Coffee Pub.

The shuttle tram trundled by, giving me yet another reason to come back, and paused outside the Pub, which, curiously, appeared to have a long line outside. We changed our minds and headed back instead, up Hughson Street North, toward the car.

Hughson Street North is an Only-In-Hamilton, hodge-podge kind of road, featuring run-down century homes and quaint little 1970s bungalows. There is a community centre and unmarked building in the middle of a well-kept field. Some of the windows are boarded up.

A local youth was busy destroying a nearby bush with a stick, and all around hung unmistakable scent of boredom. This neighbourhood has such promise, but as with most affordable housing enclaves, it is critical to get the mix of housing just right.

Whether it's Aberdeen Avenue's middle-class hoards or the pockets of working poor in the north and east ends, one thing I have learned (the hard way) is that no neighbourhood can overcome the kind of housing that defines it.

Our trip over, I asked our exhausted party how they enjoyed their outing.

"Wonderful," replied my Mum, without hesitation.

"Still a lovely town," conceded my wife.

"Hamilton rocks!" exclaimed Jack, who clearly will always be a Hamilton optimist.

There is a lot of hope for Hamilton's waterfront. More so, perhaps, than for Toronto's. With its simple, back-to-nature approach to lakeside strolling and stunning panoramas, Hamilton has something unique and truly pleasurable to offer.

I will watch Hamilton's waterfront developments with interest. And I will be back.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By Schooley (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2006 at 16:44:35

Sorry to read that Ben has slid back to Toronto. Especially since so much of his experience of Canada seems to be limited to our two cities.

Hamilton's new waterfront is indeed a delight and city administration deserves credit for getting so much of this right, where so much of earlier attempts at urban renewal in Hamilton's north end went wrong. But I would like to say that the James St. North of my memory, from the CN tracks to Burlington Street, did not contain anything that anyone would call beautiful. My memory may be faulty, but in that particular strip I remember only dilapidated housing, wooden structures leaning on each other for support.

And while the waterfront access is lovely, it is not unique. On a recent trip east it was apparent that many communities are spending on waterfront renewal in the hope that tourism will make up for the loss of industry. Yes, Halifax is honkey-tonk while many smaller towns and cities are more authentic, but Quebec City's waterfront is probably the least commercialized area of that tourist town (though built up to handle the cruise trade) and Montreal has an interesting mix of activities. Ottawa has long capitalized on it's canal, and parts of Toronto away from the city centre are more natural. Consider the islands, and the parkland at the old psychiatric hospital in the west end. Peterborough, Oakville, Burlington all have nice waterfront areas, not to mention Niagara Falls and the river parkway.

This is not to knock what Hamilton has done, by any means, but more to point out that if tourism is to play a significant part in the city's economy, as I've heard many say it should, then the city still needs to develop a unique focal point.

The waterfront, the art gallery, renewal on Locke St., James St. North and King St. East, are more by way of infrastructure. There's a need for something truly unique for this part of the city's economy to flourish.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 20, 2006 at 17:55:01

Hi Schooley,

Thanks for the feedback. Good points. My peice was more a series of observations rather than a waterfront analysis. Thanks for taking the time to put some more context around it.

I have indeed travelled around Canada and also various waterfronts around Europe. I just wasn't paying that much attention at the time :)

Toronto island is probably my favourite place in Canada. I don't, however, rate the Harbourfront too much. Like I say - it's all concrete. But it does have many draws and this point is well taken. It's unlikely many tourists would be drawn to an unmolested waterfront like Hamilton's, without something to excite them.

Your comments about uniqueness are interesting. I was referring to the scenery and history of the area. I told my Mum all about the bridge that collapsed between Bayfront and Princess Point (I forget the name) and also what I could remember about the McQueston Bridge and Dundurn 'Castle' (which was almost visible). If the suggestion is that Hamilton needs something unique to draw tourists, I would love for it to be related to the history of the area. Give me a Tower of London over a Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame anyday.

As for the North End, well it's all hearsay for me - I wasn't there. I heard and read about lots of cool industrial buildings - including a courtyard area, in the North end that were torn down. Yesterdays warehouses make great lofts for today - again it's about history and the more we can integrate and preserve the better.

Thanks again for the comments.

Ben

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By sean (registered) | Posted September 21, 2006 at 14:25:02

I'd love to see some mixed use zoning in the area immediately bordering the waterfront: Bay, Guise, and the neighbourhood right behind. What a wonderful place for some smaller cafes, bars, and stores with waterfront views. Maybe give the boaters a place to shop etc...

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By Gary R. (anonymous) | Posted August 27, 2007 at 07:47:49

Why can't they take the great(and profitable) idea of trolleys and put them in a couple of other spots?

1 From Hutch's to the Wild Water Works Wave pool, with stops at Baranga's(maybe they could sponsor it), adventure village, the park/picnic area and of course the wave pool. It could turn around at the loop, at the end of the trail.

2 Wentworth Rail trail.
3 Mountain brow/ Concession street area

This city needs to show off it's hidden secrets. Most people I know(even from here) have no clue about some of the stuff this city has.

Why can't there be some building on these successful ideas. Both trolleys are selling out almost regularly.

Curious?

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