Accidental Activist

Another Tale of Two Cities

Hamilton was poised to prosper once. With the growing, grumbling consensus that Toronto may not be such a great place to live for much longer, Hamilton is poised once again.

By Ben Bull
Published May 18, 2007

The latest plans for Toronto's waterfront are not exactly generating huge excitement this side of the pond. Perhaps that's because, in the midst of the many neighbourhood beautification projects that are dangled like carrots just out of our reach, the only project that looks like getting a nibble is ... another condo tower.

After the weekend announcement of the all-but-done deal, disenchanted Torontonians screamed their frustrations all over the op-ed section of Monday's Toronto Star.

"Maybe if they (Toronto council) stopped their habitual and ridiculous squabbling, they might just have a clue once in awhile," chastised Linda Dowds of Toronto.

"Is all hope lost for the development of our "world-class" city?" asked resident Peter Roman, "Here's a novel challenge for our city's leaders: Lead!"

And this from disgruntled resident, Robert Manders:

This is why I have no faith that the beautiful plans for the lower Don River, or any plans to beautify the waterfront, will ever be more than exercises in public deception: Beautiful parks and grassy knolls will always be sacrificed to development.

Grass doesn't generate tax revenue, but condos do. Toronto has never demonstrated any ability to put into practice the vaunted words of public access and beautification. The tallest towers will always get the choicest land.

Ouch.

Hamilton's Prime

This latest squabble - one of many permeating the political landscape in my new home town - made me roll back the years, to Hamilton's prime. I recalled the Trevor Shaw article, Once Upon A Time, in which he recounted Hamilton's past glory as a communications hub and economic powerhouse.

"Hamilton was...Canada's industrial powerhouse" wrote Trevor, recalling the 1910 arrival of Stelco, "The location was ideal...a close proximity to the U.S. border, a deep-sea port with access to the Atlantic through the St. Lawrence seaway and to the Ohio basin via the Welland Canal... Hamilton was proud. Hamilton was world-class."

Back then Hamilton was second cousin to no one. In fact, its growth rivalled that of any Canadian city. Toronto almost paled in comparison.

But that was then. Today, Hamilton's problems are well known. The heydey of its manufacturing prosperity is long gone and, with the influx of new residents in search of cheap housing pouring in from the east, the city struggles to shape its destiny into anything other than a bedroom community for its well-to-do cousin, Toronto.

Perhaps it doesn't have to be this way. Maybe Hamilton, once again, can be poised to erode the enviable position of its illustrious neighbour to the east?

Because here in Toronto, while Hamilton tries to set itself apart and create the kind of diverse economy essential to any successful city, we are stuck. It's as if we have nowhere left to go.

Four years after Mayor David Miller's infamous broom campaign, in which he promised to sweep away corruption and bring a new energy to City Hall, nothing much has changed.

The island airport bridge didn't happen but a commercial air service did. The much maligned waterfront power plant is still a go. Nobody buried the Gardiner. And the only green scheme to emerge from the Mayor's office is the disappointing decision to truck our garbage to London, Ontario instead of Michigan.

It's all very underwhelming.

A Blank Canvas

So what does this all mean for Hamilton? Well, as we've said before here on RTH, Hamilton has, in many ways, something of a blank canvas to work with when it comes to charting its future course.

When you look at the large swaths of undeveloped land along the waterfront and the downtown and the little pockets of potential in the North End, you can see that Hamilton has an exciting template for successful regeneration.

In Toronto, however, where ideas abound, and leadership has run aground, the focus seems to be on just fixing past mistakes, on working around our overdevelopment, rather than steering a bold course into the future. What with this latest waterfront condo announcement, it seems we can't even do that.

"As it stands now, we might as well scrap any waterfront revitalization committees...because it is clear there is no waterfront left," laments Linda Dowds, in the latter part of her letter.

The back-door deals are done and there is nothing left to revitalize. The committees talking about tearing down the Gardiner - they, too, can go, since traffic needs to somehow get in and out, even it will move at less than a crawl. The committees pushing for closing one lane on Queens Quay to make way for more green space, extended bike routes and street fair events - they can pack up, too.

The letter writer's pessimism is even shared by our councillors.

"I don't think there's much we can do," Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone, remarked, when asked by the Star about the proposed waterfront condos.

"I don't know what can be done," agreed Councillor Brian Ashton.

Oh dear.

How did Toronto get to this impasse?

An Intractible Climate

I got my first wind of the intractible climate over here not long after I landed, last spring. The city was bracing itself for the long awaited report on burying the Gardiner Expressway.

At first, the Mayor refused to release it, opting instead to hide it under his desk until after the election. But in the end, after much public pressure and even more anticipation, he relented.

It wasn't worth the wait.

Pull it down and create a 10 lane Lakeshore expressway was the authors' #1 recommndation.

You could almost feel the city deflate.

A few months later, I reflected on the winning entry for the Don Lands beautification competition. What's the point of all this? I thought to myself.

The Don Lands is the spot where the Don River meets Lake Ontario. It is situated right underneath the Gardiner, where it ramps down to the DVP. It's not exactly a prime spot for fishing.

Today Torontonians are crying out for a better quality of life but, in dealing with our current climate of political ineptitude and inaction (did you know that several Toronto city councillors recently argued about who should stand where for the post-election photo shoot? They had to call it off and reconvene later) and looking at the unchecked overdevelopment that continues unabated, we are left to wonder how we are ever going to dig ourselves out of the many messes we've created (and continue to create).

A Great Opportunity

Which brings us back to Hamilton. Out of Toronto's despair, Hamilton has, once again, a great opportunity to edge ahead, to show us how it's done.

Imagine a town with a walkable waterfront, acres of green spaces, plenty of bike lanes, safe sidewalks and world class transit. Instead of attracting the bedroom community set that are flocking to the Hammer now, a flourishing Hamilton could begin to attract something much more important and profitable: new businesses, and with it - new jobs.

I know this is a stretch for many of us sometimes. Hamilton was, after all, one of the last towns to enact an anti-idling by-law, and a pretty wishy washy one at that.

But Hamilton was poised to prosper once, and with the growing, grumbling consensus that if Toronto carries on the way it is it may not be such a great place to live for much longer, I believe Hamilton is poised once again.

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 Myrcurial (registered) - website | Posted May 18, 2007 at 12:03:53

I'll admit that I'm one of the people that works in Toronto. But I want Hamilton to be more than my bedroom. I spend the money I make in Toronto in Hamilton. I'd like to spend more of it, but Hamilton doesn't seem to want it! Why does Jackson Square close up shop before the earliest train comes back from Toronto? I end up having to pick up little purchases on my walk from work to GO rather than picking them up on my walk from GO to HSR - entirely because I have no interest in going out to the malls, either in a car or on HSR. It's the little things that make a difference, and a commercial centre that is open when the people with the money are there... seems like a given. Don't get me started on closing the mall at 6 on a Saturday night.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 18, 2007 at 13:05:12

So when can we expect you back?

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted May 20, 2007 at 11:40:18

Who, me?!

My wife has informed me, 'we're never moving again'. After 5 houses in 10 years I think I might have to agree... :)

As for Myrcurial's points - don't get me started either... I once waited 40 minutes for a bus, from Dundas to Hamilton on a SATURDAY night, only to be told that the downtown restaurant I was going to closed early in the Summer...!!

I often asked myself, when I lived in the Hammer, 'what kind of town is this?'. It's easy to be judgmental when you've lived in a 'grown up' town (as Ryan calls Montreal in his latest blog) but in truth the experience of living in Hamilton, for me, was, in the end, more exasperating than engaging. This was due to all those 'little' experiences like the one Myrcurial mentioned and the one I described.

Come to think of it, now you mention it, there is a long list of 'Little Exasperations' that separate Hamilton from proper gown up towns:

  • no trees in the North End (and none on the north side of Main Street in the east end) – why can’t Hamilton see the value in growing the city’s canopy?
  • having to change buses all the time, just to get from A to B - even in a straight line! Why can’t Hamilton have a transit system that works?
  • Two-way streets…how long does this debate have to go on before somebody twigs?
  • Garbage and condoms along Hamilton beach – it’s a public place!
  • Centennial Parkway and Upper James – what were we thinking?
  • The Lister Block – my heart sinks every time I see a neglected old building
  • Nowhere to pub crawl – I once tried it from Theatre Aquarius to Slainte in the snow. There was nowhere to go (and Slainte was full)
  • Gore Park ‘Festivals’ – I took the family to see the finale of ‘Hamilton Idol’ a few years ago. You could hardly hear the singers for the sounds of the traffic and the generator behind the stage. And the generator spewed black smoke all over the 50 or so folks who had bothered to attend. Not exactly world class entertainment
  • Remembrance Day ceremonies – I was horrified to find, on attending my first Gore Park ceremony a few years back, that the King Street traffic was not held back. The sparse crowd was squashed onto the south side of King. When the cannon went off to mark the 1 minute silence it set off a car alarm about 50 feet away…only in Hamilton

OK, so now I feel guilty for dissing Hamilton but the truth is, like Mercruial says, it’s these little things that separate a grown up town from an angst ridden teenager. The good news is that they ain’t so hard to change (although you wouldn’t know it, if you ever attended a Hamilton council meeting…)

Cheers!

Ben

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 22, 2007 at 10:06:29

great post Ben. I love the Hammer and can easily find more good than bad, but you're right - enough experiences like that drive one crazy. part of the blame lies in the citizenry of the city - I overheard someone recently bemoaning "your tax dollars at work" when we caught a glimpse of a Victoria Day fireworks display. Perhaps Hamilton is too 'grown-up'? We've forgotten how to have fun. Thousands of kids had a blast on Victoria Day, yet an adult would rather have that money spent to repave more roads. The Gore could become a fabulous place if we just let a group of kids run the BIA for a year. They still appreciate fun and excitement as an integral part of life. Seems the folks running that particular BIA only get excited about more parking.

City Hall can frustrate the best of us, but too many deadbeats get the press when something unique, fun or fabulous is proposed for our city. To me that's a bigger problem.

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By hammertime (registered) | Posted May 22, 2007 at 13:07:32

  • Nowhere to pub crawl – I once tried it from Theatre Aquarius to Slainte in the snow. There was nowhere to go (and Slainte was full)

Try Augusta - great pubs all within walking distance of each other.

Try John St. - A string of pubs/restaurants and bars.

Try Locke St. - lots of places for a pint or drink.

Just a few options.

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