Photo Essay

Hamilton's James Street North: A Hidden Gem

James Street North is a Jane Jacobs urban village with a diversity of buildings, activities and people and its mixture of local pubs, clubs, cafes, bistros and shops.

By Richard White
Published July 09, 2013

As a former Hamiltonian, I have watched with interest Hamilton struggle to cling on to its status as one of the top 10 cities in Canada. Like Pittsburg, Buffalo and other cities in the North American Rust Belt, Hamilton has had to reinvent itself.

It is no longer the "ambitious city" (a former moniker)! Similarly its status as a "steeltown" has long disappeared with its now more diversified employment base.

James Street, one of the oldest streets in Canada, has a history that dates back to the early 1800s. It was home to Hamilton's first department store (The Right House, 1893) and first skyscraper (Pigott Building, 1929, 18 floors).

Lister Block, the first indoor mall in Canada, was built in 1886, burned down in 1923, was rebuilt in 1924, and in 2011 was restored to its early 20th century charm.

Super Block

James Street is also home to Lloyd D Jackson Square, a mega downtown indoor mall built in 1972. It includes a public square on top that never really worked. The mall was part of a major downtown renewal project that includes a theatre, civic art gallery, convention centre, arena, central library and farmers' market - basically everything an urban planners and developers at the time thought was needed to revitalize the Downtown.

The thought was that downtowns needed an downtown indoor shopping mall to compete with the suburban malls. Calgary built TD Square in 1977, Edmonton built, its City Centre Place in 1974 and Winnipeg built Portage Place in 1987.

Forty years later, Hamilton's downtown, not unlike Winnipeg's and Edmonton's, still struggles to become the vibrant live, work and play places they were in the '50s. Lesson - Urban vitality is an art, not a science!

Morgenstern's is not truly a department store. Just one floor, mostly clothing. There is an entire section of first holly communion dresses and lots of party/graduation dresses that are right out of the '60s maybe '50s. We are always surprised it is still there when we visit.
Morgenstern's is not truly a department store. Just one floor, mostly clothing. There is an entire section of first holly communion dresses and lots of party/graduation dresses that are right out of the '60s maybe '50s. We are always surprised it is still there when we visit.

Hamilton City Centre/Jackson Square shopping mall looking south from James Street north. Once downtown was home to several department stores, today there are none.
Hamilton City Centre/Jackson Square shopping mall looking south from James Street north. Once downtown was home to several department stores, today there are none.

The barren bleak public plaza that was created on top of the Jackson Square shopping mall above street level. Public plazas must be at street level or at least visible from the street to be welcoming. Plazas need animated shops and restaurants opening up onto it with patios. The buildings here turn their back on the plaza and have no interaction. What were they thinking?
The barren bleak public plaza that was created on top of the Jackson Square shopping mall above street level. Public plazas must be at street level or at least visible from the street to be welcoming. Plazas need animated shops and restaurants opening up onto it with patios. The buildings here turn their back on the plaza and have no interaction. What were they thinking?

Hidden Gem North of Super Block

However, an area just north of the "super block," once called "Little Portugal" now branded as James Street North (JSN) that is becoming very attractive to indie artists in many different disciplines from across southern Ontario.

JSN, a seven-block district, extending from Wilson to Murray Street, consists of early 20th century, low-rise brick buildings that are ideal for low rent street level retail, restaurants and cafes with studios and apartments above.

The street retains its historical authenticity architecturally and culturally with several Portugal-based restaurants, pubs and shops in operation.

JSN is a Jane Jacobs urban village with a diversity of buildings, activities and people and its mixture of local pubs, clubs, cafes, bistros and shops. There is no Tim Horton's, Starbucks or Lululemon. What there is is a new energy with the opening of the Art Gallery of Hamilton Shop and Annex, as well as CBC Hamilton studios.

The CBC Hamilton and Art Gallery of Hamilton Art Annex is the gateway to the James Street North Arts District. This is the only contemporary urban design element in the entire district.
The CBC Hamilton and Art Gallery of Hamilton Art Annex is the gateway to the James Street North Arts District. This is the only contemporary urban design element in the entire district.

James Street North streetscape is one of narrow sidewalks with lots of small shops. Doesn't take many people to generate a vibrant ambience.
James Street North streetscape is one of narrow sidewalks with lots of small shops. Doesn't take many people to generate a vibrant ambience.

This could be in Portugal, but it is downtown Hamilton's James Street North. This is just blocks away from Hamilton's downtown Farmers' Market one of the largest and oldest in Canada.
This could be in Portugal, but it is downtown Hamilton's James Street North. This is just blocks away from Hamilton's downtown Farmers' Market one of the largest and oldest in Canada.

New independent restaurants are starting to populate the streets. These are small intimate spaces that encourage human interactions.
New independent restaurants are starting to populate the streets. These are small intimate spaces that encourage human interactions.

Ola Cafe is just one of the many Portuguese shops that adds an authenticity to JSN's sense of place. You can't create this with urban redevelopment it takes decades to create character like this.
Ola Cafe is just one of the many Portuguese shops that adds an authenticity to JSN's sense of place. You can't create this with urban redevelopment it takes decades to create character like this.

An art exhibition in one of the many bohemian art galleries, mostly artists' cooperatives vs commercial galleries. Meet the artist not the owner!
An art exhibition in one of the many bohemian art galleries, mostly artists' cooperatives vs commercial galleries. Meet the artist not the owner!

There is a playfulness and spontaneity in the galleries. This mask/head was taken off the wall and an impromptu performance happened.
There is a playfulness and spontaneity in the galleries. This mask/head was taken off the wall and an impromptu performance happened.

Mom and pop cafe, no Tim's, Starbucks or Second Cup in sight.
Mom and pop cafe, no Tim's, Starbucks or Second Cup in sight.

Supercrawl

Initiated in 2009, Supercrawl built on the popularity of JSN second Friday art crawls. It has quickly grown from a one-day street festival into a major two-day arts festival attracting 80,000 people in 2012.

The 2013 event on September 13 and 14th will expand yet again to include waterfront concerts at Pier 8 at the end of James Street on the waterfront.

Supercrawl organizers have announced that this year's free musical acts will include Said The Whale, Chelsea Light Moving (with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth), Young Rival, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Steve Strongman, Yo La Tengo, Sandro Perri, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and 2009 Polaris Prize winners F*ed UP.

Artists and patrons enjoying themselves at one of the monthly Art Crawls along James Street North.
Artists and patrons enjoying themselves at one of the monthly Art Crawls along James Street North.

Exploring/Flaneuring

If you are in the Hamilton area and are interested in art and architecture, don't just drive by. Drive into the Downtown and check out James Street North. Take a walk back in time. JSN should be on the radar of anyone who is into urban exploring, art, architecture and flaneuring.

Below are just a few teasers.

Downtown Hamilton has several elegant early 20th century churches.
Downtown Hamilton has several elegant early 20th century churches.

Hamilton's Farmers' Market is a foodies mecca. The clock is from the old Hamilton Birk's Building
Hamilton's Farmers' Market is a foodies mecca. The clock is from the old Hamilton Birk's Building

Downtown is full of exquisite buildings in various states of aging. There is a wonderful urban patina that creates a unique sense of place. This is not your pretty restored historic district.
Downtown is full of exquisite buildings in various states of aging. There is a wonderful urban patina that creates a unique sense of place. This is not your pretty restored historic district.

James Street North architecture collage
James Street North architecture collage

Hidden amongst the architecture and urban patina are some wonderful ornamental elements from the past which enrich the streetscape. Decorative and ornamental elements have been lost in the age of minimalism.
Hidden amongst the architecture and urban patina are some wonderful ornamental elements from the past which enrich the streetscape. Decorative and ornamental elements have been lost in the age of minimalism.

Fountain in Gore Park is a throwback to age of urban ornamentation and decoration.
Fountain in Gore Park is a throwback to age of urban ornamentation and decoration.

Hamilton's Central Library and Farmers' Market are a key component of the city's 40 year struggle with downtown urban renewal experiments.
Hamilton's Central Library and Farmers' Market are a key component of the city's 40 year struggle with downtown urban renewal experiments.

This article was first published on Everyday Tourist and is republished with permission.

Richard White is an experienced everyday tourist. Over the past 30 years, his "day job" has taken him from scientist to director/curator of a public art gallery to executive director of downtown business association to director of 3D animation studio to consultant. All the while – when travelling for work or pleasure – he honed his flaneuring skills. He writes for Everyday Tourist, and you can follow him on Twitter @everydaytourist.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 07:47:06

Thanks for the tour. We don't get enough photo essays on RTH. More please!

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By Gored (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 07:50:30

All this talk about old buildings and small business and revitalizing neighbourhoods, meanwhile a developer is getting ready to demolish more of these buildings just up the street. FFS.

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By stopdemolishingthegore! (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:47:59 in reply to Comment 90057

We must STOP the demolition!

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By Today (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:12:15

Nice read and photos, thanks Richard.

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:18:15

I've just returned from Europe and North Africa and I have a renewed appreciation for all we have in Hamilton. We seek out places internationally that are no further than our backyard. Family and I will be strolling JSN this weekend.

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By granny2 (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:55:13 in reply to Comment 90062

Check out fabulous new artwork on Dunas Verde patio by local artists The Bomb Squad Art Crew.
It's temporary ... due to city bylaws against 'grafitti'.
Now you see it ... soon you won't!

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By Everyday Tourist (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:25:58

Re: Demolishing buildings
It is important that you balance the preservation of the past with the prosperity of the future. You can't preserve all of your old buildings you need new buildings to allow for diversity of retailers, offices and residents. Jane Jacobs talked about one third old, one third renovated and one third new, which I think is about the right ratio. Need to embrace the old and the new, can't be one dimensional.

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By granny2 (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 10:10:06 in reply to Comment 90066

Do you see 2/3 of the buildings surrounding the Gore as "old" or "renovated?
There are only 5 small 1800's buildings left!
2 are being totally demolished!
The remaining 3 are being mostly or totally demolished, at the builder's whim!
And all 5 are being left vacant scars for several years in the most inportant block of the city until the developers' whim moves them to erect some faceless concrete and glass monstrosity that is not what people want to buy.

City council got sucked into a BAD deal with a BAD developer.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:58:37 in reply to Comment 90066

We have endless seas of vacant lots which the "new" can be built upon. There is absolutely no need to clear any more land in our core. If we fill all the available space with new buildings, then we'll come closer to the ratio she describes. If we continue to demolish the old with promise of new that never arrives, the ratio will continue to be 1/10 old, 1/10 renovated, 1/10 new and 7/10 vast seas of vacant land.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:52:44 in reply to Comment 90066

People might feel better about the demo if the property owner actually had a plan to do something with the site. This is the same guy who has a bylaw named after him that you're not allowed to demo a downtown building and turn it into a parking lot. There's nothing wrong with the buildings he wants to knock down, they just need someone to care about them.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:56:33 in reply to Comment 90072

Yeah, that. I'm personally not attached to the buildings in question, but I still don't want to see them taken down because I don't trust Blanchard to break ground before the end of the decade, if ever.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 12:15:34 in reply to Comment 90074

And I don't trust him to replace them with anything that will enhance the function and aesthetics of the Gore.

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By Core-B (registered) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:36:04

Very nice article, thank you. One of your photos of the CBC wall reminded me of a constant question I have. Does anyone know what the plans are for the very large ugly concrete wall at Main and Bay?

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 11:09:17 in reply to Comment 90068

They could always put out a public art RFP (eg: "Purina Rauschenberg" http://goo.gl/maps/RjuYD )

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted July 09, 2013 at 10:00:09 in reply to Comment 90068

We should paint a mural of lost buildings to remind ourselves of the dangers of acting too fast on empty promises ;-)

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:44:00 in reply to Comment 90068

Vrancor owns the L-shaped parcel of land that wraps around the northwest corner of Bay and Main, but someone else owns the corner lot itself. I would like to think the blank wall is a proactive design decision to allow the owner of the corner property to develop it without another situation like the condo at the corner of Aberdeen and Dundurn, which completely eclipses the north-facing windows and balconies of the building beside it.

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By DavidColacci (registered) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 20:22:07 in reply to Comment 90069

Absolutely correct. Vranich tried to buy it but that was a no-go. It is meant to have another building butt up against it.

Comment edited by DavidColacci on 2013-07-09 20:22:30

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By JMorse (registered) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 16:42:07 in reply to Comment 90069

I'm pretty sure the corner parcel is owned by Molinaro Group.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 10:47:44

Great street -- kudos to all who have invested their hearts and wallets -- but "hidden gem" it is not. James North is easily the most hyped street in the Hamilton, and the one with the greatest national profile. The tourism agency is sited there for a reason.

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By dochockey (registered) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 10:57:34

Morgenstern's fulfills a need in the community and to the credit of the owners they have persevered through the difficult times on James North.

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By Everyday Tourist (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 18:44:12

WOW! Great debate...I would totally agree that empty lots are not of any value to anyone and neither are empty buildings. Hamilton needs people living and working downtown. People with money to spend, not seniors (my Mom) or low income citizens (sorry) but people who can support new restaurants, retail shops etc. The reason developers don't build anything new is that there is no market for new businesses. It is a chicken and an egg...there are not new offices, restaurants or retail because their are no workers who want to live in the city centre and there are not new residents because there are not jobs and amenities. Locke, Hesse and James Streets have to become the catalysts for creating a vibrant Downtown. I am not convince Gore Park is the key to a vibrant city centre. In fact I would look at the waterfront and how it can be linked made part of the city centre's appeal. The biggest problem Downtown Hamilton has is that it is not near the water and near a major urban park, most vibrant urban places are along a river or waterfront not landlocked. This is a major problem for Downtown Hamilton in its present location, there is no natural attraction.

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By huh? (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 22:43:48 in reply to Comment 90106

seriously?
whether you like it or not the gore is THE centre of hamilton. the bayfront and the escarpment are important of course, but the gore is the centre of downtown hamilton. the gore represents the city. if it stays run down and underused, the city itself will always seem run down and under used.

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By Everyday Tourist (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 23:07:29

Yes Gore Park needs to be clean and attractive but it isn't large enough for major festivals. It is almost the size of a pocket park. At best the side street should be closed to enlarge it and need pedestrian oriented floor uses in the buildings to south not banks and offices. In many ways Hamilton needs to look for a new urban model for its downtown as there isn't the density of jobs retail restaurants and entertainment needed for traditional model where downtown is a major employment and entertainment centre. There needs to be lots of creative new ideas can't look to other cities or past.

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By movedtohamilton (registered) | Posted July 10, 2013 at 10:35:26

Thanks for the tour!

Here's a link to a spectacular photo essay on Hamilton's neighbourhoods posted on SkyscraperCity.com by "Flar", an accomplished 'urban photographer'. I saw this before moving here, and I was completely captivated.

The Incredible Neigbourhoods of Hamilton: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread...

Comment edited by movedtohamilton on 2013-07-10 10:42:16

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By Missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted July 16, 2013 at 11:03:36 in reply to Comment 90141

Nice link - yes, lots of interesting architecture .... Thanks.

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By Maller (anonymous) | Posted July 12, 2013 at 19:46:21

There is a department store in the City Centre: Hart. Granted, not the most fabulous, but it's all right, and it's Canadian.

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By Today (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2013 at 18:22:56

No natural attraction to downtown Hamilton? About the only city in southern Ontario I can walk on Lake Ontario and see the Niagara escarpment in the background and be a stones throw away from a major Canadian city downtown. I guess it's all about perspective.

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