From Outsider to Insider: A Dynamic Perspective on Hamilton

Hamilton defies the negative outsider stereotypes about it with a dynamic arts and cultural scene and a rapidly reviving urban core.

By Nada Bunjevac
Published April 13, 2017

Growing up next to Hamilton in Burlington, I started to develop a strong negative opinion about it from the language and tone people used to refer to it. Hamilton was presented as an empty, dirty city of rundown factories, a place to which outsiders had no need to venture. These stereotypes affected my perception of Hamilton.

Many people still believe this negative stereotype. During my last year of high school in 2016, I had a friend whose parents would rather send them alone to Toronto than to set foot in Hamilton.

The same year, I met and started to date an individual who lived in Hamilton. He wanted to be my guide around Hamilton; I thought he was insane.

However, after interacting with this booming city I came to understand that my opinion about Hamilton was formed too hastily. The city had not only changed from the negative stereotype with which I was raised, but it continues to grow and change by the year.

Hamilton has become a haven for creative people and industries. This can be seen through the expansion of fine food and the arts scene. Many Toronto chefs have been moving their businesses to Hamilton, which is attracting a significant increase in visitors to its restaurants.

Michele Sponagle in the Global and Mail quotes Michael Cipollo, a chef in Toronto for over a decade: "I was tired of restaurants dominated by financial spreadsheets." Because of this, he decided, "opening up restaurants for little guys [made] sense in Hamilton".

He followed through in October 2015 by opening HAM BRGR on King William Street. He started this when much of downtown Hamilton was barren. This worried Mr. Cipollo, since he thought there would not be many customers, but he was one of the contributors to downtown Hamilton's success today.

His restaurant grew so much that a bigger location is opening on Ottawa Street in early 2017. The new restaurant can hold more than twice as many customers as his original location, including the patio.

He stated, "[a]t first, people from Toronto thought I was crazy to open up a place in Hamilton," but they now ask "when they can get involved." This is just one of the many local dining locations and stories that have impacted the influx of people to Hamilton, bringing new attention to the previously vacant downtown.

Hamilton's art scene is thriving and growing rapidly. I was at Art Crawl in January 2017 at Centre[3], an artist-run print and media arts studio, and I saw shirts for sale that stated: "Art Is The New Steel". I believe this reflects Hamilton's current state perfectly.

Centre[3] provides resources and programs for the community, for example 'Rebrand Hamilton', where they aim to make existing sites of the city have a greater appeal for both visitors and youth. Centre[3] and other local galleries always contribute to raising interest in Hamilton art events such as Art Crawl.

Art Crawl is a monthly event in which artists and other creative businesses on James Street North open their studio doors for free to the public to peruse. A larger event is the annual Supercrawl, a multi-day gathering of mostly local musicians and artists in September. People's Choice awarded Supercrawl the Musical Event of the Year Award in 2015.

Hamilton has many local musicians and an abundance of venues to uphold this ever growing scene. According to Madeline Wilson in a Hamilton Spectator article: "Hamilton [has] more independent musicians per capita than many top tier cities with large local music scenes, including Toronto, Montreal and New York."

This means Hamilton is truly becoming a city enriched by the arts, which is causing many visitors to flock in. That, in turn, is changing the way we perceive and talk about Hamilton.

Supercrawl Director Tim Potocic, referring to Supercrawl in an interview for the Brock Press, stated: "Hamilton is unique to be a large city with a tight community. Our manufacturing roots brings out a special character in all the arts genres. The sheer volume of high caliber art is worth the drive!"

More and more individuals have started to make the drive and this has caused attendance at this weekend festival to grow from 3,000 in its first year to 165,000 in just over six years.

Hamilton has been changing from an seemingly empty area to one that is booming with visitors in relation to their restaurants and art scene, both visual and musical. I challenge everyone, including university students who glue themselves to the campus, to venture down the streets of Hamilton and change the way we talk about it.

Nada Bunjevac is a Burlington native who is attending McMaster University in Hamilton.


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By Selway (registered) | Posted April 14, 2017 at 14:39:08

Ah, youth. For me, 2015 seems like yesterday, so routine and dull has my life become, while for Ms Bunjevac it is medieval times, two whole years ago, when all was "barren" downtown. However, without getting uncool about it, I think I would actually push the date of Hamilton's rebirth back as far as 2014, when Collective Arts announced that they would start making beer again at the old Lakeport building at the foot of Wellington.

Seriously though. Reading this rhapsody gave me some insights into what is going on behind some of the fresh young faces you see down on James. It is sobering to be confronted with the fact that I have spent most of my adult life in, well, a wasteland, devoid of Toronto chefs and even visiting Burlington teens.

We simply did not know how poor and deprived we were. What with going for olives and bread at Pan del Sol or one of the four or five Portuguese bakeries we had on rotation, or the Barn for fruit and veggies in monster bins, or the Cheese Tower for taleggio or the farmer's market at the Centre for bushels of tomatoes etc or downtown for Jantzi's seven year old cheddar and that place on King East for the buckets of pitted sour cherries and so on, I had no idea how impoverished we were. Even today, when I have the heaven-sent opportunity to pay twelve dollars for four tacos that wouldn't hardly give you the strength to make it back to the car, I still struggle to give up the Old Ways – although I have learned to compromise a little. Now and then I will pick up a couple of those sticky-rice pyramids in the banana leaves from the Kim Hoa /GoldLion on Cannon, or some of them deep fried stickleback from the steam table at Alves on Macnab, or a custard loaf at Pan del Sol or even real made-from-scatch-today doughnuts from Grandad's at James and Burlington . . . Mm. . . Wonder who's open today. . . ?

Anyway. . . Thanks for writing this, Nada . Please persist. You may want to revisit that notion of the emptiness that was Hamilton the day before yesterday. Nor is all change for the better for everyone, especially artists and musicians. It's more interesting than that, and at times more painful, IMHO.

Comment edited by Selway on 2017-04-14 14:54:31

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By RobF (registered) | Posted April 14, 2017 at 19:58:22 in reply to Comment 121244

Well Selway that's pretty crusty, even for a North End curmudgeon ... You got any of that sharp cheddar from Jantzi's left? All you'd need is a little wine to go with it.

More seriously, I do get where you are coming from and agree, what more could we need after 2014 and the arrival of the new brewery. On the other hand, the old-timers still pine for the 24-for-24 deal when it was Lakeport and have only been partially appeased by the yard-of-ale sale ($9.50 for a 1.9 L growler for folks who don't know ... artisanal craft brew for the masses!). And I'm told back-in-the-day we got the sweet smell of the discount brew maltings wafting thru the hood no extra charge. Good times.

More seriously be nice and regal with her with stories of seeing the Velvet Underground and Nico at Mac back in the stone-age ... or 1960s. Not to carbon-date you or anything.

Comment edited by RobF on 2017-04-14 20:01:37

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