Burlington is presented as a modern solution to a traditional Victorian city like Hamilton: in order to build the modern city it was necessary to escape the burdens of the past.
By Michael Cumming
Published October 07, 2009
Hamilton is not only near a border region with another country, but is also near communities that are sometimes strikingly different in terms of urban aspiration and political affiliation. One such community is the city of Burlington. The contrast between the two can be as dramatic as between Detroit and Windsor. This contrast produces interesting juxtapositions.
Dogs on roof in Hamilton, ON
Hamilton has the reputation of being a classic rust-bucket city with an economy excessively dependent on heavy industry. It is seen by its critics as an unclean, rough and slightly dangerous place, where reckless civic decisions are made behind closed doors. It is the Golden Horseshoe's version of the dark Satanic mills of industrial England, combined with the inter-ethnic tensions of a seething, immigrant-fueled city like Chicago.
Mall parking lot in Burlington, ON
Burlington, on the other hand, is a classic North American bedroom community, where the ills of post-Victorian society have been scrubbed clean and suburban comforts can be enjoyed guilt-free. In Burlington, civic decision-making is seen as more sober, with less chance of overt corruption. By moving from Hamilton to Burlington people could avoid industrial blight, poverty, intractable social problems and historical decay.
Hamilton has industrial production, including steel, as its native industry. In Burlington the native industries are suburban tract housing and real estate development. Hamilton is left-leaning politically while Burlington is right-leaning. Hamilton is Scorsese's Mean Streets while Burlington is more Leave it to Beaver.
One important axis in which Hamilton/Burlington differ is that of history. Hamilton has lots of history while Burlington appears to have very little.
In Hamilton, history cannot be marginalized simply because there is so much of it. From mid-Victorian churches, to worker's cottages, to aging factory complexes, history-as far as architectural infrastructure is concerned-is in great supply. However, demand for this history does not correspond to the abundance of its supply.
As in many historical industrial cities, the historical richness of the place is confounded with its current, marginal economic value. This tends to grossly undervalue these resources. With diminished value, old dilapidated buildings are destroyed without outcry. A movement to create money from these old bricks, say, through industrial tourism as found in England and Germany, has yet to appear.
Burlington was purposely built to escape history and to start afresh. Nowhere in Burlington is there much evidence of settlement prior to, say, 1900. Burlington first grew as a post-war bedroom community to Hamilton. It has shifted its focus to being more a bedroom community to Toronto, or a viable edge city in its own right. Burlington also has a surprisingly diverse industrial corridor along the busy QEW, which divides Burlington in two.
Burlington is presented as a modern solution to a traditional Victorian city like Hamilton: in order to build the modern city it was necessary to escape the burdens of the past. Burlington encourages one to forget about history and focus more on consumption. Residents move there not in spite of the lack of historical context but rather because of it.
When immigrants move to a rough and tumble place like Hamilton, the resources provided by ones ethnic community and church are a vital source of support. In the absence of money, support comes from the community. Immigrants often live near their supportive communities in urban enclaves.
Hamilton has the remnants of urban enclaves, such as the Italian and Portuguese North End. However, these are losing its ethnic flavour as residents acquire sufficient mobility to move to cleaner, relatively bucolic suburbs like Burlington. As older communities move on, newer ethnic communities like the Vietnamese or Somalis take their place.
Burlington was from the start a post-ethnic type of place. In Burlington, support comes less from community and more from cash-in-hand. In Burlington, the average household income is much higher than in Hamilton. The more money you have, the less dependent you are on support from your community.
In Burlington there is ethnic diversity in the population, since like Hamilton, it has inflows of immigrants. But you would not know this from driving around town. Neighbourhoods in Burlington tend to look all the same. There is some differentiation in neighbourhoods, but this is caused more by variations in income than in ethnic make up.
To move to Burlington, due to its elevated property prices, you need to earn a certain income. This is a crude stereotype, of course, but as a general rule being a resident of Burlington indicates a certain base household income. This means that if you move to Burlington you can successfully avoid much contact with the urban poor. For some, this is an attractive proposition.
In Hamilton, the chance of poverty avoidance is much reduced. Hamilton, like Buffalo and Pittsburgh, has lots of poor people. But there are also considerable numbers of not-poor people too. Therefore, saying you are a resident of Hamilton imparts less information than saying you live in Burlington. In Hamilton you might be poor, or you might not be. You might be living there because you have no other options, or you might be there by choice. This ambiguity of rank and position creates opportunities to move between social strata.
In larger cities such as Toronto and New York, enormous wealth lives side by side with striking poverty. Diversity of income and circumstance are the marks of most traditional cities. Hamilton is traditionally urban in this respect: if you want to avoid poverty then Hamilton is not your kind of place. Burlington is the opposite: if you want to avoid poverty, Burlington might be just the place for you.
One striking difference between Hamilton and Burlington is their approach to property maintenance. Hamilton is full of buildings that require huge amounts of maintenance. Their bricks need re-pointing, parapets are falling down, flashings are corroded and need to be replaced. Typically, this maintenance work is done inadequately, presumably because of the huge expense of doing it well.
Burlington, on the other hand, is perhaps overly maintained - despite being a place where low or no-maintenance finishes such as vinyl siding are common. Burlington is full of house-proud homeowners who edge their lawns and power-wash their carports to an inch of their lives. There is a great sense of keeping up your property so that the neighbours have no reason to complain. In Burlington, with its relatively homogeneous population, there is concern about what neighbours might think.
In Hamilton, with its more diverse population, there is less concern to conform in this way because there is less likelihood your neighbours are similar to you.
This essay was originally published on Michael's blog.
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