Cross Border Twin Cities?

Having lived in Buffalo and now Hamilton, I see countless similarities between the two cities. Here is my take on what makes both these cities alike - and both likable.

By Lorne Opler
Published November 06, 2009

The similarities are stark - both rust-belt cities struggling to reinvent themselves in the 21st century. Both cities were once upon a time strong manufacturing towns identified with heavy industry and a large blue collar workforce. Both share glorious pasts, downtowns that were once teeming with people, and architecture that showed off their respective turn of the century neighborhoods.

That would be Hamilton and Detroit? Hamilton and Cleveland? No, I'm referring to Hamilton and Buffalo, our blue-collar cousin to the south. As a former resident of Buffalo and now a recent transplant to Hamilton (via Toronto), I frequently find myself walking through the Hammer and making mental comparisons between both burghs. The common bonds are striking.

Hamilton, like Buffalo, is rooted in the steel industry. Like Buffalo, steel built the city into a thriving mid-size metropolis where smokestacks ran 24/7 and forge workers and their incomes, kept the economies humming.

Unlike Buffalo, however, some steel is actually still milled here. But after U.S. Steel bought Stelco, jobs have been lost, and like so much these days, production has been shifted outside the country. The result is that Hamilton has lost revenues, taxes, and perhaps most of all, its bygone polish.

Like Buffalo, Hamilton has an east-side challenged by poverty and a negative reputation. Like Buffalo, I see Hamilton's downtown pocked by too much surface parking, too many empty buildings and a once thriving but now straggling enclosed shopping mall whose flagship store is Dollarama.

Positive Similarities

Despite these negative similarities, there are also many common positives both cities share.

Hamilton has a vibrant and legendary year round downtown farmer's market. Buffalo has the Broadway Market, an institution that is working hard to breathe new life into its hundred and twenty year existence.

Both cities have lively shopping districts outside the downtown. Buffalo has Elmwood Village, Hertel, and Allentown. Hamilton has Locke Street, Westdale, and the burgeoning art scene on James Street North.

Both cities have stunning late 19th century residential areas; Hamilton's Durand and Kirkendall neighborhoods compare favourably to Buffalo's Elmwood Village and Parkside district.

Both are very affordable places to live, where beautiful intown homes can be purchased for a fraction of what you'd pay in Toronto or New York City. And both cities have rush hour traffic without the rush (and the traffic).

Most importantly, it seems that both cities are slowly but steadily transforming their urban cores back into the destinations they once upon a time used to be.

Renovation projects in downtown Hamilton - from City Hall, to the library, to the Farmer's Market and Lister Block - parallel similar revitalization efforts taking place in downtown Buffalo - the newly renovated Avant Building, the new U.S. Federal Court House, and scores of urban loft conversions are but three examples.

Unflattering Portrayals

Too bad both cities are often portrayed in unflattering light, often by people who have never even spent time in either place. As Buffalo is considered unsophisticated by its looming big brother, NYC, so too is Hamilton maligned by its larger megalopolis, Toronto.

Much to the puzzlement of ill-informed New Yorkers and Torontonians alike, both Buffalonians and Hamiltonians are fiercely proud of their cities, of their roots, and especially of their football.

Ironically though, when Torontonians like myself do move to Hamilton (usually because they are priced out of Toronto's housing market), invariably they are pleasantly surprised by the livability of the city, its close proximity to miles of trails, parks and public spaces, and its thriving arts scene. Sounds a lot like what New Yorkers experience when they make a similar move to Buffalo.

I've met many Hamiltonians who wouldn't think of moving to Toronto. They may enjoy it for a day trip, a weekend, but not much more. I know there are a lot of Buffalonians who share the same attitude towards the Big Apple.

Greatest Assets

Why might that be? Why is it that Hamiltonians, like Buffalonians aren't necessarily lured to the bright lights of their "sophisticated" big brothers beyond the odd two day getaway?

My guess is that it has to do with what I believe are Buffalo's and Hamilton's greatest assets - their people. Just as I found in Buffalonians, Hamiltonians are a generously friendly folk, easy to talk to, down-to-earth, and very approachable. What I liked most in my time in Buffalo - its unpretentious and neighborly attitude - I have found now in Hamilton.

Perhaps that's the reward of living in two cities where bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, but better is what we are always working towards becoming.

Lorne Opler is a freelance writer on the side, and has recently moved to Hamilton from Toronto. Coming from a city where anonymity is a way of life, Lorne is amazed by how friendly and approachable people are in Hamilton, and finds himself always telling people from Toronto (who don't know better) what a great place Hamilton is.


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By synxer (registered) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 09:26:06

I immensely enjoyed this look at the similarities of Hamilton and Buffalo.

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By shaddupsevenup (registered) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 10:44:03

I'm originally from Toronto and I have found Hamiltonians to be generally unpretentious, which is great. The friendly bit I'm not so sure about. My coworkers have all been friendly, but on the whole, I find Hamiltonians to be somewhat gruff and surly.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 14:05:30

The National Post did a good comparison of Hamilton and Buffalo a couple of years ago. What was most interesting is that the population of Buffalo (and its metropolitan area) continue to decline, Hamilton is growing (mostly due to its proximity to the GTA).

"Both are very affordable places to live, where beautiful intown homes can be purchased for a fraction of what you'd pay in Toronto or New York City. And both cities have rush hour traffic without the rush (and the traffic)."

This is a good thing, however, the main reason for this is due to the lack of economic opportunities in both cities.

Another common trait between Hamilton and Buffalo - high property taxes, especially on the residential side.

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted November 06, 2009 at 16:34:54

Interesting article about Buffalo/Hamilton! I think one of the advantages of both cities is that they happen to be close to an international border. Both sides have much to learn from the other side. If the border were more transparent then both cities would benefit from their proximity to Toronto, not just Hamilton; NYC is a long way from Buffalo.

The region that connects Hamilton and Buffalo is one of the most beautiful wine-growing regions in the continent. Overall geographical attractiveness will play an important role for both cities in future. Eventually, the border will become less of a barrier as the counter-productive Bush-era policies become less of a factor as politicians starting looking at the map.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 18:37:50

"I'm originally from Toronto and I have found Hamiltonians to be generally unpretentious, which is great. The friendly bit I'm not so sure about. My coworkers have all been friendly, but on the whole, I find Hamiltonians to be somewhat gruff and surly."

Funny, I noticed the same thing, though I found the surliness to decrease markedly as one traveled east, Corktown having the friendliest folk, Locke being something of a dividing line, Westdale and Dundas being (in my experience) much less welcoming. For this cultural outsider, traveling west was akin to leaving a multicultural city for a Presbyterian small town.

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By everywhere (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 18:46:22

I like the comments but I still like TO as I lived and worked there(late 70s late 80s?..)

I did great there but this is my hometown(Burlington/Hamilton)

I don't appreciate the high rent in TO though but I had mixed opinions living & working there.

Back then I thought Hamilton was so far behind than TO but I noticed last several years Hamilton is catching up especially cycling friendly attitude.

But then again, I look at cities and people from an artist point of view. I actually love Burlington but it's changed though I try to capture the old on canvas. I'm ironically more connected with Burlington where I grew up and have been long time member of BFAA(Burlington Fine Arts Assoc) across from Spenser Smith Park.

I love to visit NY especially smaller cities like Detroit and of course Buffalo. I can only have time to view on google street.

I prefer TO is my main visit city but I'm open minded to all especially places where I frequent(Brantfort)....all by cycle!


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By everywhere (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 18:53:54

Sorry, I missed something. I mentioned google street view but I would get lost in Buffalo or anywhere in USA especially never been there and google view is only fast if U click in specific streets and addresses. U click arrow each movement takes time there are more
productive things to spend time. U also see only "back in time " views of streets.

Sorry bit off topic but also kinda on topic if any1 knows Hamilton and Buffalo to compare as twin cities...


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By Cut Taxes (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 21:31:41

Capitalist >> Another common trait between Hamilton and Buffalo - high property taxes, especially on the residential side.

Property taxes need to be fixed to the rate of inflation plus population growth. If government is truly efficient with taxpayer money, they should have no trouble continuing to deliver high quality services.

The price of computers keeps going down, while performance moves up, so government should have to do the same.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted November 08, 2009 at 15:56:45

Buffalo & Hamilton could learn a lot from eachother. Specifically, Hamilton could take a page from Buffalo's Downtown Property Standards policies as I find Buffalo's buildings (downtown, anyway) to be generally better kept than Hamilton's.

Hamilton could also take note from Buffalo regarding 'What Not To Do' when it comes to LRT.

Buffalo is a beautiful City with a ton of --get ready for it-- Potential. That evil 'P' Word is thrown around like crazy in Hamilton, but nothing ever comes to fruition.

If there's anything that makes our Cities twins, it's the fact that our politicians/city leaders are too lazy and comfortable in their own way to even entertain the thought of changing --a thought that will soon be forced to change (Thank You Pro & Fed Govts / Pan Ams).

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By Happy (anonymous) | Posted November 08, 2009 at 18:57:51

Love Buffalo as a city to see. Whenever I get down there-maybe once a year, I do my shopping and love driving around the older parts of town. So much beautiful architecture, 45 degree street corners, old buildings, rough gritty people, I love it all. It really puts even Hamilton to shame for its art Deco and other urban buidlings.

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By Dave (anonymous) | Posted November 09, 2009 at 01:18:06

I never no about such similarities between these two cities.It is interesting to read the way you observe the live of both cities.


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By PanAm (anonymous) | Posted November 09, 2009 at 15:36:04

I am a little saddened by the lack of opinion or editorial regarding the Pan Am games or potential stadium location. Forum or some other method to voice?

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By PanAm (anonymous) | Posted November 09, 2009 at 15:36:53

Wow. Just as I posted the comment, my answer was given!

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By canbyte (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 12:40:51

I was pleasantly surprised meandering around Buffalo and Rochester this summer. Not grubby as i was expecting. Nicely kept for the most part. Those yankees got dough!

Hamilton is frustrating for reasons mentioned above (taxes, politicians, problem-nonsolving). Regarding potential (also think of all the [closed] mill towns up north), there's a fight going on between wealth creators (Foxcroft, steel) and wealth user-uppers (gummerment). The latter hope appears to be dimming as the crunch of tax loss/ deficit appears to be inevitable. Not sure what to make of PanAm or LRT but it appears these will take a generation to pay off but are burdens in the meantime. Hardly fair to the youth it seems but maybe global warming will make Hamilton a sub-tropical paradise. Ya.

Perhaps its time to pick our battles more carefully.

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