Hamilton Could Learn from Toronto City of Neighbourhoods

By Jason Leach
Published August 31, 2009

The Star has a great piece this weekend about Toronto's neigbourhoods.

[N]o one would doubt that the neighbourhood provides the basic organizational unit that has kept Toronto from spiralling out of control. When urban theorist Jane Jacobs moved here in the 1960s from New York, where she had taken on and beaten uber-builder Robert Moses, she immediately found herself embroiled in the fight to stop the Spadina Expressway. It was the residents in her adopted neighbourhood, the Annex, and others who coalesced into the group that succeeded in killing the urban highway.

As Bill Davis, then premier of Ontario, so eloquently put it: "If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop."

Last week while on vacation I took my first ever trip into the Annex and Koreatown as well as the High Park area. One of the things so wonderful about these Toronto neighbourhoods is that one can live, shop, dine and play in one small walkable district.

Driving down Bloor St, I passed three separate hardware stores. All were spaced out accordingly to serve their own neighbourhood. I'm not talking big box Home Depot stores: these were small storefront hardware stores like Hamilton's own Arruda's on Barton at James.

I recall my first trip into the Beaches a number of years ago and noticing how every several blocks there was another grocery store/market. In Hamilton one can walk for miles and not see any.

If there is any major distinction between our two cities it is the health of the urban neighbourhoods. While Toronto had a great transit system and didn't allow parking lots and cars to dominate its neighbourhoods through the 1950s through '70s, Hamilton did the opposite.

Our one-way freeways took back valuable sidewalk space and helped move people more quickly to the new sprawlands outside of the city. How many residents do you know in the Lansdale or Stipley neighbourhoods in Hamilton who walk to do their weekly groceries or to visit cafes?

There just ain't much to walk to.

I'm always frustrated after visiting Toronto when I see patios and vibrant streets at every turn only to come home and see a city a fraction of the size with five-lane, one-way freeways, timed lights and empty storefronts.

Toronto's millions of people manage to survive on streets that are one lane each way with parking along both sides and streetcars having authority to stop traffic in the main traffic lane. Somehow, the world hasn't come to an end because a city of 2.5 million people has slow-moving, safe streets with higher order transit and two-way operation.

In Hamilton our own Chamber of Commerce and other so-called leadership groups are consistently the most anti-business groups in the city with their insistence that business owners and building owners in the entire lower city not be allowed to succeed because they'd rather have a quick freeway trip to and from The Hamilton Club.

I'm usually a proponent of moving businesses downtown, but The Hamilton Club is one that I'd roll out the red carpet for to see move to the Meadowlands or Burlington. At least it would remove one of the massive obstacles standing in our way of taking back our urban neighbourhoods so that they can once again be vibrant, safe, business-friendly places to live work and play.

Perhaps the Chamber of Commerce and The Hamilton Club could build a great new building by the airport. They'd never have to come downtown again, and therefore wouldn't be such vocal opponents to basic moves necessary to see our core succeed once again.

We can learn a lot from Toronto, but probably nowhere as much as when it comes to developing vibrant, successful neighbourhoods. They are light years ahead of us, despite the fact that the building stock on Bloor is no different from King East.

Next chance you get, head down the highway and enjoy a great, walkable, vibrant business-friendly neighbourhood in Toronto. They deserve great kudos for bucking the North America wide trend of destroying great neighbourhoods for the sake of new development.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.


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By highwater (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 11:39:03

I have to take issue with a couple of things here. First, the Hamilton Club primarily serves downtown white collar workers who walk to the club on their lunch hours and after work. There is minimal parking provided. If the club moved, not only would an important part of Hamilton's history and heritage be lost, but along with it, a crucial place for networking and entertaining clients, making downtown an even less attractive place for white collar workers and their employers.

Secondly, if it was your first visit to the Annex, I can see where it might compare favourably to some of the neighbourhoods on our blighted major arteries. I lived in the Annex about twenty years ago, and anyone who has been watching over that time, has witnessed the gradual loss of the soul of one of the city's very finest neighbourhoods. In spite of wide sidewalks, street parking, transit, and slow-moving traffic, the Annex is a neighbourhood in decline. You're right that we can learn alot from Toronto. If we're wise, we'll learn from its mistakes as well. What's happening in the Annex is a wake-up call, particularly for Westdale.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 11:48:07

Actually, Jason, Downtown Toronto was littered with emptied out lots/pkng lots up until the 80's. Google Toronto's photo archives, and you'll see how it may remind you a little of Wilson/John. It was progressive urban planning over the last couple of decades that has helped shape Toronto into what it is today.

The reason we don't have all the amenities we need (grocery stores, chain retail/retaurants, etc) downtown is b/c the companies don't see Downtown, or Hamilton in general, as a market.

How does one solve this?

Email your favourite grocery chain/retail store/chain restaurant and tell them you want them in your neighbourhood. Encourage EcDev to lobby these same retailers as well. Power is in numbers, and if Sobeys gets enough pressure from area residents and local politicians/City's Economic Dvlpmnt people, then they will have no choice but to open up shop. Maybe not in Recession'09, but perhaps during Recovery'10.

Also, 'Chains' attract outsiders into neighbourhoods as they're familiar. 'Hood Shops --although awesome, imo-- don't always attract people to areas. Someone may just choose to live Downtown BECAUSE there's a Starbucks rather than CoffeeTime... ya know!?

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By Jason (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 12:37:05

Really? Great points. I've emailed several companies about downtown locations. Even ones that I never shop at. Highwater, I was being sarcastic.... Sort of. Lol.

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted August 31, 2009 at 17:07:26

Important comparison. I was a weekend Annex resident for about two years and it also blew my mind that developers wanted to level such a great neighbourhood - along with the incomparable Kensington market - for an expressway. Hamiltonians should think about the treasure the City has degraded in the Red Hill.

There are some important caveats to keep in mind. Hamilton and Toronto might be close by, and may share a history of early industrialism. But their histories have diverged considerably in the last 50 years. This divergence is certainly not primarily the product of urban planning, but of macro-structure of global capitalism. In other words, both cities occupy radically different positions in the global division of labour. Toronto is the financial capital of Canada. Hamilton is an example of deindustrialized rustbelt. As a result, the two cities have faced completely different options.

However, that is not to say that it was preordained that Toronto preserve it's human-scaled neighbourhoods while Hamilton destroy them. If it were not for the activism Jane Jacobs led, Toronto could have very well ended up with a "Los Angelization" of its downtown. Conversely, there was a time in the 70's that Hamilton's civic activism (against the Red Hill and against the "urban renewal" of Strathcona) could have tipped the scales on urban politics against the sprawl party. If so, we might have gotten in on the tech boom, etc. Who knows?

Today, Hamilton is at an interesting juncture. The strength of Toronto may spill over. All the city has to do is make a few reasonable changes to the downtown, and the influx of Toronto white collar workers will continue. Capital will certainly follow them, since (all this yammering about tax rates aside) one of the most important locational features that capitalists look for is an exploitable labour force that suits their requirements. Techy, informational, contemporary capitalism just isn't seeing that in Hamilton, with its mulletheads from the mountain and east end invading the downtown in their souped up cars.

We've got beautiful greenspaces, some neighbourhoods that have managed to survive, a major University - all the ingredients to attract skilled labour. But that damn asphalt cult that makes up the majority of the civic establishment keeps holding back the downtown...

Now, if Hamilton's establishment does manage to get its head out if its collective ass and pull off the "nobrainer", we should look to the Annex for insight into the next problem. The "decline" caused by gentrification is real. Jacobs, Kunstler, and the new urbanists on this site have not dealt with this issue adequately. In my opinion, it comes from seeing good neighbourhoods as an exchange value to promote growth and wage inter-urban competition. We should be thinking of neighbourhoods as a use-value in their own right - as a way of resisting.

Hamilton can do it a different way. Instead of attracting yuppies with "higher order transit" and boutique retail, we can build good neighbourhoods on a more grassroots basis. Housing co-ops, guerrilla and community gardening, bike culture, artist colonies that resist gentrification, DIY green tech, rebuilding the labour movement when manufacturing inevitably returns...

Or maybe a bit of both.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 17:31:21

Jason, as have I (ie: LuLu Lemon hahaha)

Types of Retailers I have emailed re: opening (back) up Downtown (just to name a few): *Chapters/Indigo *MEC (we all know what happened with that) *HARVEY'S (They closed down 3 w/in 5 years!?!) *Wendy's (Not ONE anywhere close to Downtown) *Winners *The List Goes On

I think Branding neighbourhoods (whether it be ethnically or culturally) is a great thing, and may draw those ethnicities/cultures/etc to the inner-City. I understand just how difficult it can be, especially with a backwards-thinking City full of Old Timers on Staff which love One-Way Speedways.

Look @ Cannon St W, for example. It has been trying to become a 'Asia-town' of sorts (new developments and proposals over the last couple of years), yet just can't generate the same foot traffic as a slower area such as International Village due to the Cannon St Expressway. Wonder why B&T's patio is often empty while their dine-in section thrives? Maybe b/c no one on their patio can hear their dates!?

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By Really? (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 17:43:13


Quick Question!? How does one "resist gentrification"!?

In my observations of 'gentrified' neighbourhoods, it seems unstoppable.

Locke St -- from biker haven to antiques district to YUPville

Church St, Toronto -- Trashy east-end hood to Gaybourhood to Yuppies, forcing the younger/less wealthy gay community to move to Queen St W (Parkdale) which is starting to gentrify as we speak, forcing those current artists to move to Hamilton. Walking down Ossington last week, I couldn't believe the amount of Studios that have been converted into 'trendy' bars, etc. Parkdale has been a gentrification hotbed for the last couple of years, which could explain Hamilton's recent Artist Boom!

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted August 31, 2009 at 19:30:58

"How does one "resist gentrification"!?"

Well, being a Hamilton activist, I don't have insight or experience into this question, since this has been the least of our problems. I do plan on conferring with comrades in New York, Toronto and Montreal who have been involved in such struggles.

Class alliance rooted in strong community is probably the short answer - especially if community is constituted in autonomous/grassroots political institutions.

The "yuppies", the artist/activist/bohemian set, and the urban poor need to find common ground in order to achieve some kind of stability in our cities. I don't like a lot of the anti-yuppie rhetoric that comes from certain anarchist circles because: 1) most "yuppies" are just white collar workers who face their own problems, 2) most anarchists are privileged white kids who CHOSE to shun the white collar world (and in fact many of us ARE white collar workers). We all need to be on our toes, as well, about the ways in which racial injustices (aka white privilege) distort our cities.

We have to have an eye to social justice and equity as planning, housing, and transport begin to transform. It's unfree and undemocratic that communities be forced to break up because of rising prices. Plus, the city gets sterile once the big money starts moving in. Look at Manhattan - interesting to visit, but I never really felt comfortable there.

Jason and Really?:

The problem of retail in downtown Hamilton goes further than companies not setting up there. The ones that do service us often do it poorly. Consider the corner of Dundurn and King. Everything about that corner is out of sync with the people in the neighbourhoods surrounding it. Probably one of the busiest transit stops in Ontario (between the B-line and the Go) and all they can put there is a drive-thru donut shop and a drive-thru drug store. I asked the drug store managers for a bike rack and they refused, even though biking is a very common way to get around for people in Strathcona neighbourhood as well as nearby Durand and Westdale.

Monopoly power at its worst. Someone should do a photo essay (not my forte) of that corner and spark some discussion. It's really bad.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 21:45:23

LL - your first comment is probably one of the best I've ever read for a quick overview of the ills and opportunities in Hamilton. You're bang on.

Really? Im with you on branding neighbourhoods. I LOVE how Toronto does that. Hamilton needs to adopt the 'village' moniker instead of 'street' all the time. Concession Street, Ottawa Street, Locke Street etc.... Village has a much nicer ring to it - Hess Village, Barton Village etc.... and sums up the vibe and feeling we'd like to see in our neighbourhoods. Also, more 'littles' would be ideal here - Little Europe on James North, Little Asia along Cannon/York, Little Britain on Augusta Street etc....

it helps create identities and can go a long way towards branding a neighbourhood. Not to mention, all the opportunities for public art, logos and promotional material that can be developed with a good village name.

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By lukev (anonymous) | Posted September 01, 2009 at 03:16:42

The best way to induce gentrification is to attract artists. The yuppies will come following in no time.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted September 01, 2009 at 13:22:04

Great insight on gentrification, Ryan. Thanks.

I'm definately not suggesting Hamilton 'resist' gentrification, but instead encourage it! When one neighbourhood gentrifies, it usually opens up the door for the next (usually closest) neighbourhood to gentrify. Dundurn St, as an example, has had some new retail open up within the last couple of year's most likely due to Locke St's ability to attract those with more disposable income.

Of course in THIS City, I'm sure once Dundurn gentrifies enough City Planners will F it up and turn the LCBO and/or Beer Store into Big Box, or worse even, move them to some big box parking garage @ Main & Caroline!

With every 'win' in this City, it seems like we get two 'Fails'!?

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