About eight years ago, Hamilton was The Next Big Thing. The Globe said so, as did the National Post and Toronto Life. Lured by the city’s immense inventory of inexpensive, beautiful housing stock, Torontonians started buying up heritage homes like half-priced penny candy. The writer and drag performer Sky Gilbert, once synonymous with Toronto’s formerly more outré demimonde, moved there in 2003. Musicians like Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland settled in the city as other hip Hamilton-area acts like the Junior Boys and Caribou’s Dan Snaith caught fire. Fred Eisenberger, a David Miller–like figure with a fondness for LRTs and downtown revitalization, was elected mayor in 2006. (He was replaced by current mayor Bob Bratina in 2010.) Harry Stinson, the condo king referred to as Toronto’s Donald Trump, initiated several projects, including a possible revival of the historic Royal Connaught Hotel. The local art scene, centred around previously derelict James Street North, began to flourish. Research in Motion’s Jim Balsillie tried strenuously to import an NHL franchise. The headlines wrote themselves—it was Hammer Time.
But the Hammer was still the Hammer; its image as a decaying backwater and cultural wasteland was stubbornly persistent. Even as Torontonians, fed up with congested roads, skyrocketing rents, unaffordable daycare, and a lack of green space, fled to bedroom communities like Burlington or Peterborough, Hamilton retained some kind of force field around it. Like most Torontonians, the only real experience of the city I had was driving past it on the QEW, towards Niagara-on-the-Lake or to do some cross-border shopping. It was just a grim, grey burg identifiable only by a smokestack skyline that, despite a collapsed steel industry, still belched something surely noxious into the air. Hamilton is just 45 minutes away from Toronto by bus or train, but in the atlas of my mind, it was situated somewhere between Sudbury and Cleveland.
Then, once again, in the past two years or so, Steeltown was being spoken about with the same romantic fervour that people once reserved for Montreal’s Mile End. Suddenly, I knew a half-dozen people who had moved, or were thinking about moving, there. Those people knew many more. They were all relatively young, and they were mostly moving because they’d been priced out of Toronto. But they were also members of the so-called creative class, and Hamilton, it seemed, was now offering fresh, alluring opportunities for that particular demographic. As with so many post-industrial North American cities, bohemia—and its attendant entrepreneurial offshoots—had become the new industry. Unexpectedly, even I was trying to persuade my wife and friends to move there. What had changed?
[. . .]
A friend said to me, half-jokingly, that “it’s always 1993 in the Hammer.” But for a lot of people, such a time warp has irresistible appeal. In some ways, Hamilton resembles an older version of Toronto—scruffier, less populous, and less sophisticated, perhaps, but a place where you don’t have to struggle quite as much just to survive. Of course, many people are struggling just to survive in Hamilton (the city has higher rates of food bank use than the provincial average, and about 50 per cent of its recent immigrants live in poverty), but Toronto’s growing prosperity and income inequality can make it feel, at moments, a city only of the rich for the rich: too consumerist, too homogeneous, too predictable. One man’s Momofuku is another man’s poison. By the same token, the familiar cycle of gentrification has seemingly reached its limit here. There’s no uncharted territory left, nowhere else for the so-called pioneer to go. Hamilton could be to Toronto what Oakland has become to San Francisco: a rough-and-tumble refuge for the aspiring painter or poet unable to afford a basement apartment, let alone studio space.