If you’re a charter member of the city’s so-called creative class, chances are good that one day you’ll ask yourself this: Do I keep doing what I love, and rent for the rest of my life, or do I—gasp!—move to Hamilton? Inside the cultural migration down the QEW.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. No, wait, don’t stop me—I know you’ve heard this one before. This is the story that every city magazine in North America runs every couple years or so, when it seems that some outlying neighbourhood, city, or town is about to become The Next Big Thing. The Next Big Thing has usually replaced the Last Next Big Thing because it’s a) cheaper, b) cooler, c) weirder, d) further away, or e) all of the above, and this Next Big Thing—it could be Portland, Guelph, or Long Island City—is the place that everyone’s moving to. And if you’re broke, cool, or weird you’d better be thinking about moving there, too.
Sometimes, though, the Next Big Thing doesn’t quite fulfill its potential. (I’m looking at you, Buffalo.) And sometimes it just takes a bit longer to do so. 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?
The Grand Ballroom at the Sheraton in downtown Hamilton looks like similar ballrooms in hotels all over the world—spacious, comfortable, and entirely unmemorable. On this drizzly morning in mid-October, however, it’s the headquarters of the second annual Hive X, a conference for young professionals focused on growth and development in the city. Richard Florida might have scripted the scene—the room swells with hundreds of self-described social capitalists, influencers, and eager entrepreneurs, their average age around 30, all daubed with giddy, start-up enthusiasm. It’s sponsored by, among others, the Chamber of Commerce and Hamilton Economic Development.
The workshop I’m attending is specifically about how to rebrand Hamilton’s image, and is moderated by Stephanie Trendocher, a 26-year-old marketing coordinator at GO Transit, and Matthew Green, the buoyant owner of Freestyle Fitness on Ottawa Street. (When I tell him what I’m writing about, he beams and says, “All the cool kids are moving to Hamilton”—a sentiment that’s also been used, as it turns out, as the tagline for a Hamilton Economic Development campaign.) The pair has asked each table to discuss a previously assigned question (my table’s: “What is the economic role of the creative class?”), and from that discussion, come up with a phrase to fill in the rest of the sentence, “My Hamilton is…,” that they will then deliver to a waiting videographer. The best responses are compiled on a YouTube video uploaded later that day.
Trendocher has been waging a quiet war against an outdated image of Hamilton for years. In 2009, she started a blog, Beaux Mondes, with her friend Jacklyn Warmington, and began earnestly chronicling Hamilton’s new cultural ferment. They took pictures of the hip cafés and shops that were popping up, interviewed writers and jewellers. The blog can be occasionally precious, but it’s undeniably effective—the Hamilton it portrays might be some undiscovered corner of Brooklyn. “When we started, I just wanted to open people’s eyes,” Trendocher says, “whether it was people living here, visitors, or outsiders looking in. But I don’t feel I have to explain it as much anymore. People can see it now.”
The workshop participants file into a hall outside the ballroom to give their video testimonials. They’re fairly predictable, boosterish soundbites, each one hyping vague notions of collaboration, creativity, and innovation. But one petite young woman, a photographer named Jessica Rose Smith, sums up the spirit with elegant precision. Smiling broadly, she says, “My Hamilton is a beautiful picture of possibility.”
Flannery Dean, a freelance writer, moved to Hamilton in 2009, settling in a four-bedroom Victorian in the city’s tony Durand district with her sister, Caitlin, two cats, and two dogs. The two women had rented in Toronto for more than a decade, and Caitlin, a product analyst, wanted to buy something. But houses in Toronto were prohibitively expensive, condos too small, and the suburbs out of the question. (“I didn’t want to live in a prison,” Caitlin says.) Something rural was a possibility, but both women wanted, for the moment anyway, a more walkable, urban landscape. For Caitlin, who planned to still commute to work, Hamilton was really the only choice—and its housing prices were then maybe a third of Toronto’s. Some of her friends were appalled. There were jokes about the Honest Lawyer bar downtown, a pub that had (up until two years ago) a urinal shaped like a woman’s mouth.
A few blocks away from the Honest Lawyer, I met Flannery at a much different bar called the Baltimore House. Opened a year ago by a couple of GTA transplants, it’s also a café, nightclub, and theatre venue. It’s a cavernous spot, with ambience and décor perhaps too specific and personal—the opium den vibe, plush red velvet couches, and antique chandeliers were all inspired by Edgar Allan Poe—to really survive in a more expensive or competitive city. Here, it’s flourishing by offering sophisticated counterprogramming to the nearby dive bars or the generic nightclubs on Hess Street. (The afternoon we’re there, a steampunk meet-up group has commandeered the centre of the bar.)
One of the bar’s soft-spoken owners, 27-year-old Grant Winestock, joined us. He first came to Hamilton as a McMaster student and recalled having to travel downtown to do a “study of the city” for a first-year anthropology class. “It was a rainy day and I was down here and I remember thinking, This is a sad, depressing place. Now, I think, if a first-year was given that same project, they wouldn’t say the same thing. One place at a time, this city is transforming.”
Flannery agreed. For her part, she initially had a hard time adjusting to Hamilton. She was lonely, and it was difficult to find work. But a few months later, things started to change. She fell in love with her leafy, upscale neighbourhood—with its vast array of Georgian Revival and Victorian homes, it resembles parts of Rosedale or Cabbagetown—and its proximity to Locke Street, a rapidly gentrifying retail strip that’s become, in the past couple of years, home to a trendy kids’ clothing store, a popular cheese shop, and, naturally, the core’s only Starbucks. She began to meet people, and found them warmer and more approachable than Torontonians. More importantly, rather than mourning what she’d given up, she decided to embrace that absence. “The appeal to me, as a former Torontonian, is that it’s not Toronto,” she says. “There are fewer people. I enjoy all the open space. I enjoy the lack of consumer distraction.”
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.
Jen Anisef and her husband, Michael Kennedy, moved to Hamilton a year and a half ago. The 35-year-old Anisef’s a born-and-bred Torontonian, and a legend in the city’s craft community—she founded the influential Toronto Craft Alert and City of Craft. But she and Kennedy felt increasingly alienated from the patch of King West they’d lived on for seven years. “It felt like Toronto was becoming wealthier and wealthier,” she says. “It became less and less a place where I felt relaxed and comfortable.” They had friends in Hamilton, and they found a three-bedroom century house near downtown for $224,000. (The average price of homes in Toronto last month was $503,700; $372,290 in Hamilton.) They were within walking distance of the remarkable, recently renovated library and farmers’ market complex, and a couple more blocks from James Street North, newly garlanded with quirky boutiques, restaurants, bars, and a crafts workroom called Needlework. They could be on the highway in three minutes, and in beautiful countryside in less than 20. Kennedy, who had difficulty starting his own carpentry company in Toronto, was suddenly in demand: He built the storefront for a new downtown furniture store and the countertops for the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Design Annex.
Anisef was somewhat apprehensive that Hamilton might become, one day soon, overrun with Torontonians, and that its character would change. “The Locke Street strip used to be really dive-y,” she says. “It’s definitely gentrified quite a bit. And I had some concerns when we thought about buying over here. I thought, Are we moving to Leslieville? Are we moving to a place that we’re trying to get away from in Toronto? But people were, like, it’s Hamilton, it’s never going to be that way.”
It’s safe to say that if Toronto’s housing market had never reached such unattainable levels, it might have taken a lot longer for Hamilton to become the haven it has, if ever at all. But a number of additional recent factors have certainly made Hamilton a more seductive place: better and expanded GO service (the PRESTO smart card was integrated in 2010, and a new downtown station is in the works for 2014), the transformation of several downtown warehouses and factories into luxurious lofts and office space, the growing amount of TV, film, and animation work (four animation companies opened there last year alone). This past May, the CBC opened up an online-news outlet in a refurbished warehouse on James Street North, and Postmedia (parent company of the National Post) has centralized much of its editorial operations in a low-slung building near McMaster.
Most significantly, perhaps, Hamilton itself started more assiduously trying to lure the creative class. “We turned a corner not that long ago,” says Glen Norton. He’s the manager of urban renewal in the city’s economic development division. His department produced an $80,000 advertising campaign, including a brochure highlighting heritage buildings for sale and lease that they distributed in Liberty Village and along Queen West. (A new edition comes out at the end of this month.) Asked what, aside from cheap space, would entice more Torontonians, Norton says, “It’s smaller here. You’re not an observer of a big machine. You can be a mover and shaker; you can you lead your industry.”
Lots of people call Supercrawl a tipping point. In 2009, organizers, including Tim Potocic, owner of the Sonic Unyon record label, took the increasingly successful Art Crawl, a free annual festival of art, music, and food credited for the revitalization of James Street North, and blew it up into an enormous, multimedia street party that spilled beyond the strip. The musical offerings were amped up. This year’s edition included Great Lake Swimmers, Owen Pallett, and K’naan. The first year, 3,000 people showed up; this past September, attendance exceeded 70,000.
Beth Stuart and Joel Herman relocated to Hamilton just before the last Supercrawl. The husband-and-wife artists, 33 and 31 respectively, owned a house at Lansdowne and St. Clair but had to sell it when Stuart’s sister, who lived with them, moved out. With that money, they bought a four-storey building—an idiosyncratically designed former upholstery shop, a five-minute walk from the GO station, that they’re currently, slowly transforming into studios and an apartment.
For them, Hamilton serves almost as a neighbourhood of Toronto. Herman wryly guesses what might be the headline of this article: “Hamilton, the next Parkdale.” So far, anyway, they have a life that straddles both places. They continue to work in the city (Stuart teaches part-time at OCAD, Herman works at the AGO) and maintain their galleries and the majority of their social life there. Hamilton’s home, but home right now is just one overwhelming renovation project.
They expect that will change. “There seems to be a lot of energy—hopeful and maybe a little naïve—around artwork in this city,” Stuart says. They have the potential to occasionally do something curatorial with their storefront space: maybe use it as a gallery one week, a coffee or furniture shop the next. And they’ve just begun making forays into the city, discovering a great Korean restaurant down the street, and taking hikes up the Bruce Trail that begins just outside Hamilton. Like a lot of downtowners, they’re most excited about the grocery store opening next spring in the dreary Jackson Square Mall. The 55,000-square foot “multi-ethnic” Nations Fresh Foods will be the first full-service supermarket in the core in recent memory, and it could be an economic game-changer in a way that no number of fair-trade coffee shops, no matter how adorable, can.
“As much as we were thinking of finding something affordable to buy,” Stuart says, “we also thought there was potential for really interesting things to happen here. Not another Toronto, but something else entirely.”
Next page: Comparing Hamilton and Toronto housing prices + a map of Hamilton hot spots