Hamilton is facing a defining moment in its history

Hamilton has seen major shifts in the last few decades. One of the more recent of these has been, of course, the housing boom, with relatively affluent people moving to the city, and developers and businesses seeing new opportunities. This has come with rising rents and property values. 

While this has been happening, Hamilton, especially the downtown area and surroundings, have been home to the “poorest of the poor,” according to a recent study conducted by McMaster University. The study found that Hamilton households relying on food bank services have gross incomes 40 to 60 per cent lower than average low-income families. 

In our new title Shift Change, Stephen Dale explores how these two contrasting sides of Hamilton no longer have to exist in opposition, but a new way forward can be found through an urban renaissance that favours the creation of mixed-income communities that serve the needs of everyone. This approach could finally bring an end to the unfavourable consequences of gentrification. Read the excerpt below to get a glimpse into Stephen Dale’s hopeful perspective at a time when Hamilton, according to Dale, faces “a defining moment in its history.” 

Shift Change

Scenes from a Post-industrial Revolution

By Stephen Dale


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Looking for the right mix

One problem with trying to influence a city’s future growth is that the city itself is a living, changing entity and therefore a moving target. The health of the city is never constant; conditions are rarely static. The importance of this fact kept coming up as I conducted interviews with numerous Hamiltonians who, cumulatively, form a kind of loose, informal alliance attempting to steer Hamilton’s redevelopment in a direction that will benefit a range of citizens. My interviewees would float certain plans or scenarios based on the conditions at the time. Returning periodically over a handful of years, it became clear that a quickly moving chain of events was altering the underlying conditions, so that earlier predictions began to look less plausible and new outlooks and strategies were emerging to replace them. 

I first tested the zeitgeist in my old home town in early 2015, just as an in-migration from more expensive real estate markets (namely, the Greater Toronto Area) and the resulting prospects of gentrification were routinely making headlines in the newspapers. Around this time, two popular conceptions of Hamilton’s character—one fading, the other emerging—were competing for dominance. In one narrative, the city was a grim, post-apocalyptic repository of poverty and despair. In the other, it was an electrifying urban frontier where the entrepreneurship and enthusiasm of newcomers was flourishing, where endless new possibilities were emerging from the ruins of a landscape that had once embodied the drudgery of the manufacturing age.

The former image had been foremost in the public imagination at least since 2010, when the Hamilton Spectator published a series of in-depth articles under the banner “Code Red,” using census data to rank lower Hamilton neighbourhoods by economic status, health and education outcomes, and so forth. Even since the early 1960s, the old city (conveniently separated from Hamilton’s postwar suburbs by the Niagara Escarpment, or the Mountain, as it’s known locally) had been losing its middle-class character. Industrial workers who’d grown tired of living in the shadows of the factories where they worked were decamping for the greener, cleaner suburbs on the Mountain. An ambitious “urban renewal” scheme in the early seventies, involving the construction of the Jackson Square shopping centre and adjoining office tower, and a new theatre and art gallery, failed to stem the migration of commerce to distant, car-friendly shopping malls.

Things spiralled even further downward during that rough patch in the eighties when the manufacturing base was being eroded and the new, gigantic Lime Ridge Mall, opened in 1981, fully undercut earlier efforts to revive the city core. In the face of all this, the main competitive advantages downtown Hamilton retained were its depressed rents and a critical mass of health and social services. Consequently, people who had been squeezed by the soaring cost of living in Toronto and the declining buying power of social assistance payments discovered that they had a better shot at survival in Hamilton: today, you’ll hear stories of case workers in Toronto urging their clients to pick up and relocate seventy kilometres or so down the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way). As a result, many Hamilton neighbourhoods below the Mountain soon became known for their formidable concentrations of people who were poor, socially disadvantaged, and often living with disabilities.

The statistical measures provided in the Spectator’s Code Red series provided chilling evidence in support of that portrait. The Spec’s number crunching revealed that eight neighbourhoods within three downtown wards had more than half of their children living in poverty. In Ward 2, which encompasses much of the central core, 40 per cent of inhabitants lived below the poverty line. Since epidemiological data makes a strong case that “the wealthier you are, the healthier you are,” as reporter Steve Buist wrote, it came as little surprise that a city with such high rates of poverty also produced tragic health stats. 

The most obvious indicator of well-being is life expectancy. Here the numbers tell a remarkable story. Comparing an affluent west Mountain suburb with a neighbourhood in a northeastern slice of the downtown core, the Spectator team arrived at a difference in lifespan of twenty-one years: life expectancy in the former was 86.3 years (five years above the Canadian national average) while it was only 65.5 in the latter. “Put another way,” Buist elaborated, “the same North End neighbourhood would rank 165 in the world for life expectancy, tied with Nepal, just ahead of Pakistan and worse than India, Mongolia and Turkmenistan.” The unflattering comparison with developing (or, as he put it, Third World) countries holds up across a range of indicators: “In parts of the lower-central portion of Hamilton, where poverty is deeply entrenched, some neighbourhoods live with Third World health outcomes and Third World lifespans—all the more shocking in a city with a major medical school and top teaching hospitals, in a country with universal, publicly funded health care.” 

The incidence of cardiovascular emergencies is another measure of the divide between poor downtown and wealthier suburban citizens. The Spectator reported that while a neighbourhood in Flamborough, on the city’s rural fringe, had a rate of one cardiovascular emergency per 1,000 people, the figure rose to 27 cardiovascular emergencies per 1,000 people in one east-end neighbourhood near Nash Road. There was also a large gap in the age at which cardiovascular emergencies occurred: in one suburban Stoney Creek neighbourhood, the average age was 79 years old; in that poorer neighbourhood near Nash Road, it was 57 years. That 22-year gulf suggests that lower-income people are likely to fall victim to cardiovascular disease well before the wealthy.

The pattern holds true for mental health emergencies, where one poor inner-city neighbourhood experienced 88 psychiatric emergencies per 1,000 residents; 34 times higher than in a sample neighbourhood in Flamborough, where the rate was 2.6 per 1,000. All ten neighbourhoods with the highest rate of mental health emergencies were in the inner city. As well, Code Red found that 8 per cent of babies born in Hamilton had low birth weight, which is one-third higher than the national average. Although twenty-four neighbourhoods had no low-birth-weight babies, there were seven neighbourhoods where the rate was over 20 per cent, which is higher than the rate of 15 per cent the World Health Organization pegs as the incidence of low birth weight in sub-Saharan Africa. Since low birth weight can be a prelude to later health problems, the implication is that a high percentage of babies born in downtown Hamilton may face a lifetime of struggle.

Not long after the Spectator’s Code Red articles unleashed anguished soul searching among Hamiltonians, other appendages of the regional and national media also started to take an interest in Canada’s tarnished steel capital. Inevitably, though, those stories offered more upbeat storylines focusing not on the concerns of long-time residents but on the dreams of a growing cadre of Torontonians who looked to Hamilton to provide an escape from smothering big-city mortgages. In these stories, Hamilton became a kind of studio backlot—adorned with quaint Victorian residential streetscapes, hulking warehouses, and romantically rusting factories—on which the newcomers from down the road could act out their personal scripts about escaping the rat race and finding some space to live creatively. The locals mostly appeared as extras with brief walk-on parts, sometimes as impediments to the plans of new arrivals who had their own ideas about how people should conduct themselves in a real city.

Writing in late 2012 in the Grid, a now-defunct urban weekly published by the Toronto Star, Jason McBride reported that although disenchanted Torontonians had been making the trek to Hamilton since the turn of the millennium,

in the past two years or so, Steeltown was being spoken about with the same romantic fervor 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 were all relatively young. . . . They were also members of the so-called creative class and Hamilton, it seemed, was now offering fresh, alluring opportunities for that particular demographic.

This would become a familiar theme: subsequent stories over the years reported on the relocation to Hamilton of fashion and film businesses (low-margin enterprises that require substantial space on limited budgets), while an essay in the urbanist journal Spacing detailed the fascination that Hamilton held for a busload of city-watchers who had motored down the highway to witness the reinvention of the Steel City. 

Despite the rising buzz about Hamilton as a creative hive, however, even by 2017 Toronto Life seemed to be taken by surprise. The magazine opened its cover story on Hamilton-bound real estate refugees with that stale image of Toronto’s industrial cousin as a place big-city sophisticates would normally shun. “When you approach the city from the QEW, it doesn’t feature a skyline so much as a blockade of smokestacks—a veritable DO NOT ENTER sign made in steel and scrawled in soot,” wrote Stuart Berman, himself a transplanted Torontonian drawn to Hamilton by “a sprawling . . .Edwardian home” with an irresistible price tag just shy of half a million. For most of his life, Berman continued, in his mind, “Hamilton was to Toronto what a backyard shed is to a house—a gritty appendage, perhaps, but not a place you want to hang out.” 

Although much of Berman’s article advanced the revisionist notion that Hamilton isn’t that bad after all, it’s also coloured by an obvious condescension; the suggestion, for example, that what remains unchanged by the current round of gentrification in downtown Hamilton is somehow offensive and irksome to the true urbanite. 

For all the activity reinvigorating the city, the Hammer [the city’s nickname] is still a long way from L’Hammeur. Compared to Toronto’s relentless modernity, large swaths of Hamilton remain frozen in time: its streets are dotted with derelict strip malls, concrete buildings, businesses that operate out of houses and video stores that have somehow managed to survive in the streaming age. 

Notably, that description hints at the presence of pre-influx residents without actually mentioning them. The features of the landscape so derided in this piece (stone-age video stores, home-based businesses) surely existed because they had a clientele: long-tenured, likely lower-income Hamiltonians. But they are important in this article only because they have reshaped the streetscape in a way that sophisticated newcomers will find unappealing. It’s a clear dig at the culture that existed here before: incoming Torontonians are forewarned that the hidden price of discount real estate is having to tolerate the residual trappings of working-class life.


Will the real Hamilton please stand up?

Looking at these two distinct ways in which life in Hamilton has been reported on—through the investigative advocacy of the Code Red series, and then the lifestyle mag journalism unleashed after intra-urban migration became a discernable trend—it’s possible to conclude that there are two self-contained solitudes here, with interests and mindsets that rarely intersect. One group is focused, to a major extent, on sheer survival. The other is pursuing the twenty-first-century urbanist dream—on the trail of restorable pre–World War II architecture, quirky bistros, and an amusing art and music scene, wrapped in a package that doesn’t include astronomical mortgage payments and a crushing commute. 

In reality, though, the fates of these two groups have become intertwined. Or at least, they are interdependent mostly in one direction, with the future of long-time residents in once-forgotten urban areas now determined to some extent by the activities of newcomers. This need not be a negative intersection. As reporter Emily Badger noted in the Washington Post in 2015, an injection of new money—for all the destruction it has created in gentrifying neighbourhoods across the globe—can also have a positive impact. It can help remedy situations where people with low incomes are confined to neglected neighbourhoods and lack access to basic amenities like supermarkets and drug stores, and even to civic services like garbage collection or transit, rationed by municipal governments that are often disinclined to assign funds to neighbourhoods that generate less tax revenue. 

This lack of services was clearly on display in Hamilton after the downturn. A Code Red story noted, for example, that a 3.4-kilometre stretch of Barton Street, once a thriving commercial strip, by the early 2010s had only 166 businesses in place of the 367 that had existed in the 1960s. There are now two pharmacies rather than the original eleven, along with a handful of convenience stores and thrift shops where once there were furniture shops, tailors, and pool halls. In the wider North American context, Badger pointed out that although the opening of wine bars and pricey condos coaxed into being by new money won’t improve life for lower-income people, other developments (like the arrival of grocery stores) can provide them with both services and employment opportunities. She wrote: 

The more useful question isn’t whether “gentrification” is good or bad, but what it might look like to have new investment in a community that benefits existing and future residents alike. I know people who worry that this isn’t possible—that new investment and old residents cannot coexist, that the former can only displace the latter. But I’m convinced there must be a way to do this.