Last Friday, The Globe and Mail‘s Trevor Cole covered the many problems and hopes for the future that the city of Hamilton, a once-industrial city perhaps an hour’s drive east of Toronto on Lake Ontario that has seen its famous steel mills start to close down and its rivalry with Toronto end in a decided defeat.
For anyone from the largest and wealthiest city in Canada-that would be Toronto, just 50 minutes away-what’s down is up in Hamilton. The waterfront and the inner city lie to the north; south spread the suburbs. That gets a bit confusing if you’re new to the place. So is the notion that Hamilton has aspirations, that becoming “one of the major cities in this country and in North America” could be destiny, not fantasy.
But it was only a few decades ago that Hamilton, “the ambitious city,” had not just Stelco and Dofasco but a cohort of blue-chip American companies that would make any city drool-Firestone, Westinghouse, Procter & Gamble, International Harvester, Life Savers, Levi Strauss. The smokestacks billowed until the evening air in the east end had a taste. Downtown, stores and restaurants thrived. Johnny Pops, head of the Papalia family, made Hamilton a hot spot of organized crime. If there’s one thing the Mafia likes, it’s the prospect of money, and Hamilton had plenty of prospects. Among all of Canada’s cities, it was the great steel hope, packing industrial muscle on a squat, sturdy frame. It wasn’t pretty, far from that, but it was a contender.
And then all that went away. Not suddenly, but relentlessly, through a series of body blows. As prosperity plumped nearby rivals such as Burlington, Oakville, Mississauga, Kitchener-Waterloo and-especially-Toronto, it skipped Hamilton completely, cruelly, until most of its big-name companies were gone, the stores along Barton Street deteriorated into dark and crumbling shells, downtown became a kind of forbidden zone, and even the Mafia couldn’t make any money. Nine years ago, an incantation penned by Tiny Bill Cody, a popular local musician, spoke to a city finally dropped to the mat. “Hamilton!…” the poem went, “Your opponents are always so huge/And you always lose. Stupid, heroic, blockhead.”
Internal political rivalries, the problems facing the retraining of factory workers for service-sector jobs, a suspicion of outside initiatives, and a downtown district in catastrophic decline, are all major factors against this. Conversely, attempts to rebrand Hamilton as an artistic centre might work. In the end, given the large number of commuters to Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area and the lack of a strong local economic base, becoming a Toronto bedroom community instead of a strong independent city might be the best options.