What is all this buzz about Hamilton?

By Jay Higgins

A few years ago, in fact, about 170 years ago on June 9, 1846 Hamilton became a city. Since then a number of interesting events have happened within Hamilton, all of which have helped shape our community, people and local fortunes.

Here is a very brief history to get you up to speed. Hamilton had the first commercial telephone service in Canada and second in North America, was the host of Canada's first major international athletic event now called the Commonwealth Games (then called the British Empire Games) among many other interesting firsts.

A huge population boom at the turn of the century helped fuel the mass industrialization of the region and with it came the steel titans Stelco and Dofasco. At one point almost sixty percent of Canada's steel was produced in Hamilton and the city had become known as the Steel Capital of Canada, “Steel Town” or “The Hammer” to many among other names and unfortunately some not so flattering handles. A number of fortune 500 companies and other larger manufacturers like Proctor and Gamble, Westinghouse, Beech-Nut Packing Company (makers of Lifesavers), National Steel Car, International Harvester, Otis Elevator, Studebaker and many others all set up shop in town. In fact, Hamilton was the birthplace of Canadian Tire and most famously Tim Horton Donuts. What could go wrong?

Around the mid 1960’s North American manufacturing jobs started getting shipped to developing countries which triggered a slow decline. Cities throughout the “rust belt” (Like Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Rochester etc) all began to lose jobs and their economies shrank along with their populations. Although Hamilton lost thousands of manufacturing jobs we were able to retain and in fact grow our population over this period. Mainly due to being a short distance from the GTA which is Canada's largest and wealthiest market, our close proximity to the Canada-U.S.A. border and the fact that Hamilton still has the busiest Great Lakes port in Canada. However by this point, Hamilton now had a black eye, polluted harbour, rotting buildings, above average social problems and was really suffering from low self esteem. We were considered by many both locally and regionally to be dirty, dangerous, rough and the poor second-cousin of Toronto. Many of the children of the first and second generation immigrants moved out of the core into the suburbs or to the GTA. The influx of social services into the core and people in need finding their way to Hamilton changed the look and feel of the city. The city centre started to resemble a ghost town. People stopped going downtown and many businesses closed down or moved away for greener pastures.

Richard Florida, one of world’s leading urbanist who talks a lot about the creative class and how they are going to reshape and reimagine cities across North America spoke at a Hamilton Economic Summit Event a number of years ago. He commented on how Hamilton will continue to grow and prosper in some ways because of our proximity to Toronto, but our local government, businesses, entrepreneurs, institutions and civic leaders must have a vested interest in helping shape how that future will look. He went on to say that if we don’t get heartily involved, then Hamilton could become a bedroom community with a hollowed out core and continue to have a brain drain of young, smart and influential people to the GTA and beyond.

A combination of events started to happen. Some spirited and brave local entrepreneurs who stayed made major investments in the downtown, Hamilton Economic Development Department with the help of the City Council and input from various vested groups laid out a roadmap for growth. Add in the onset of housing and property prices going through the roof in the GTA plus an oversaturation of restaurants, people and traffic and you start to see a number of disenchanted Torontonians looking down the highway to Hamilton for investment. More and more students from McMaster University, Mohawk College, Redeemer University College and Columbia International College started laying down roots in the area instead of moving away because they could see a future in Hamilton. Even Hamiltonians who moved away started to come home. Add to this the massive investment made to the healthcare and science industries by Hamilton Health Sciences and McMaster Innovation Park and all of a sudden there started to be many good reasons to set up shop or a homestead in Hamilton.

Sure there is a lot more to do and Hamilton still has problems to solve. But luckily, there is still a solid group of local heroes who through all the darkness champion what is good and beautiful about Hamilton. Philanthropist Chris Ecklund the guy who imagined City of Waterfalls comes to mind. He donated his own time, money and resources to show the world and us that Hamilton is a natural beauty with 100’s of urban waterfalls which helped us to see Hamilton in a different light. The City of Waterfalls movement was just one example of the many initiatives that helped change the narrative. Combined, they all helped to spread the word that Hamilton was much more than smokestacks. The ripple effect was an influx of creative, educated and passionate transplants and expats who saw Hamilton in a different light as well. Excitement for Hamilton and Hamilton pride become contagious and has brought us to today.

Hamilton now has a thriving arts community, bustling downtown, low unemployment rate, low crime rate, brownfield redevelopment, harbour remediation, major transportation infrastructure plans, new construction and rebirths of landmark buildings, new hotels, condos and of course great new and innovative restaurants, cafes, wineries, craft breweries and events.

Eleven years ago, we too, felt the desire to add a voice to the Hamilton cheering section, and so was the birth of Food & Drink Fest. The festival has grown into a beloved celebration of all that is good about our city. The food, beer, wine, real chefs, brew masters, winemakers, musicians, geography, architecture, people, history and future. It all started eleven years ago as a celebration of the rebirth of what we thought was a once great Canadian city that fell on hard times. Today, Hamilton is looking pretty great again and though it is still tough as nails, it is also as majestic, beautiful, unpredictable and hypnotising as one of our many cascading waterfalls.