Until Hamilton's main east-west streets are returned to even a modicum of livability, there's really no point in talking about inviting new business or slapping up snazzy banners and calling it something-ville.
By David-James Fernandes
Published June 18, 2012
I officially moved to Hamilton on February 1 of this year. On that auspicious day, with a friend in the passenger seat and a VW station wagon full of stuff, I got into the first car accident of my life. A rear-ender on Main Street near Wentworth.
I was traveling eastbound at a pretty healthy clip when the traffic ahead of me suddenly and unexpectedly stopped. I slammed on my brakes, felt the ABS stutter in, and probably because I don't tailgate, I had enough room to avoid hitting the car in front of me... barely.
A split second later I checked the rear-view and braced myself as an Acura sedan pummelled the back of my car. It was a loud, violent, solid hit. I heard glass break. After screaming a bunch of profanities, and ensuring my passenger and I were intact, I shakily stepped out of the car to check the damage.
The man driving the Acura was immediately apologetic and unnervingly calm. The whole front end of his car was badly bruised, losing both of its eyes and most of its teeth, but incredibly, my wagon seemed to have only a little nick on the bumper. German engineering or fantastic luck, I don't know which, but thankfully no one was seriously injured.
Welcome to Hamilton, I thought.
I have driven some 250,000 km in the ten years I've been driving. I've driven in New York City, Los Angeles, Montreal and in Portugal as well. All of these places are infamous for aggressive, fast-paced driving. So when friends warned me of the crazy driving in Hamilton, I thought, yeah yeah, been there, done that.
Hamilton, let me tell you: if there is a prize for fastest, most dangerous, scariest downtown driving - you most certainly take the cake.
I live on a residential street between Main and King near Sherman Avenue. In the five months I've lived here I have seen about 15 traffic accidents (most of them T-bones) and witnessed two, including my own.
I've seen young parents scramble for their lives pushing a baby carriage trying to cross Main Street while a wall of traffic barreled down on them without slowing.
I've been tailgated more times than I can ever remember, cut-off constantly, honked at for going the speed limit, screamed at for slowing down to make a freaking turn, and had several more near misses with drivers going way too fast, not signalling lane changes and generally being douche bags.
If you've driven in Hamilton, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It is downright scary at times.
Cab drivers just laugh. "Oh yeah, why do you think they call it the Hammer?" one boasted to me.
Great. Now, let's talk about how fun it is to walk alongside this mayhem. Or cross it without running. Or, god forbid, ride your bike along it. I've tried all three. There is no fun to be had.
Hamilton's one-way downtown freeways of King Street and Main Street are dangerous to drive on, awful to walk beside, scary and unsafe to cross and suicidal to cycle on. Of all the users of streets in Hamilton, only one group actually gets what they want out of this scenario: douchebags. And because of this, you can see the effect it's had on the economic life of these major streets.
Let me tell you about some of the closest places of business to my house. Out of the storefronts within two blocks of me on both sides of King East, there is a rub and tug, a gas station, a car wash, a coin and stamp collecting store (which incredibly still looks open), a closing or closed reptile store, a computer store, lawyers offices, and a specialized surgery clinic.
There are also at least five boarded storefronts and another five or so that seem to be turned into residential, which is against zoning, but no one seems to give a crap.
The closest place to get groceries is a Big Bear Convenience a few blocks further. The closest place to get vegetables is a No Frills ten blocks away.
There are no restaurants, no cafés, few retail stores, no flower shops, book shops, bakeries, hardware stores, clothing stores, doctor's offices, libraries, post offices, or anything else that might be useful and convenient to local residents of all income levels. Not even a beer or liquor store. If I want a blow job and a lizard, however, I'm in luck.
And it's not just my stretch of King East I'm talking about. The picture on Main Street near my house is similarly dismal. In a span of two blocks, there are no less than three Pizza and Wing fast food joints, in addition to a KFC.
Go east or west in either direction and you will get block after block of the same thing. Boarded storefronts, illegal residences, drive-in one-floor office buildings with massive parking lots, struggling fast food joints and more auto garages than there seem to be cars to need them.
This is the scene along Hamilton's most prominent east and west thoroughfares: high speed, aggressive and dangerous roads to drive, walk or cycle on. Why on earth would anyone open a business there?
Are one-way streets solely to blame for the economic assassination of King and Main? Obviously not. Suburban sprawl is probably most guilty - with cheap, big box stores littering the Mountain, small business everywhere in lower town have suffered.
Another culprit is the fact that large swaths of King and Main don't have active BIAs, so it's basically a free-for all for any land owner to break zoning without any repercussions. Who's paying attention?
And let's not forget the decline of the steel industry and the massive effect that had on incomes in Hamilton. So with too much big box competition, too few BIAs, declining incomes and two incredibly hostile, unfriendly main streets, there really is no mystery to why King and Main suck so much.
But it actually doesn't have to be this way.
I moved to Hamilton from Toronto, where I had lived for most of my adult life, minus a five year stint in Ottawa. In the late '90s I had a friend who had moved out to Leslie Street and Queen Street East - the east end of Toronto, sandwiched between Riverdale and the Beach.
At that time, having only lived in the well-developed west end of the city, I thought my friend had moved to another country. I went out to visit him one day for breakfast at a brand new restaurant that had opened and I just couldn't figure it out.
The area seemed really depressed. Lots of boarded up store fronts, struggling mom & pop diners, fledgling convenience stores... it just wasn't the picture of urban living that I was used to in the west downtown.
That run-down little stretch of Queen East, fifteen years later, is now the beautiful, walkable, drivable, cyclable main street of what became known as Leslieville. I even bought a home and lived in the neighbourhood for five years.
I can't think of a single illegal residential storefront, and where there isn't a business, there is a for lease sign and a line-up to get a coveted spot. These are two lane streets, shared with streetcars, trees on both sides, parking on both sides and bicycle ring posts everywhere along the sidewalks.
And although there is some congestion at rush hours, during the day and weekends it mostly moves very well. It is a model for what a healthy street looks like.
So how did this happen? I have a theory.
1) Not so unlike Hamilton, Toronto's east-end fifteen years ago was a bargain compared to the over-priced west end. So, younger folks moving out of condos or rentals and looking to start families started buying up the homes. Average prices at the time? About $150-$225k. Over time, an influx of new people and new money flowed into the neighbourhood.
2) Some smart entrepreneurs started to take notice of the flux of new people and rightly figured out that these folks would eventually want to eat and shop in their neighbourhood. So they took advantage of the rock-bottom leases and building prices and started opening businesses on Queen East.
Eventually, some big names in the restaurant biz took note and started opening new places. Within six years, Queen East had become a hot spot for foodies. Then in 2007, a Starbucks moved in and the rest of the street exploded with new, locally run shops and restaurants.
3) With new residents and new businesses came re-invigorated BIAs and resident's associations. This lead to some much needed resources to fix up parks, move a community health clinic, put up some street banners and generally improve the street presence.
It also led to the forming of the powerful East Toronto Community Coalition, which to this day has stopped the all powerful Smart Centres and Walmart from colonizing some former industrial land on Eastern Ave. That's right, they stopped a Walmart. Seriously.
4) I'm not sure how or when it happened, but real estate agents started branding the neighbourhoods with nice names like Riverside and Leslieville to compliment already existing, well-branded hoods like Riverdale, Danforth and The Beach.
So, what used to be a nameless stretch of Queen East suddenly became a place. And it became a place associated with affordable homes, nice restaurants, great parks all within spitting distance of downtown Toronto and two major highways.
This basic formula has been repeated many times successfully in Toronto. New residents, new business, active associations, and new names for undefined neighbourhoods. It's exactly what happened on Queen West in the '80s and '90s and then again on Queen West West in the 2000s.
Same with Ossington Avenue. Same with Kingston Road, St. Clair, strips of Yonge, Bayview, Eglinton, Dundas West, and on and on. And not one of these streets is one-way (and to be fair, never were).
So while this scale of gentrification definitely has deleterious effects for lower-income residents - rents increase, homes get converted back to single family, smaller, more affordable establishments die out - it's not all Starbucks and designer baby carriages.
In Leslieville in particular, there are to date twenty-one social housing units with frontage on to Queen Street East from Broadview to the Beach that pre-date gentrification. These are mostly city owned and run but there are some private ones as well. In addition, there are dozens more homes on almost every residential side street that are run as social housing. I lived beside one for five years.
So in the midst of all these changes, the city still made sure there continued to be space for lower-income families to live in the nice revitalized neighbourhood that sprung up. And as a result, there are better streets, better parks, better transit service, and much better access to community-based health than ever before - for everyone.
So, with proper safeguards, and the right intentions, Leslieville continues to be a vibrant community with very mixed incomes and an eclectic mix of businesses and services that meet a broad range of needs (and notably, there's no Walmart). It's not to say there aren't tensions - there are jerks who would love to close every social housing unit in the city, the mayor included - but for now, it's a balance that for the most part works and works well.
So, back to Hamilton. Where are we at on my four part list? I'd say it really depends on where you live. Clearly Locke Street and James Street North have seen a revival and Ottawa Street is certainly up and coming. Barton is trying.
Thinking about my hood, I'd say we're at number one - there's incredibly beautiful homes here that compared to Toronto are a fantastic bargain, and there are a hell of a lot of people moving over here every month. On just the short block of street I live on, I can count six of my neighbours who've moved here from Toronto and several others from other parts of Hamilton.
So we have the influx of new people - but smart entrepreneurs have to look no further than the one-way dodgeball of Main and King streets and it's game over. These awful one-way streets are keeping us stuck.
There aren't any new businesses out this way yet, and not surprisingly, there's also no BIA, and no residents' association (although I hear rumours one has started).
And what the heck is this area called anyway? My neighbours have no clue. Google Maps puts us in the middle of Gibson and Stipley, but real estate agents call it St. Claire (though I'm pretty sure that only covers the part of my hood south of Main, and we are north.)
Obviously it's going to take some time for Hamilton to become a healthier city with healthy, vibrant, multi-use streets. The transition from primarily a resource processing and manufacturing city to whatever it is becoming now has not been quick or easy, and it's not ever going to be quick and easy.
It's taken Toronto the last twenty plus years. And that's been twenty years of hard fought council battles, energized, progressive councillors and mayors, active citizens coalitions and a whole hell of a lot of economic development that has transformed the downtown and all surrounding neighbourhoods into lovely, livable places.
This simply can't and won't happen overnight. But it does have to start somewhere.
I think we should start with converting Main and King streets - from Dundurn all the way to Gage park - into two-way streets with parking and shared bike lanes. Doing so will not solve all the zoning and economic development challenges these streets face, but at a minimum, it will make them safe to drive on, walk along and cycle.
And until that happens - until Hamilton's main east-west streets are returned to even a modicum of livability - there's really no point in talking about inviting new business or slapping up snazzy banners and calling it something-ville, it would be dooming the project to failure, and there's been enough of that already.
Editor's note: This essay is part of a series on the future role and design of our downtown streets. We encourage Hamiltonians to submit well-written, thoughtful and evidence-based essays that move the discussion forward. Please send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.