Having lived in Buffalo and now Hamilton, I see countless similarities between the two cities. Here is my take on what makes both these cities alike - and both likable.
By Lorne Opler
Published November 06, 2009
The similarities are stark - both rust-belt cities struggling to reinvent themselves in the 21st century. Both cities were once upon a time strong manufacturing towns identified with heavy industry and a large blue collar workforce. Both share glorious pasts, downtowns that were once teeming with people, and architecture that showed off their respective turn of the century neighborhoods.
That would be Hamilton and Detroit? Hamilton and Cleveland? No, I'm referring to Hamilton and Buffalo, our blue-collar cousin to the south. As a former resident of Buffalo and now a recent transplant to Hamilton (via Toronto), I frequently find myself walking through the Hammer and making mental comparisons between both burghs. The common bonds are striking.
Hamilton, like Buffalo, is rooted in the steel industry. Like Buffalo, steel built the city into a thriving mid-size metropolis where smokestacks ran 24/7 and forge workers and their incomes, kept the economies humming.
Unlike Buffalo, however, some steel is actually still milled here. But after U.S. Steel bought Stelco, jobs have been lost, and like so much these days, production has been shifted outside the country. The result is that Hamilton has lost revenues, taxes, and perhaps most of all, its bygone polish.
Like Buffalo, Hamilton has an east-side challenged by poverty and a negative reputation. Like Buffalo, I see Hamilton's downtown pocked by too much surface parking, too many empty buildings and a once thriving but now straggling enclosed shopping mall whose flagship store is Dollarama.
Despite these negative similarities, there are also many common positives both cities share.
Hamilton has a vibrant and legendary year round downtown farmer's market. Buffalo has the Broadway Market, an institution that is working hard to breathe new life into its hundred and twenty year existence.
Both cities have lively shopping districts outside the downtown. Buffalo has Elmwood Village, Hertel, and Allentown. Hamilton has Locke Street, Westdale, and the burgeoning art scene on James Street North.
Both cities have stunning late 19th century residential areas; Hamilton's Durand and Kirkendall neighborhoods compare favourably to Buffalo's Elmwood Village and Parkside district.
Both are very affordable places to live, where beautiful intown homes can be purchased for a fraction of what you'd pay in Toronto or New York City. And both cities have rush hour traffic without the rush (and the traffic).
Most importantly, it seems that both cities are slowly but steadily transforming their urban cores back into the destinations they once upon a time used to be.
Renovation projects in downtown Hamilton - from City Hall, to the library, to the Farmer's Market and Lister Block - parallel similar revitalization efforts taking place in downtown Buffalo - the newly renovated Avant Building, the new U.S. Federal Court House, and scores of urban loft conversions are but three examples.
Too bad both cities are often portrayed in unflattering light, often by people who have never even spent time in either place. As Buffalo is considered unsophisticated by its looming big brother, NYC, so too is Hamilton maligned by its larger megalopolis, Toronto.
Much to the puzzlement of ill-informed New Yorkers and Torontonians alike, both Buffalonians and Hamiltonians are fiercely proud of their cities, of their roots, and especially of their football.
Ironically though, when Torontonians like myself do move to Hamilton (usually because they are priced out of Toronto's housing market), invariably they are pleasantly surprised by the livability of the city, its close proximity to miles of trails, parks and public spaces, and its thriving arts scene. Sounds a lot like what New Yorkers experience when they make a similar move to Buffalo.
I've met many Hamiltonians who wouldn't think of moving to Toronto. They may enjoy it for a day trip, a weekend, but not much more. I know there are a lot of Buffalonians who share the same attitude towards the Big Apple.
Why might that be? Why is it that Hamiltonians, like Buffalonians aren't necessarily lured to the bright lights of their "sophisticated" big brothers beyond the odd two day getaway?
My guess is that it has to do with what I believe are Buffalo's and Hamilton's greatest assets - their people. Just as I found in Buffalonians, Hamiltonians are a generously friendly folk, easy to talk to, down-to-earth, and very approachable. What I liked most in my time in Buffalo - its unpretentious and neighborly attitude - I have found now in Hamilton.
Perhaps that's the reward of living in two cities where bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, but better is what we are always working towards becoming.
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