Hamilton: A Love-Hate Story

No place can meet every need all the time. Better to embrace the adventure of the inconvenient and learn to love our less-than-perfect neighbourhoods than to fly in search of the elusive perfect place.

By Michelle Martin
Published March 10, 2010

Ah, love-hate relationships. We city-dwellers know about those.

I shook the dust off of my feet when our family left Toronto - couldn't wait to leave it. We were living in a spot that was supposed to be up and coming, on the cusp.

It was a place where movie shoots took place pretty regularly (nothing flatters us Canadians more than being discommoded by an American movie shoot in which garbage is scattered around the faded main street of a neighbourhood to make it look like some kind of slum), and real estate agents called us Beaches West.

But the neighbourhood pretty much went nowhere for the eight years we were there, and was getting pretty rough in some pockets. Besides, we couldn't afford a house the size we needed, so we went to another apparently up and coming location: one where there were art galleries and theatres that we could actually afford to visit, as well as an affordable house which, similarly appointed, would have cost us over half a million dollars in Hogtown.

Having had occasion to visit Toronto a couple of times in the last few weeks, once not far from our old house, I found myself longing to return to that little bungalow where we could see the lake from our driveway, around the corner from the Polish bakery that made such delicious rye bread that it could hardly keep up with the demand of the out-of-towners who drove into the city to buy it.

The old neighbourhood is looking a little shinier, a little busier. There are signs of a burgeoning arts scene, or at least a group of people who are committed to establishing one. Do I regret that we left it? Perhaps I do.

Am I tired of Hamilton? Of inadequate transit, and a downtown that looks like one crazy jumble of well-intentioned and then ultimately aborted projects? Of trying to find someplace in our neck of the woods that's not called Tim Horton's but is open for a coffee after ten p.m.? Of the Lister block? Of no decent shopping except at the bloody power centres that bookend the Linc?

If I left it, would I regret leaving? Nope.

Well, maybe. I would come back to visit and remember summer nights on the front porch sharing a glass of wine with Stephen while the kids hollered to us about petty disagreements through the front window and we laughed and hollered back at them to get the heck up to bed, but not so loudly as to detract from the mellow pleasure we took in the bands playing the Festival of Friends, heard quite clearly from our house.

I'd remember the view from the top of the Kenilworth stairs, and the checkout ladies at the Delta No-Frills who knew us well enough to chat at the end of the weekly grocery run. The place would be crawling with art aficionados, and even by-law aficionados.

What do you know? I'd see that Gage Park was finally getting a facelift.

I might even ponder that no place where a person lives is going to meet every need all the time, and that even Paris is tiresome to Parisians, as much as they love it.

Much better to embrace the adventure of the inconvenient, and learn to love our less-than-perfect neighbourhoods.

Finies les balades le long du canal
les escaliers des cartes postales
c'est fini, Paris
c'est décidé, je me barre
finis le ciel gris, les matins moroses,
on dit qu'à Toulouse les briques sont rose
oh là-bas, Paris, les briques sont roses

-- Camille, "Paris", 2002

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.


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By jason (registered) | Posted March 10, 2010 at 09:47:17

great piece Michelle. Living in Hamilton's urban neighbourhoods, one has to come to grips with the fact that the civic administration can't be leaned on for any worthwhile change, so change must come from within - art crawls, small building renos, home renos, bylaw crawls, makers markets etc......

It would be easy to wake up everyday in Hamilton and automatically look at the glass as being mostly empty with a new day of parading transport trucks being allowed to use our front stoops as their own personal expressway instead of using the multi billion expressways we've built for "them". Or the lack of good shopping, lack of walkable streets, lack of good coffee (open past 10pm?? consider yourself lucky if you've got such a place in your hood - past 5pm would be a massive breakthrough in most of the city).

It might take some willpower, but I agree with you that we should try to see the glass as slowly filling up. Veeeerrrrryyy slowly. The grass is always greener somewhere else, but an afternoon spent wandering the RBG, Cootes Paradise, Websters Falls or the west harbour usually is all it takes to remind me that we've got it pretty good here.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted March 10, 2010 at 10:40:17

Excellent piece, Michelle. I applaud your honesty.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted March 10, 2010 at 18:31:18

lack of good coffee (open past 10pm?? consider yourself lucky if you've got such a place in your hood - past 5pm would be a massive breakthrough in most of the city).

Limoncello on Ottawa St. will serve you a proper latte after 9 pm. Now don't all stampede there, you guys.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted March 10, 2010 at 18:41:40

Wonderful article, Michelle. I feel the same way - often. But whenever I fantasize about (or even concretely plan for) pulling up stakes and moving to Guelph or Dundas or Westmount or Stratford - some seemingly functional and attractive small city - I think about what I would find unbearable there and what I'd miss about Westdale in particular and Hamilton in general. And maybe I go for a walk to the library and pick up some cookies at the bakery on the way, or bike up to James St. N. via the waterfront trail. And before long, I'll be taking lunch-hour paddles in Cootes Paradise again.

I do love Hamilton ...but like you, I guess, I wish that she didn't make me work at it so much.

I risk repeating myself, but here's a link to my own Hamilton story of love and hate, told in photographs ...

Comment edited by moylek on 2010-03-10 17:43:15

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted March 10, 2010 at 19:11:15

Limoncello on Ottawa St. will serve you a proper latte after 9 pm.

Must clarify with reference to the hours posted on their website: Sunday to Wednesday 9:00 am to 9:00 pm Thursday to Saturday 9:00 am to 11:00 pm

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By love it (anonymous) | Posted March 11, 2010 at 00:48:58

As someone who came from Toronto trendy neighbourhood, I prefer making my place in Hamilton as good as I want. Do I miss Polish cookies ? - I can cook better when I want to. The house, especially mortgage free, is way better than all cookies Toronto has to offer. Did not we already learn that Hamilton is different from Toronto and has something that Toronto does not ? Should not we just polish our diamond-in-rough and start appreciating it ?
One need to see the "trendy" Queen st characters in Toronto that come with the late night coffee .

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By frank (registered) | Posted March 11, 2010 at 11:28:13

@ love it...

I agree that we should polish the diamond-in-thee-rough but that implies making changes... as in polishing it! So far Hamilton's councilors and money bags are quite content with slapping the tarnish back on whenever someone tries to polish it.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted March 11, 2010 at 12:08:47

Michelle, I feel (and have felt!) your pain :)

As you know (I used to be Michelle's next door neighbour) I moved back to TO about 4 years ago. We were fortunate that we were able to scrape together the $ to do so.

As expected, there are many things that I miss about Hamilton, some of which you mentioned. The proximity to trails, waterfalls and countryside is a huge loss. As is the earthiness of the people. I've never known a town so unpretentious.

We also miss out house - a beautiful historic detached 4 bedroom with a turret. We now live in a tiny row house with barely 3 bedrooms and no garden.

But I don't miss the sadness and frustration I felt looking at the downtown and - here's that word again - the potential that just never seemed to be unleashed. Toronto and other cities would kill for a Gore Park like downtown, and yet we treat it like a roundabout on a motorway. I imagined, when I moved in, that the town council would pedestrianize the whole area, put in LRT, and knit together the mountain, downtown and lakeshore area, which would kickstart the downtown rejuvination. I also imagined improved railway service to TO, and the possibility of some high end jobs becoming available locally. But, as we have seen there is no leadership and no vision. It's sad.

Overall I'm releived to now live in a town that is, quite simply, a lot easier to live in. In Hamilton what bogged me down the most was the shear difficulty of everyday life. Commuting to work (in Toronto - I lost my office in Hamilton shortly after I moved), using the local transit, having to drive everywhere, the lack of things to do, the lack of community and neighbourhood planning in our Delta neighbourhood. The lack of...progress! All of these things weighed me and my family down every day. In the end we felt that was little prospect of a fast turnaround a fact that, sadly, appears to be showing itself to be true.

There are still some affordable pockets in Toronto that are not riddled with gangs. Although Toronto itself has made little progress since we've moved back here it does have enough legacy infrastructure to make it an easier place to live. And that's all we can really ask.

Say Hi to Steve and the family.



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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted March 11, 2010 at 14:51:51

Very nice article Michelle!

Although we are trapped in the temporal physicality of a place –– "our experiences of everyday abstract concepts like time, states, change, causation, and purpose, turn out to be metaphorical ...cross-domain mapping." ~ George Lakoff.

Many writers and poets have explored the City as a metaphor of destinations and mythical journeys.

Here is a brilliant example of one such exploration by Cavafy, one of the greatest of modern Greek poets:

The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore, find another city better than this one. Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong and my heart lies buried like something dead. How long can I let my mind moulder in this place? Wherever I turn, wherever I look, I see the black ruins of my life, here, where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore. This city will always pursue you. You’ll walk the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses. You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere: there’s no ship for you, there’s no road. Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.


...Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you’re destined for. But don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you’re old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you wouldn't have set out. She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

~ C. P. Cavafy Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

Among many others who have explored the City through a similar lens are: Jorge Luis Borges - The Aleph, The Garden of Forking Paths; Italo Calvino - Invisible Cities; and Charles Bukowski - a poem is a city.

Hamilton could open up for us and get very interesting – if looked at through this lens!

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 17, 2010 at 11:05:41

Having lived in both cities. I'll take Hamilton any day over Toronto... the people alone make Hamilton a better place to live. Just getting in and out of Toronto is a hassle. But I guess it is an "easier place to live" if you never want to leave there???

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