Hamilton: A City Divided

Hamilton may never achieve the neat and tidy civic consensus of a place like Ottawa, but this does not excuse the rabble and disunity at the leadership level.

By Mark Robbins
Published November 04, 2016

Two Hamiltonians meet outside of the city and recognize their common origins. The first question they ask one another is invariably something like, 'Where are you from in Hamilton?' or maybe 'What high school did you go to?'

Either our interlocutors are from a similar part of town and start trying to identify connections in common, or they are not. They look at one another skeptically, with burnished credibility. This is usually followed up by something like, 'Ancaster? That's not really Hamilton.'

Hamilton is a city divided, alright.

It's said that the Scottish describe their geography as 'hilly' in spite of the clearly mountainous physical barriers between communities. The features of the Scottish highlands can reach up to 1,200 metres in height but are still known as hills.

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

This naming tradition comes from the Scots' strong sense of community and solidarity. "Yes, these may be mountains that separating us, but they are nothing but small 'hills' among friends."

Compare that to the Hamilton escarpment, which is 100 metres high - really just the height of a hill - but ominously known by locals as 'the Mountain'.

Hamilton's 'Mountain'
Hamilton's 'Mountain'

Divisiveness is quintessential feature of Hamilton, right down to how we name the landscape.

Born and raised in Stoney Creek, I can tell you that many in my tribe barely consider themselves part of Hamilton; 'Creekers' are Niagarans stuck on the wrong side of a municipal border. To this very day, I know people who refuse to write "Hamilton" in their address; they still write "Stoney Creek" regardless of how many problems it causes for mail delivery and the like.

Divisions a Major Obstacle to Progress

Hamilton is divided, but you don't have to just take my word for it. In a recent study by leading scholars Peter Warrian Alison Bramwell, a lack of unified civic infrastructure is identified as a major obstacle to progress in Hamilton.

Local stakeholders interviewed for their study specifically suggested that the 'fragmented nature of the community' is a key source of political and civic action problems.

Warrian and Bramwell go on to suggest that there are "at least seven different identifiable constituent networks in the (Hamilton) community," each pursuing varied objectives with different lexicons from one another.

Of course people can disagree, but when the leadership representing different interest groups cannot come to any compromise or achieve a baseline consensus from which to build on and move forward, the result will inevitably be inaction and stagnation.

This is bad for city policy, but especially so when it comes to representing city interest to outsiders, like other levels of government.

Case in point, Hamilton's political class and civil society continues to be locked into a life-and-death contest about the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, in spite of having had multiple votes and elections to clarify the issue over the course of several years.

To be more precise, there have actually been 45 Council votes confirming commitment to LRT since 2008 that somehow is still not interpreted as a mandate to act. In Ottawa, as a counterexample, the two front-runner mayoral candidates in 2014 basically agreed on all but some of the more technical details of LRT, and the Mayor won over 75 percent of the popular vote.

A clear mandate to act: wouldn't that be nice?

Part of Hamilton's Character

I could go on to say that 'we need to break down barriers' and 'the community should pull together' but we have all heard that before and I'm not sure what good it will do. For one, this divisiveness is part of Hamilton's character, and as far as I can tell from several generations of oral history, this divisiveness has existed since as long as anyone can remember. While it is perhaps undesirable, it might not be changeable.

This lack of unity is not all bad either, giving Hamilton some extremely colourful neighbourhoods, personalities and identities. Celebrated urban activists like Jane Jacobs would have looked affectionately at the diversity of uses, peoples and walks of life in Hamilton as a sign of deep-seated inner livelihood.

In her own words, "There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served."

Hamilton may never achieve the neat and tidy civic consensus of a place like Ottawa, but maybe it shouldn't. Yet this does not excuse the rabble and disunity at the leadership level in the city.

Their inability of to get it together is holding back a wellspring of potential. There is such a thing as agreeing to disagree, and that might be a good place to start.

Mark Robbins is a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and a proud resident of downtown Hamilton. You can follow him on Twitter @RoboRobbins.


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By avedder (registered) | Posted November 04, 2016 at 11:56:24

Growing up in a small town just south of Ottawa, but being within the amalgamated city limits, neat and tidy civic consensus was hard to come by! The amalgamated city includes some very rural areas, and the diversity led to very similar conflict. Love the Jane Jacobs quote, and wonder if being able to recognize the diversity (and conflict) is only a result of truly being invested in a city like Hamilton. Now as a resident of Hamilton, I'm frustrated by the conflict, but if consensus can be reached, our diversity will serve us well!

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By stone (registered) | Posted November 04, 2016 at 13:01:44

I can't believe I'm saying this but there might be too much green space in and around Hamilton. It really does cut some of theses areas off from one another.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 05, 2016 at 19:37:56 in reply to Comment 120404

Even the ones with no substantial green space division have this problem. Ancaster is separated from the Mountain by a hydro corridor, not exactly the Amazon. Stoney Creek is even more integrated, it's hard to tell where Hamilton ends and Stoney Creek begins. Imho, the only community with a geographic argument against amalgamation is Waterdown/East Flamboro.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted November 07, 2016 at 11:44:57 in reply to Comment 120406

In my experience, most people and businesses East of the Red Hill refer to themselves as being in Stoney Creek, even though the actual border straddles Highway 20, roughly a kilometer or more East.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted November 04, 2016 at 13:10:10

Oh yes here in Ottawa we squabble. We squabble and argue with the best of them. The LRT consensus only came after decades of divisive debate between BRT, LRT and the fix the roads only crowd. People just got very tired of nothing changing and nothing happening! The just do something, side of the debate finally won. It seemed collectively everybody here suddenly got tired of other cities building really big, neat things and making Ottawa look like a sleepy little provincial town that had been left behind by time. You would often have to ask yourself and say hey, we are the capital city of this country right? Shouldn't we be leading the country in something, beside bored, alcoholic diplomats?

I honestly can't say that it was one specific issue or just a generational change but for some reason the city seemed to just suddenly decided to be more vibrant one day. It seemed to me that a change started very slowly in the late 1990's and started to pick up the pace from about 2001-2002 on. For example, between 1992-2006 there were only 5 new buildings (office and condo) built in downtown Ottawa and they were quite boring designs really. Today, there are 4 under construction right now, 3 opened last year alone. It seems that the place just finally decided to wake up! Ottawa is desperately still trying to shake its old moniker, "The town that fun forgot". I hope this trend continues. However, we definitely don't have a "tidy civic consensus", its a sometimes slow, lurching, messy and loud desire to finally change what was!

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By bobby2 (registered) | Posted November 06, 2016 at 11:25:27

I do live in Waterdown & for the life of me, cannot see or sense any connection with Hamilton. Just because some Political Party years ago said you are being Amalgamated with Hamilton means nothing to me other than almost tripling my property taxes! Divided City, "You betcha!"

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 07, 2016 at 08:09:02 in reply to Comment 120407

Everybody's property taxes went up, not just Waterdown. Downloading happened to everyone.

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By itsjustme (registered) | Posted November 06, 2016 at 12:35:32 in reply to Comment 120407

Bobby, I understand what you are saying Waterdown as well as some other communities are pretty distinct. However I always find it funny that while these outlying communities refuse to have anything to do with Hamilton, they don’t mind relying on Hamilton’s services, ie water, police waste collection etc. Of course it’s hard to give up what really becomes part of your identity.… Your city or town for many becomes part of who you are. You grow up proud that you are from Ancaster, Waterdown or Dundas, Then, one day are told, nah.. you’re from Hamilton now :) It’ll take time, but I’m sure this will change. I think It’s important that these communities hold on to what make them unique, but at the same time, embrace Hamilton as home, and work towards making it the best city it can be.

I really think it’s up to council especially Mayor Fred to make this a priority to try to bring the city together, start actually working together as a team not as small special interest groups as several councilors are doing now. In my opinion, councilors Farr and Green and to a lesser extent Johnson, need to either change their ways, or at least learn to keep their mouths shut. Their often sarcastic tone towards other wards is VERY divisive, and only creates animosity with other wards. Their attitude appears to be, “if it’s not about the core… It’s not important.” Time to grow up, and look at the big picture. Represent your ward first however keep in mind, that your ward is part of a much larger city not just the downtown core.

Comment edited by itsjustme on 2016-11-06 12:36:20

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By MikeGrady (registered) | Posted November 06, 2016 at 20:24:53 in reply to Comment 120408

Who said people in Waterdown don't mind relying on Hamilton's services? We don't have a choice. Everyone hates relying on Hamilton's services, they are a joke! Police are non-responsive here, no sub-station, they rarely show up for anything but a 911. Waste collection sucks, our taxes have gone up dramatically for less service. Horrible planning, unfettered sprawl, way too much development for the existing infrastructure. Geographically and socio-ecomically Waterdown is part of Burlington. If there was a local referendum to leave Hamilton and join Burlington it would be almost unanimous.

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By bobby2 (registered) | Posted November 10, 2016 at 16:56:45 in reply to Comment 120410

Mike has just expressed what the vast majority of Waterdown/Flamborough feels! Funny, Old City feels they subsidize suburbs & we feel we are only part of Hamilton as we are a open piggy bank for them! Much of Old Hamilton is older homes with property taxes of around $2500.00 while the burbs are newer & twice the taxes for subpar services. Try getting Police to respond, Mickey Mouse Bus service just so they can area rate us, snow plowing a second thought, way over developed with no supporting infastructure. Love much of Hamilton but just feel we are only part of City for our tax dollars! So sad, as our relationship could be much better.

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By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted November 13, 2016 at 21:31:39 in reply to Comment 120430

I own a few "downtown" properties and I can tell you that your view on taxes does not fit my experience at all. One single family residential property I bought in 1996 had taxes then of about $1,700.00 and it is now approaching $11,000.00 (based on an assessment of about $700,000.00). One is commercial and I pay $22,300 for 4000 square feet again based on an assessment of about $700,000. Every time I get the MPAC assessment I tremble to open the envelope.

Hamilton's municipal taxes will be its demise.

Comment edited by notlloyd on 2016-11-13 21:33:07

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted November 13, 2016 at 23:16:12 in reply to Comment 120434

The hyper-active housing market will be a boon to city coffers and that will eventually show itself on our tax bills. Every time a house changes hands it's assessment goes up. I think within ten years the downtown will be contributing double or triple the taxes it has been in the past.

People might complain about their taxes in old Hamilton but they either aren't moving or bidding desperately to get in. It's crazy.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted November 12, 2016 at 20:55:08 in reply to Comment 120430

Much of Old Hamilton is older homes with property taxes of around $2500.00 while the burbs are newer & twice the taxes for subpar services.

"Much of Old Hamilton"?

I live in Ward 1 (which has the highest tax rate in the city, old or new). I live in small (1.5 storey, 1,200 sq ft) house and pay nearly $4,600.

I bike and walk to shops, work, restaurants, the library, etc.

I'm not convinced that people in Waterdown are subsidizing my civic existence.

Comment edited by moylek on 2016-11-12 20:57:38

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted November 11, 2016 at 09:41:26 in reply to Comment 120430

The old city and suburbs were forced to amalgamate by the Conservative provincial government: neither party asked for this.

However, before the amalgamation there was a third level of government, the regional municipality, and has been pointed out, there were issues around regional planning and services provided by the central city to the suburbs. It is well-established that low-density suburban style development on the edges of cities if far more expensive to build and maintain than denser urban in-fill using existing services.

I'm not sure I understand your point about the poor bus service to Flamborough and the suburbs.

Area weighting for transit, where the suburbs pay much less towards transit, is apparently very popular in the suburbs. No suburban councillors have pushed to end area weighting, or to pay more for better transit service. Several efforts to improve transit service in the suburbs (e.g. to Redeemer college in Ancaster) have been blocked by the ward councillor.

Area weighting means that suburban communities are locked into poor transit service (in exchange for paying much less towards transit) because any increase in service would be borne entirely by the ward. Ending area weighting would make it far easier to improve transit in the suburbs, which should be a top goal of the city.

Another point is that infrastructure includes very expensive roads and highways: re-building a single highway interchange at Clappison corners cost $75 million And tens of millions more have been spent on road widening.

People often forget the massive infrastructure in roads and highways to service growing populations in the suburbs.

Where did you get the $2500 figure? I personally live in a relatively modest sized house (200 m^2) near downtown and pay over $6500 in taxes! Indeed, for a similar value house I pay more precisely because of area weighting (and values are rising quickly around downtown).

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted November 06, 2016 at 19:01:40

As long as there are wards this will continue. Scrap the wards and have Councillors at large, so they have vision for the entire city and not just their little kingdoms.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted November 07, 2016 at 08:30:23

One of the biggest problems is that folks in the suburbs think the old Hamilton-Wentworth region is how de-amalgamation, or uniting with Burlington would look.

I would barricade myself at city hall before ever allowing that to happen again. The old H-W region subsidized nearly all the costs of the unfettered sprawl in the suburbs on the backs of inner city taxpayers, while maintaining tax rates in the rich suburbs that were 50% lower than the old city.

Amalgamation still sees the urban tax base subsidize all their wasteful sprawl, but at least has brought the tax rates into balance so folks at Barton and Sherman aren't quite as heavily subsidizing people in Waterdown.

If Waterdown was to go alone, you'd see an immediate end to sprawl, and zero attempts at building unneeded highways or cloverleaf interchanges.
After seeing the obstruction to urban city-building by these councillors for 15 years, I've finally jumped to the de-amlgamation side. Not because I don't believe in the city working together, but because the suburban councillors have proven that they will remain petty and immature forever.

True de-amalgamation would be perhaps the greatest financial boon Hamilton has seen in many decades. Not the old H-W region setup, but a 100% full de-amalgamation. Suburbs sent off completely on their own without a dime from the city. Many of their communities would go bankrupt pretty quickly, but it would be so nice for the old city to be able to focus on city-building again.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted November 07, 2016 at 09:57:42 in reply to Comment 120412

I agree 100% but the sad thing is de-amalgamation will not happen simply because the suburbs cannot support themselves. It's the albatross around the neck of Hamilton proper. The worst part of hearing them complain is that it sounds like they're blaming Hamilton for amalgamation. Mike Harris - PC party - did it. Now who is the MP for Flamborough? David Sweet - PC Party (2006-present). So Flamborough has rewarded the PC party for bringing them amalgamation over and over again. As far back as I can remember Hamilton itself has never had a conservative MP which, I think, is why the PC party screwed us by hitching all these suburbs and rural towns onto our wagon.

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By RustyNail (registered) | Posted November 07, 2016 at 09:29:42

All these observations are true. Perhaps the best way to find a solution is to identify what attributes meld a city together. In Toronto we find a common identity through things like the TTC - which literally ties us together. And the preponderance of big ticket events, hockey, football, concerts - draws people into the core at all times. The CN Tower gives the city pride and identity. We are all proud of our individual neighbourhoods but we recognize we are part of something bigger also. What will it take to make Hamiltonians feel that way?

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By Rubberbland (registered) | Posted November 07, 2016 at 14:49:04 in reply to Comment 120413

I really Doubt it would work for Hamilton. Hamilton's compact built up ares is small. Just outside of downtown reminds me of dreaded parts of Scarborough or North York.
By the early 2000's the inner suburbs of toronto were getting along with "downtown" because the suburbs were becoming more compact with the amount of people streaming into the city. Amalgamated Hamilton is HUGE., its way bigger than Toronto in land area. You have a huge rural township (Flamborough) looks like a early 1950's Scarborough, attached to the city .The divide of Urban to rural is too huge.

Hamilton is one of the worst of the amalgamations I have ever seen. It should of been two cities Probably Hamilton and Stony Creek, and the other Dundas and Flamborough, with Ancaster joining one of the two

I see alot of struggles continuing. But hopefully not if Flamborough get some compact urban style housing (like they did in Markham), on the main roads. Greenbelt should be protected, but spacing is running out around The GTA, so some compact small scale building needs to start happening

Comment edited by Rubberbland on 2016-11-07 14:56:16

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted November 07, 2016 at 09:55:50

I had a surprisingly wonderful chat with two former Ottawa councilors, 1 suburban, 1 urban, this past weekend at a birthday party of one my daughter's school friends. What was interesting was that, when you talk with them as people, they were both equally funny, charming and a real pleasure to talk with, especially at a birthday party full of 9-10 year old girls. An experience that in itself I recommended you don't take on alone, nor is it recommended for the faint of heart.

The former urban councilor interestingly enough was not a big LRT fan and pretty much thought of it as a necessary evil here in Ottawa. The former suburban councilor lamented and admitted to me that, the rush back to the core of the city due gentrification and the changing tastes and needs of the Gen X and Millennial generations has meant many of the older inner suburbs of Ottawa and many other cities (his former constituency) were quickly degrading into the slums of the future. I said to him that, the inner suburbs of Ottawa were nor that bad and they will probably end up changing and or gentrifying at some future date. Just like every community, everything changes over time.

I mentioned the fight in Hamilton over LRT and urban/suburban-rural divide of their council. "It doesn't surprise me", said the former suburban councilor. He followed with, "these young guys see older downtown neighborhoods growing here and in many cities. Growing both with new residential and commercial development at a tremendous rate, yet still, very little activity occurs in their suburban wards. On top of that, the young well to do families aren't coming into these wards anymore, the areas are growing relatively poorer and older".

Both agreed that many of these firebrand suburban councilors that, frustrate the hell out of the urban folk are that way because they are running scared from reality. That under their watch, their wards are loosing influence, collapsing economically and far fewer young families with money want to move there to regrow the area. "Its not a legacy they want under their name! So they try to kill anything the downtown gets or wants unless they get it as well."

They both recommended to try and get the suburban councilors on side by pushing for the construction of the A Line LRT or further extensions of the B Line past Eastgate. If they, the suburban councilors go for it then everyone wins if they still don't want it, hey, you offered your groups help and support. Both of them also agreed that, once the first segment of LRT is up and running relatively well and trouble free, you will probably see a fundamental change in the attitude of many suburban Hamilton councilors around LRT and maybe even complete streets as well!

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted November 07, 2016 at 10:02:43 in reply to Comment 120414

I've always wondered why the A-line has not been brought forward more prominently in the political conversation. They should be in the preliminary planning stage for it it now, letting the constituents in the upper city see what the future holds for them.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted November 07, 2016 at 17:45:32 in reply to Comment 120416

go look at the track record of Mountain councillors when it comes to spending $ on transit. They don't do it, regardless of if it's for their wards or not.
Taxes should only be spent on keeping people in single occupant cars

Comment edited by JasonL on 2016-11-07 17:46:04

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By RoboRobbins (registered) - website | Posted November 08, 2016 at 10:05:45

Super happy to see all the activity in the comments section! Let me share a couple thoughts and replies.

I can agree that Ottawa does not have perfect municipal level-politics. In fact, the city has been dealt a particularly challenging hand with all the federal ownership, regulations and overlapping jurisdictions that regularly brush up against municipal policy, in addition to having amalgamation boundary challenges comparable to Hamilton's. So, I can understand why the word 'tidy' might evoke some objections. My point is really that it is less a matter of having divisions, than deciding how to deal with them. I think that Hamilton can learn something from the decorum and professionalism of Ottawa's municipal leadership.

Comment edited by RoboRobbins on 2016-11-08 10:12:12

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By RoboRobbins (registered) - website | Posted November 08, 2016 at 10:24:37

On amalgamation, its hard to disagree that its been a source of many problems. There is lots of information out there on the specifics, so I won't go in to much detail here. These expanded municipal boundaries and the high degree of operational integration of municipal services that came with them, might not have been ideal in hindsight. It was probably too much geography being too deeply integrated all at once. But with that said, folks like David Wolfe note that the overall trajectory continues to be governance of larger and larger municipal city-regions. The trend is for bigger, not smaller, and this is a function of macro global social and economic forces rather than any particular decisions being made by municipalities or provincial governments.

Now in an ideal world, we would just re-write the legislation governing the municipal boundaries and government functions but this time, the policy would hit its mark. Maybe cast a wider geographic net, as seems to be the global trend, but allow for more independently run services and decision-making in local sub-jurisdictions- in places like Waterdown. In practice however, this process is unlikely to be that simple. For instance, think about how long it has taken (10 years so far) just to agree (sort of) to build 15 stops of high density transit in Hamilton. With this comparator in mind, its likely that reopening questions of amalgamation will be a much longer, much more painful and all-consuming process, and one thats not guaranteed to be perfect (or an even an improvement). Considering where the city of Hamilton is at in its stage of development, an amalgamation controversy might not be the right place to invest its energies and political capital.

But of course, I am happy to discuss more and hear your thoughts :-)

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