Could Hamilton really be “Toronto’s Brooklyn”?

That's the concept the city's mayor, Fred Eisenberger, and condo developer Brad J. Lamb are selling. But are you buying it?

If you ever want to make people from Hamilton cringe, try calling their city “Toronto’s Brooklyn.”

As high housing prices push artists, musicians and your roommate to the next-biggest urban alternative, some Hamilton natives have become uncomfortable with the two cities’ increasingly interdependent fates.

That’s what makes the May 31 and June 1 Hamilton Consulate event at Queen Street’s Burroughes Building such a bold and controversial move. Billed as “an official delegation from Canada’s biggest urban comeback story,” the two-day pop-up features talks, diplomatic exchanges, a clothing market, live music and “speed dating” – all designed to sell Torontonians on the idea of Hamilton as the next big city in tech, fashion and real estate.

It follows in the footsteps of a VIP culinary tour of Hamilton, put on last week by none other than Brad J. Lamb, the self-proclaimed condo king of Toronto.

“What is the future of Hamilton?” he asks. “You just have to be a realist and accept what is looking you square in the face. It’s going to be a suburb to Toronto. It just is.”

“What we’re finding is there’s still an awareness issue for Hamilton in terms of what it is and what state its economy is in,” says Glen Norton, Hamilton’s head of economic development, whose office is behind the Consulate event. “There are a lot of old stereotypes.”

Item number one on that agenda is the city’s nickname, Steeltown. While Hamilton’s history is inseparably tied to its two major steel companies, Stelco and Dofasco, it now boasts one of the most diversified economies in Canada, with education, tech and service industries.

But according to Richard Joy of Urban Land Institute, which is organizing a “fireside chat” with Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy (both cities are called Steeltown), development in Hamilton has been “lopsidedly residential.” If the city’s going to strengthen its other sectors, some of that business will have to come from away. Like, say, from Queen Street.

You might compare that thoroughfare with Hamilton’s James Street North, where art galleries, bars and cafés channel the spirit of the once-vital stretch before gentrification ousted most of its arts and culture. It’s home to Supercrawl, a giant free music and art festival that’s improved every year to the point that word inevitably spread to Toronto. This year, the street festival will announce its lineup in Toronto instead of Hamilton as part of the Consulate event – a move that has some local music fans saying “hmmm.”

Dave Kuruc, who’s watched development over the last 12 years from his art shop, Mixed Media, wonders if courting Torontonians will diminish Hamilton’s gritty spirit.

“The city I know and love has always stood in stark contrast to ‘Toronto the Good,’” he says. “We aren’t a suburb or a bedroom community.”

It’s hard to talk about a rapidly growing city, though, without talking about gentrification. That’s a particularly sensitive subject in Hamilton, which was built on its hardworking industrial legacy.

“The blue-collar imagery that’s a part of our city’s labour history is now used to define and sell our city,” says Greg Tedesco, a Hamilton-based community developer who promotes affordable housing and healthy communities. “We can’t forget about the struggles of those who contributed to and built that reputation and the rich labour history that’s now part of the collective story of our city.”

Tedesco points to local initiatives like the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network and the [Dis]placement Project, which helps protect renters’ rights as rising housing costs price out many tenants.

Others working with the city on the Consulate event see it as more of an “adapt or die” situation.

“Hamilton had a very strong middle-class economy when steel and related industries were going strong,” argues ULI’s Joy, who calls gentrification “a bit of an ugly word.”

“Some of those dollars have gone away, so to see [money] come in to replace them isn’t entirely gentrification. It’s more like reinvention.”

Norton says his office and the event are aiming for collaboration between Toronto’s and Hamilton’s tech and fashion scenes. He wants companies to see the value in moving to the city and expanding the Kitchener-Waterloo/Toronto tech corridor into a tech “cluster.” He’s not interested in people treating Hamilton as a suburb, moving there and driving housing prices up while commuting back to jobs in Toronto. He wants the jobs to come with them.

“We don’t view Toronto as competition,” he says. “We view it as a market.”

Clearly that works both ways, especially if you ask Brad J. Lamb, a controversial face (sometimes Photoshopped onto a lamb’s body in his marketing materials) of the Toronto condo boom. The developer is building four “city changer” projects in Hamilton, including Television City in the historic house that formerly housed CHCH. All told, he says, it’s over a billion dollars in development.

Lamb sees Hamilton as an “unpainted canvas” that, given its population, will be altered greatly by just a little “Toronto migration effect.” He thinks good development could turn it into a fantastic million-person city in 10 years that would be unmistakably part of the GTHA. He recognizes, though, that everyone won’t love the idea.

“Human beings are not fond of change – it’s just innate. So in the case of Hamilton, people who’ve lived there a long time may want Hamilton to stay the way it is – a dying city.

“There’s an understanding now that Hamilton has to grow or die. It’s now or never,” he continues. “Toronto is irreversibly on the path to becoming a world-class industrial and financial services powerhouse, so that gives Hamilton the opportunity now to do all the things it wanted to do in 20 years – but in six years. It can happen at the snap of a finger.”

But for long-time Hamiltonians like Tedesco, the question is: who’s snapping that finger?

“For many local residents, [focusing on the money to be made here] potentially further isolates them and reinforces the message that some are more welcome than others in the ‘new Hamilton,’” he argues. 

“I question whether those present at the Consulate will reflect the diversity of voices that make up our city – historical and present. Will the story of our city be written by everyone or a by select few?” | @trapunski

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