'Reclaiming Hamilton': Civic engagement and local activism in Steeltown

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Michael Kooiman/Flickr

Hamilton and I got off on the wrong foot, and that was before I even moved here when I was in my mid-thirties. But, to my occasional amazement, 2020 marks my twentieth year of living here! When I was growing up in boring, suburban Burlington, Hamilton was jokingly referred to as "the armpit of Ontario," but now this place bears titles such as "The City of Waterfalls" and "The City by the Bay." Reclaiming Hamilton is Paul Weinberg's smoothly undulating collection of essays written by some of the city's most engaged, passionate, and articulate citizens. It was hard to put down and full of surprising facts and fresh perspectives on stories that I thought I already knew. It felt a bit like a twentieth anniversary gift to me from my adopted home town. "This book is for you," I imagined Weinberg's contributors telling me, "and this city is for you, too."

My first impressions of Steeltown, glimpsed about forty years ago, were not positive. My childhood trips to Hamilton showed me an ugly, beaten-down place, full of hard, unsmiling faces and polluted by the stink of sulphur. Many years later, the grim, grey skyline as seen from the Skyway Bridge, nearly stopped my English husband from moving here to join me. As a teenager I gave up learning to drive because the friend teaching me made the mistake of making me drive its confusing grid of one-way streets at night. Although many of those streets have since been converted to allow for two-way traffic, I still don't drive. When I moved here in late October of 2000, my plan was to get out of town as soon as humanly possible.

It's now 2020, and it's clearly time to look back over my extended stay. Something has kept me here, and it's not just the "cheaper than Toronto" rents. Sure, I live in Hamilton to save money, but becoming a Hamiltonian has more to do with loving its people. As I walked those blocks one memorable January Art Crawl night, enjoying the high quality of the art on display and hugging so many of my favourite neighbours as I crawled with a couple of friends, I thought to myself, "Why would I want to leave?" Eight years in, I decided that night to make this grungy, kooky, frustrating place my home. 

You don't have to live here to get pulled into the essays in Reclaiming Hamilton. This is a book about civic engagement. These essays are about how groups and individuals took on the often difficult and thankless task of local activism, to create positive change for the wider community. The book explores in detail only a few of these many brave efforts. One of the biggest, the protracted campaign to save the Red Hill Valley from being turned into a highway, has also been immortalized in the documentary film Grass Through Concrete: The Struggle to Protect the Red Hill Valley (2004). The long, lost working-class enclave known as Brightside which sprouted under the shadow of the industrial growth in the grimy north is memorialized by historians Nancy B. Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank.

The failure of our municipal leaders to bring home funding for our long-embattled LRT plan, despite nearly every duck and dollar lining up in a row, is told with obvious frustration by Raise The Hammer publisher and urbanist Ryan McGreal. These essays attempt to make sense of a civic culture that seems to have been perpetually stuck for decades, a way of dysfunctioning that's pulling us backwards and pushing us forwards at the same time.

The people who live in this right-sized-rust-belt-blue-collar town know that Hamilton has been knocked down, only to rise again, repeatedly. The slow recovery from the steel industry and manufacturing sector collapse has created tensions between pro-development forces and architectural preservationists, between "automobility" advocates and environmentalists, between political outsiders and the (mostly white men) in the backrooms of city hall, and between the new gallery owners in the core and the anti-gentrification activists who despise them.

Many of these sprawling, sometimes epic battle stories are told by and about people that I am fortunate enough to know personally, and about familiar situations too. In some cases, I've worked with the writers or their subjects on various projects, such as Kevin MacKay at the Sky Dragon Community Development Cooperative. Sean Selway's chapter on how property management companies are systematically taking over downtown apartment buildings hits close to home. The investment company that owns the building I live in seems determined to renovict me and my neighbours from our homes. Developers are changing the very character of the downtown core by dictating -- through design -- who gets to live here. "Property is not always theft, but twenty-first-century financialized capitalism, indemnified by the state, has become criminal through and through," writes Selway. 

Hamilton Spectator columnist Margaret Shkimba's opening chapter provides a lively sketch of Hamilton's history that is helpful to those who know nothing about the city, as well being intriguing for people like me who are new to Hamilton and can appreciate hearing tales of its surprisingly colourful past. Chapters by rabble contributor Jessica Rose, local immigration expert Sarah Wayland, urban planner Rob Fiedler and novelist Matthew Bin bring their stories of Hamilton's ethno-cultural diversity, neighbourhood activism, urban sprawl and football to this collection. Seema Narula's chapter called "Making Art in a White Town" made me question the popular local catchphrases "Art Is The New Steel" and "You Can Do Anything in Hamilton." New Hamiltonian Kerry LeClair ends her chapter by saying something I can relate to as a long-time resident of the "gritty city":

Even if Hamilton is home, do I belong here? As self-indulgent as that line of thinking may seem to me now, it remains true that, for many of us, a sense of belonging makes us more likely to take action for the common good. I'm still on the fence as to whether or not I belong here, but I will do my best to keep contributing to the common good until I know the answer.

The Ambitious City, originally meant with derision but now used lovingly, is reclaiming the insult. The idea of "reclaiming" Hamilton rests on the idea that something in our city is up for grabs. It's a struggle between the usual power structures and the citizenry, not necessarily between the haves and the have-nots. I think that is particularly true as we lurch together towards our collective post-COVID future.

Karen Burson lives in Hamilton. She works at St. Matthew's House as the Seniors Food Security Coordinator and is a proud member of CUPE 5167, also serving as a delegate to the Hamilton District Labour Council. 

Image credit: Michael Kooiman/Flickr

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