By Lorne Opler
The similarities are
stark – both rust belt cities struggling to reinvent themselves in the 21st century. Both were once upon a
time strong manufacturing towns identified with heavy industry and a large blue
collar workforce. Both cities
share glorious pasts, downtowns that were once teeming with people, and
architecture that showed off the cities beautiful neighborhoods.
That would be Buffalo
and Detroit? Buffalo and Cleveland?
Buffalo and Syracuse…or Flint or Toledo? No – none of the above. I’m referring to Buffalo and
Hamilton, your blue collar cousin to the north. As a former resident of Buffalo
now living in Hamilton, I frequently find myself walking through the city and
making mental comparisons between both burghs. The common bonds are striking.
For those unfamiliar
with Hamilton, or only see signs of it as you drive down the QEW to Toronto,
Hamilton, like Buffalo, is rooted in the steel industry. In fact, it is still known as Steel
Town. 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, some
steel is actually still milled here, but after U.S. Steel bought Stelco,
Hamilton’s major steel company, jobs were lost and, like so much these days,
production was shifted to outside the country. As a result, Hamilton, like Buffalo, has not only lost jobs, but revenues, taxes and perhaps most of all,
Like Buffalo, Hamilton
has an East Side challenged by poverty. Somewhat like Buffalo, Hamilton’s downtown is
pocked by too much surface parking, too many empty buildings, and a once
thriving but now straggling enclosed shopping mall whose flagship store is
But despite these
negative similarities, there are also many common pluses both cities
share. Hamilton has a
vibrant and legendary year-round downtown farmer’s market…Buffalo has a seasonal market on Bidwell Parkway, while the Broadway Market is working to breathe new life
into its operations. Both cities
have lively shopping districts outside of downtown; Buffalo has Elmwood
Village, Hertel, and Allentown.
Hamilton has Locke Street and the burgeoning art scene on James Street
North. Both cities have stunning
turn of the century residential areas; Hamilton’s Durand and Kirkendall
neighborhoods prove good matches to Buffalo’s Elmwood Village. Both are very affordable places to
live, where beautiful 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).
Both cities are
regrettably often portrayed in unflattering light by people who likely have
never even visited either place. As Buffalo is considered unsophisticated by
its looming big brother, NYC, so too is Hamilton maligned by its larger cousin,
Toronto. Much to the puzzlement of
New Yorkers and Torontonians alike, both Buffalonians and Hamiltonians are
fiercely proud of their cities, of their roots, and especially of their
when Torontonians do move to Hamilton (usually because they are priced out of
TDot’s housing market), invariably they are pleasantly surprised by the
livability of the city, close proximity to miles of trails, parks and public
spaces, and a burgeoning 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
weekend, but not much more. I know there are a lot of Buffalonians who have
that same relationship with New York City.
Why might that
be? Why aren’t we lured to the
bright lights of Toronto and New York City beyond a couple of days, but are
happy to live in their shadows? My
guess is that, beyond affordability, it has to do with what I believe are Buffalo’s and Hamilton’s
greatest assets…it’s people.
Just as I found in Buffalonians, Hamiltonians are a generously friendly
folk, easy to talk to, down-to-earth, non-judgmental and uncommonly
approachable. What I liked most in my time in Buffalo is the unpretentious and
neighborly attitude I found all over…and I’ve now found that in Hamilton, too.
Perhaps that’s the
reward of living in two cities that haven’t lost their souls to big money,
corporate logos and the misguided notion that bigger means better, while there’s always room to grow.
Image: Hamilton skyline from access2008.