Toronto's Brooklyn. The armpit of Ontario. An "unpainted canvas."

Like it or not, these are the kind of terms being tossed around across the province and the country about Hamilton.

Even "the ambitious city," a nickname now proudly heralded by the city's economic development department, was coined by an outsider.

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It came from Globe and Mail column from 1847, intended as a derisive shot for a city supposedly punching above its weight class. It wasn't until longtime Hamilton Spectator editor Robert Smiley defended that same statement that the term was co-opted by Hamiltonians. 

Now, after years of being dismissed as nothing but a smog-filled Steeltown by many misinformed pundits, Hamilton is suddenly "hot," according to national and international media.

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Art crawl is seen as one of the central pillars of Hamilton's resurgence, which grew organically on James North. (Sheryl Nadler)

It appears to be a shock to many outsiders, but the city's previously unsung virtues are well known to locals who have been working for years to build a place they're happy to call home.

Yet Hamilton has always had a bit of a chip on its shoulder. It's impossible to say the city doesn't care at all about what other people are saying about it, especially when it comes to the sentiment out of Toronto.

So in the spirit of examining Hamilton's identity, lets take a look at what outsiders are saying about the city.

A Toronto neighbourhood? 

A driving force of Hamilton's resurgence is undoubtedly its housing market. Prices in central Hamilton have more than doubled in the last ten years — but to a Torontonian, that still seems like a godsend compared to million-dollar mortgages.

Last year, the Toronto Star declared that Hamilton is "having its moment," calling the city a haven for "Toronto real estate refugees."

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Lots of Hamiltonians bemoaned this Toronto Life cover when it was released. (Toronto Life)

There sits one of the biggest discrepancies on how a Torontonian and a Hamiltonian might view the city's resurgence: for someone from Toronto, Hamilton can be an affordable new alternative. Some locals, meanwhile, are watching themselves get priced out of their own city. 

Even Macleans wrote about Hamilton's "top neighbourhoods" this year, calling Hamilton a "gritty, blue-collar, industrial city," that's "attracting a new younger demographic."

Then there's this Toronto Life story, which proclaims Hamilton "the future of Toronto real estate." The much-discussed cover all but folds the city into Toronto and labels it that city's hottest area. 

Stuart Berman leads off with "Hamilton makes a terrible first impression. When you approach the city from the QEW, it doesn't feature a skyline so much as a blockade of smokestacks — a veritable DO NOT ENTER sign made of steel and scrawled in soot."

Though Berman eventually comes around, that kind of sentiment permeates many "view from Toronto" stories about the city. It's almost like "Guess what? Hamilton actually isn't terrible!" is some sort of prerequisite. 

And it's not like every story is a positive one. Take this hopelessly out of touch column from the Toronto Sun's Mike Strobel, who apologizes to millennials on behalf of baby boomers (once he discovers what that term even means) for driving them to Hamilton as a last resort.

"Dear God, NOT HAMILTON!? Used to be, only bank robbers fled to Hamilton," Strobel writes.

'Go west, young artist'

The year is 2006. Justin Timberlake's SexyBack is topping the charts. The Pirates of the Caribbean sequel is raking in cash at the box office — and Hamilton's burgeoning art scene is creeping into the pages of The Globe and Mail, courtesy of Spectator freelancer Bruce Farley Mowat.

Mowat chronicles the early days of the city's now immensely popular art crawl, held on the second Friday of each month on James Street North.

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Supercrawl has become a massive cultural driver in Hamilton in recent years, binging in visitors from the GTA. (Adam Carter/CBC)

"It's a scene that happens every six weeks or so, when the galleries of Jamesville synchronize their opening nights. When the night is over, 250 to 300 people will have passed through the doors of each gallery," Mowat writes. A decade later, those numbers now number in the thousands.

"You might expect to see something like this in Toronto or Montreal. The fact that it's happening in Hamilton, though, may qualify as a small miracle," he says.

It's early days of James North's resurgence at this point, but Mowat is already telling a national audience about how the galleries dotting the sides of the street that once stood vacant are a "textbook example of how the arts can revitalize an anemic neighbourhood."

Could Hamilton really be 'Toronto's Brooklyn?'

This NOW piece from earlier this year sent more than a few eyes rolling, largely spurred on by Toronto condo developer Brad J. Lamb's quote that Hamilton is "going to be a suburb to Toronto."

Those comments came during the "Hamilton consulate" event on Queen Street in downtown Toronto, where city officials actively tried to sell Hamilton to its bigger brother down the QEW.

But that comparison to Brooklyn isn't purely an outsider's view. The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce hosted an event in 2015 with the president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, exploring the cultural identity and economic heartbeat between the two.

Considering Brooklyn's cache, no doubt the city is happy to try to make that comparison.

A steaming hot food scene

Any Hamiltonian will tell you that the city's food scene has exploded in recent years. Veterans like Bread Bar and Chicago Style Pizza have been drawing crowds for years, while newer restaurants like Hambrgr, The Mule and Salt Lick are consistently packed. While James North was originally known for art, it now boasts some of the best food in the city per square foot, alongside sister street King William.

Food offerings have gotten so good that even the New York Times is taking notice, mentioning Nique, Saint James and Smalls in a recent "five places to go" travel story (though we do have more than one street, you guys).

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Beatboxer Hachey the MouthPeace performs at the Hamilton Consulate event in Toronto last spring. (Canadianbeats.ca)

The Globe and Mail has featured the city's scene too, in a "why restaurant veterans are ditching Toronto for Hamilton" piece, which includes the chefs from Hambrgr, Aberdeen Tavern, The Heather, and Lake Road.

BlogTO has gotten in on it as well, giving a look at the city's kitchens with "10 Hamilton restaurants worth driving for," which includes NaRoma Pizza, The Ship and Mezcal.

But even stories about Hamilton's culinary offerings aren't immune to criticism. This Vacay.ca piece about James Street restaurant Born and Raised drew plenty of ire, as it describes Hamilton as "a city that has struggled over the years to change its image as a working-class steel town with little in the way of culture."

That it refers to Born and Raised — a relatively new restaurant — as bringing "notoriety to a part of Canada that is not known for its culinary offerings" didn't help either, especially considering Hamilton's bustling food scene was well on its way by that point.

"This article is INFURIATING on so many levels," wrote one commenter on the story. "Like all of the other commenters have mentioned, this is not an accurate depiction of Hamilton in any way."

"Is this a joke? Who in the hell wrote this article?" asked another. "Obviously the author couldn't be bothered to do his job and actually do any research, otherwise he might have realized that Hamilton is flooded with amazing restaurants, and that the city is known for its incredible arts and culture scene."

Hell hath no fury like a Hamiltonian scorned. 

adam.carter@cbc.ca

Corrections

  • This story originally included a photo of the skyline towards Hamilton and not Hamilton itself. It has since been updated.
    Sep 19, 2017 12:33 PM ET