Hamilton is having an identity crisis.

The city's renaissance is no longer new or a secret. Barely a month has gone by in recent years without another article hyping Hamilton's relatively cheaper homes, its restaurants, its monthly Art Crawl, its apparent departure from the polluted, grimy Steeltown of yore.

But Hamiltonians new and old are the ones living through rapid changes. And out of those changes come the questions: Who are we and what do we want to become?

'I'm a believer that this is different, that this momentum will be sustained. And that we're looking at a future that's very different than the past.' - Terry Cooke, president/CEO, Hamilton Community Foundation

Is Hamilton destined to be a suburb of Toronto, with Hamiltonians decamping early in the morning to get to their jobs in the bigger city to the east? 

While a smaller number of steelworkers still do go to work here, what jobs will take that industry's place?

Can quick-moving, one-way streets engineered for easy car movement through the city's downtown coexist with bike lanes, light-rapid transit and urban renewal?

Is there room for Old Hamilton amid the New Hamilton changes?

Can you still, as graphic designer Russell Gibbs' t-shirts proclaimed beginning in 2012, do anything in Hamilton?

You can do anything in Hamilton

A row of apparel on sale at Tourism Hamilton bears designer Russell Gibbs' slogan "You Can Do Anything In Hamilton," which he began printing on T-shirts in 2012. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

An opportunity built on decades of industrial decline

After a long dry spell in the city, money is pouring into Hamilton, cranes are reaching into the sky, condos are being built, restaurants are opening and festivals are drawing crowds.

Many leaders and residents who lived through the slow years are cheering. But the wave of change also brings confusion and worry for the wellbeing of the city's poor, of long-stable neighbourhoods now gentrifying and of the artists whose creativity helped draw the wave of development now pushing them further afield.

On some fronts, Hamilton is becoming a victim of its own success, as the buzz around its waterfalls, housing prices and restaurants have brought a crush of interested people, increasing the demand for such features.

Despite being a city known for welcoming refugees and for celebrating ethnic and cultural traditions from countries around the world, some Hamiltonians now cringe when they hear of anyone else from Toronto moving into their neighbourhoods.

"Are you from Hamilton?" can in some contexts be a loaded question. 

Terry Cooke, now 58, was 25 when he was first elected to city council. Later, as regional chairman, he oversaw the regional amalgamation into the city of Hamilton in 2000. He sees the greatest difference in opinion — and optimism — breaking down along generational lines.  

"For those of us who lived through 30 to 40 years of managing decline, and continued disappointment and hardship, sometimes it's hard to accept that stuff has changed, and maybe you're not driving it anymore," said Cooke, who is president and CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation.


There are differing viewpoints on what role this type of landscape should play in Hamilton's future. (CBC file photo)

"I think part of it is that folks who lived through all of the adversity, in some ways they begrudge folks who have arrived here and are realizing an opportunity that was partially built on the fact that we had 40 years of decline and depressed property values," Cooke said.

But unlike some of his "snake-bitten" cohort, Cooke said he sees the city with more "confidence and swagger" than it has had ever before.

"I'm a believer that this is different, that this momentum will be sustained," he said. "And that we're looking at a future that's very different than the past."

'It's definitely at a junction'

Petra Matar

Petra Matar is an artist and architect who moved to Hamilton six years ago after finishing university in the United Arab Emirates. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Petra Matar is an architect and artist who moved to Hamilton from the United Arab Emirates six years ago.

The city she loves is changing – something that makes her worry about her artist friends being displaced, but excites her as an architect, she said.

"It's definitely at a junction," she said. "Hamilton needs to do some soul-searching. What do we want to be?"

Home prices have skyrocketed, softening in recent months but still hovering near record highs, leaving homeownership out of reach for a wide swath of Hamiltonians while bringing unexpected wealth to others.

Retail landlords see dollar signs now, where they might have taken a chance on a creative person with a dream a decade ago. Apartment owners are splitting up family-sized units to try to rent to single professionals. 

Smokestacks on the waterfront: Past or future?

You can do anything in Hamilton graffitti

A recent addition to the graffiti covering the Tivoli Theatre on James Street North. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

When a proposed waste-incineration plant fizzled earlier this year, Coun. Sam Merulla said the plan represented a kind of "old Hamilton" typified by smokestacks and dirty industry.

He said the city and the port are getting to a place of burying a century of animosity and competing visions for Hamilton's waterfront.

But when Stelco announced it was changing its name back after a two-year bankruptcy, MP Bob Bratina said something he often says about the vision for a waterfront with cafes and walkways.

"There are a lot of people who think that these smokestacks are a thing of the past," he said last December. "They're not. They're part of the future."

Hamilton's Identity Crisis: Series begins today

Psychologist Erik Erikson coined the term identity crisis to describe a period of intense exploration of various parts of the self, one's values and goals. 

Hamiltonians have a complicated sense of the city's identity. They carry a defensive pride and sometimes a pessimistic fear of change.

Hamilton Connaught penthouse plans

Potential customers got a look at The Royal Connaught condo's penthouse plans on Thursday night. (John Rieti/CBC)

City political leaders bear some responsibility for answering these questions, as they mull projects like light-rail transit, the transformation of the historically working waterfront into condos and shops on Pier 8 and policies that address precarious employment and affordable housing. 

But the tensions won't all be solved by those in office.

This week and next, we at CBC Hamilton invite you to join us as we explore Hamilton's identity crisis, and what this junction looks like for workers, residents, commuters, newcomers and lifers who call Hamilton home.

We'll learn about changing neighbourhoods, study juxtapositions of old and new Hamilton and witness how work and job security have changed here.

We'll meet some of that throng of Torontonians who've found something to love in Hamilton. We'll trace how the perception of Hamilton from outsiders has transformed.

And we want to hear from you:

  • What is Hamilton? What does Hamilton need?
  • Send us a photo of where Old Hamilton meets New Hamilton.
  • Tell us about how your neighbourhood is changing and what that means for you.

Follow along here, and please send us your comments, observations and ideas as our series unfolds. You can find places to comment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and by dropping us an email: Hamilton@cbc.ca.