Divided days: Hamilton newcomers build lives here while commuting to Toronto jobs

How do people who’ve moved here in the last few years and spend hours every day commuting, feel about their new lives, their new city and building community?

'I would rather be closer to home. I like my kids; I want to see them more. Oh, and my husband too': Commuter

A train from Toronto pulled in to Hamilton GO Station around 6:45 p.m. one recent weekday. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

When Toronto realtor Avryll McNair hears of a client gazing longingly at Hamilton housing prices, she tries to bring them a reality check.

"I recommend that anyone that's looking at making a move … do the new commute at the time that you would be doing it," she said.

Rather than book viewings and offers only on the weekend, she'll arrange to meet her clients at, say, 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, just to give the would-be buyers a taste of what getting to and from might be like.

"It's not necessarily to discourage the move, it's to make sure that you're making an informed decision," she said. "A lot of families I know are trying to put kids to bed by 7, 7:30 – it can drastically change the relationship you have with your family."

Moreover, once they make the move, some newcomers may find a less-than-warm welcome from neighbours or online commenters wishing they'd go back to Toronto.

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

So what's life like for commuters? How do people who've moved here in the last few years feel about the changes in their new or rediscovered city? We asked a few for their thoughts.

Margaret Bennett

Margaret Bennett keeps an office space in Toronto to meet with her financial advisor clients two or three days a week. She lives in Hamilton and typically commutes by train or bus. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Margaret Bennett keeps an office space in Toronto and commutes on the bus or train from Hamilton a few days a week. She and her husband bid on 10 houses over nine months before finally finding one in 2016. The house they bought, in Stinson neighbourhood, would be triple the price in Toronto, she estimates.

I ask of Hamilton not to judge us because we didn't go to elementary school here. Give us a chance to show that we're proud of this city, too!- Margaret Bennett, commuter

Bennett grew up in Toronto and moved to Burlington in 2011 when her husband got a job in Waterdown. A few years later, they've fallen in love with Hamilton and find it much closer to the city living they dream of. 

A self-employed financial planner, she tries to set up her Toronto appointments on the same days so she can get away with commuting just two or three days a week. 

What's your impression of Hamilton?

We love Hamilton. The neighbours are great, the community feel is amazing, the energy is palpable. We didn't realize just how much we missed city living until we got here. It feels like the Toronto I grew up in with a mix of people and communities. It feels much more accessible than Toronto does now. The restaurants are great, the people are friendly.

Is this setup of working in one city and living in another the relationship you want to have with your city? 

Not really. I would love to be able to work in Hamilton full-time. I think it's really important to work in the city and be aware of employment opportunities where you live. It also gives you more chances to be aware of the issues affecting businesses here, but also to meet more people from across the city, rather than the neighbours or people I run into in my usual "hot spots".

'Hamilton just feels a lot more like the neighbourhoods I grew up in in Toronto'

5 years ago
Duration 1:54
Financial advisor Margaret Bennett grew up in Toronto but chooses to live in Hamilton now.

What do you ask from Hamilton? What does Hamilton need? 

I ask of Hamilton not to judge us because we didn't go to elementary school here! Give us a chance to show that we're proud of this city too! My first community association meeting our councillor made an off-handed comment about Torontonians and so I was afraid to say I grew up in Toronto; instead said I was from Burlington.

It took awhile to get over that. We're not trying to push people out of their homes or neighbourhoods or change the Hamilton work ethic and feel. I just want Hamilton to give us a chance!

Hamilton needs to think of itself as a leading city. Leading cities have a prestige and grittiness to them and that's okay!

Hamilton can and should carry itself with pride for its own merits, not just proximity to Toronto. One of our favourite things about living here is the mix of "city living and amenities" and the proximity to nature and green space that is so easily accessible, even within the city.

Julie Waddick

Julie Waddick owns a house near Gage Park, where she spends weekends. She stays in a simple apartment during the week in Toronto, where she works. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Julie Waddick is a medical librarian at a hospital in Toronto. Unlike some commuters, she does hers just once a week — she keeps an apartment in Toronto that she stays in during the week, then heads to her Hamilton house for the weekends.

A few years ago she started spending some time in Hamilton after a friend bought a house, and "kind of fell in love with it." She spent about a year house-hunting before finding a house she liked near Gage Park, and bought it.

While she imagines there might someday be an opportunity to work and live in the same city, she is happy in her job and isn't eager to change that up.

Waddick still rents a simple apartment in Toronto with her boyfriend, who also works in Toronto. She has a couple of tenants in her Hamilton house to help offset the cost.

They spend weekends in Hamilton and find the city offers the kind of "cultural stimulation" she likes with cafes, live music and restaurants.

What's it like to split your time between Toronto and Hamilton?

[My Toronto apartment is] very simply decorated, and we don't have a lot of things there. I consider Hamilton to be my primary home.

I really like my job and my life in Toronto as well. I kind of feel like I'm getting the best of both worlds.- Julie Waddick 

Our life is kind of on the weekend. My friends have slowly gotten used to the fact that I'm kind of like a Hamiltonian now. They still send me (party) invites, but it's always with a little 'I know you're probably in Hamilton, but just in case…'

I really like my job and my life in Toronto as well. I kind of feel like I'm getting the best of both worlds.

What's your impression of Hamilton?

I really like the friendliness of it. That's one of the reasons I immediately felt at home there. There's not nearly the traffic. Parking is never an issue. It's just lovely.

I feel very comfortable there. I grew up on a farm and I've never felt like an apartment building was my home. I love gardening. For me, it feels like home. Toronto, I'm just kind of there to crash during my work hours – that's how I feel, even though I love Toronto.

What does Hamilton need?

Easier access to Toronto. More direct trains, more travel options to the big city.

Jamie Philp

Jamie Philp commutes by train or bus from his home in Corktown to and from Liberty Village in Toronto for work. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Jamie Philp moved to Hamilton in 2014, drawn by the relatively less expensive home prices. He and his wife wanted to buy something they could work on over time. They found a house for less than half what it would have cost in their old neighbourhood of Roncesvalles.

"We had taken a few trips out to Hamilton with our bikes and rode around and really loved it," he said. "Hamilton felt like a city with history as well as an interesting new scene developing."

Philp commutes an hour-and-a-half each way to Toronto daily from their Corktown home to work in Liberty Village. He hopes to see more companies embrace working remotely as more people make similar commuting decisions.

He buys groceries and goes out to hear here, volunteers with his neighbourhood committee, supports the Hamilton Tool Library, plays social sports and goes for runs all over the city.

"I'd like to think that the presence of runners in the evenings in the downtown core helps the perception of a city being a safe place," he said.

How has commuting gone so far?

In general, the (GO Transit) trip is too long because there's nothing resembling an express bus or train from one city to the other. 1 hour, 30 minutes.

I can appreciate that some people just don't want the change at all – but I think that's a bit shortsighted.- Jamie Philp

I usually sleep in the morning and work on my computer or read in the evening. I've been told, "There's not enough people in Hamilton to justify an express train". But maybe there would be if other commuters who drove could take an actual express train. Kind of a chicken-or-the-egg situation.

What's your impression of Hamilton?

I really like living in Hamilton. There's a lot to discover (we're frequently checking out waterfalls, running trails, neighbourhoods we haven't spent time in). My impression of the city is that it's been going through a change for the last number of years - seems like there's mixed feelings about that from what I hear and read.

I recognize that people moving from Toronto are what's driving the house prices up in Hamilton. But I think with more people moving here, new opportunities arise, businesses open up, incomes increase, infrastructure improves, etc. I can appreciate that some people just don't want the change at all – but I think that's a bit shortsighted.

Eric Matto

Eric Matto bought a loft at the Stinson School and moved to Hamilton in 2013. He commutes to Mississauga daily. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Eric Matto works in Mississauga at TD Bank. An IT professional, he said there aren't jobs in Hamilton in his area of expertise.

He moved in late 2013 into a one-bedroom loft at Stinson School, a housing project that he says "would cost a lot more in Toronto."

What [Hamilton] needs is a more positive attitude about itself.- Eric Matto

He hopes to retire in a few years, but in the meantime he drives about 60 km each way, daily. He tries to do his shopping in Hamilton, and he sings in the Hamilton Sings community choir, participates in the local chapter of 100 Men Who Give a Damn and is a member of the String Along ukulele club.

How has commuting gone so far?

Not bad.

I am able to work from home occasionally (e.g. on a snow day) which helps. I haven't been using the 407 but recently I purchased a HOT permit that lets me drive in the HOV lane of the QEW and that does make a difference to the travel time.

Is this setup of working in one city and living in another the relationship you want to have with your city? 

It would be nice to work in the same city but Hamilton doesn't have jobs in my area of expertise.

What do you ask from Hamilton? What does Hamilton need? 

Hamilton has a lot to offer – restaurants, shows and concerts, some sports, an international airport (though under-used), natural beauty, an LRT on the way. What it needs is a more positive attitude about itself.

Janet Kompare-Fritz

Janet Kompare-Fritz and her husband Dave Fritz have twin 7-year-old boys and live in Corktown. (Seema Narula)

Janet Kompare-Fritz is originally from Hamilton, moved to the west end of Toronto for 14 years and just moved back to buy a house in Corktown four years ago. She and her husband work in Toronto, commuting by a mix of driving, bus and train.

They have twin 7-year-old boys.

How's the commute?

Commuting is a drag period, especially when you have kids that you want to be with.

What's your impression of Hamilton?

It took us over two years to let go of our egos of "coming back home." We love the growth of our city. We grew up in the 1980s in Hamilton, where it was a blast to live, so much to do as a teenager, full of life... then the 90s hit.

We are impressed with the "outsider" love for the city which brings in new restaurants, new stores, a new breath of life that is much needed in our opinion.

Is this setup of working in one city and living in another the relationship you want to have with your city? 

I have been trying to find a job in Hamilton for the last year and a half. I am tired of the commute.

Commuting is a drag — period, especially when you have kids that you want to be with.- Janet Kompare-Fritz

I am only working part time, which requires me to work 24 hours a week to continue to receive my benefits. I am crazy lucky and grateful to have a wonderful boss who helps to accommodate this for me.

However, even if this is wonderful, I would rather be closer to home as on the days I work until 8pm and get home after 9, my kids are in bed asleep. I like my kids; I want to see them more. Oh, and my husband too.

What do you ask from Hamilton? What does Hamilton need? 

I do think (and remember, I grew up in Hamilton) that Hamilton needs to embrace some of the downtown changes and stop worrying about being compared to Toronto. We are not Toronto, but that does not mean we can't have our own change.  I love the revitalization of downtown and if you look at Hamilton's past, it has always had its ebbs and flows.

Does that mean we kick out the poor to put up more condos? NO, NO, NO. Everyone has to come together to find a place for everyone, everywhere. Not put all the rich in one place, all the poor in another.



Kelly Bennett is a freelance reporter based in Hamilton. Her writing has appeared in CBC News, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Voice of San Diego and in the National Observer for the Local Journalism Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @kellyrbennett or email kelly@kellyrbennett.com.