Reclaiming Hamilton: A book review

Crown Point based author and journalist, Paul Weinberg, has edited a book of essays about Hamilton. RECLAIMING HAMILTON: ESSAYS FROM THE NEW AMBITIOUS CITY, brings together a series of contributors, many familiar, to write about Hamilton in the context of change and progress. In his acknowledgements he writes he wanted a book about the “significant transformative changes happening in Hamilton”. I’m not sure that’s what he got as many of the essays touch on loss — the Red Hill Valley, Sky Dragon Cooperative, heritage buildings, and even an entire neighbourhood — but he nevertheless presents the reader with a number of engaging and thoughtful essays.

Reclaiming Hamilton book launch is this weekend.
Reclaiming Hamilton book launch is this weekend.

There are recurring themes around the issues of transportation, housing, art, immigration, race and class, activism and politics — certainly all very topical for Hamilton. Weinberg himself writes about Hamilton’s car culture and the Red Hill while Ryan McGreal writes about LRT. Planner, Rob Fielder, takes a wide angle lens on housing and transportation while examining the “triple dream” of house, yard, and community that so many seek through suburban living. Shawn Selway takes the opposite approach focusing on development and community activism within the urban core and the battles pitting residents against developers over housing and heritage.

It’s not all automobiles and concrete, though. Keven Mackay provides a surprisingly candid and objective retrospective on the Sky Dragon Cooperative that housed the Homegrown Hamilton cafe on King William while Joey Coleman provides insight on The Push, a city hall scandal in which a sitting councillor, Ancaster’s Lloyd Ferguson, shoved the independent journalist. Seema Narula examines Making Art in a White Town while Jessica Rose looks at art and interventions such as the ongoing Beautiful Alleys and the defunct Right on Target. Sarah V. Wayland writes about Hamilton’s history of immigration and the ever changing cultural landscape.

United Steelworkers and Brightside community members picket Stelco in 1946.

If there is one essay that stands out for me, it is Look on the Brightside, 1910 – present, by Nancy B. Bouchier and Ken Cruickshank. It details the development and loss of a community that arose in the shadow of Hamilton’s emerging steel industry. The inexpensive housing attracted immigrant workers who found employment in the foundries and factories and who then played a pivotal role in supporting steelworkers in the historic 1946 strike. There remains an active online community giving life to the now erased neighbourhood.

An essay that touched me, personally, was a relatively short one by Kerry Le Clair who lives near Barton in the Sherman neighbourhood. She details her own experience and personal interventions in a city that she has adopted as her own after being born here and moving away at the age of two. She explains she is trying to find her place here, to belong. In the end, she remains on the fence as to whether she does and that ambiguity will resonate with a lot of people who are new(ish) to the city.

The collection of essays is bookended by Margaret Shkimba, a writer and contributor to the Hamilton Spectator, and Matthew Bin, an author and IT consultant. This strikes me as deliberate. Shkimba laments Hamilton’s inability to progress despite the promise and potential. She examines geography and politics and the many fractures that run through our city. On the other hand, Bin, in writing about the stadium and TigerCats and the erosion of the fan base concludes Hamilton has changed: “Like many fans, I’m white, male and old enough to remember the city in the age of steel. There are plenty of others like me, and we fill the stadium for every Tiger-Cats game. But we’re not the future of Hamilton. We are its memories.”

In the chaotic mess that are cities, both can be correct. The collection of essays detail both the uncertainty of change in demographics, culture, industry, and gentrification, while also focusing on Hamilton’s stubborn addiction to the single occupancy vehicle, sprawl, parochialism, and urban spaces always sitting precariously on the precipice between success and failure.

Wolsak & Wynn Publishing Ltd. is holding a two day mini-conference and book launch this weekend featuring Paul Weinberg and a panel of speakers to discuss Hamilton’s past and future. More information is available at the events pages:


RECLAIMING HAMILTON: ESSAYS FROM THE NEW AMBITIOUS CITY is available at City and City Books on Ottawa Street North and at King W. Books in Westdale.

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