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Hamilton, Ontario: the Ambitious City

by Michael A Rottman

Entering east Hamilton at night is like entering a mechanized realm of the underworld. The landscape of steelworks is stunningly complex, an immense system of powerful machinery… and still, it is an eerie, primitive landscape. With their gusts of smoke and bursts of fire, the factories seem to guard a volcano on a sacred island shrine. They’re frightening and exhilarating, and well they should be, for they guard the lifeblood of Hamilton—its steel.

The phrase “Ambitious City” came about during boom times in the mid-1800’s, when Hamilton’s success in shipping and industry outstripped that of its neighbour Toronto. While Toronto’s sprawl eventually came to overshadow the Horseshoe Valley, Hamilton struck a balance between big city quality and small-town sensibility. It has grown to nearly half a million, and has never lost its drive. That spirit of ambition remains to invigorate everyone who visits. Even tourist sites are energized, celebrating achievement. The Canadian Football Hall of Fame is a monument of old-school struggle that will leave you picking the grass out of your teeth. The forward-thinking architecture of Hamilton Place attracts world-class performer. That category now includes the New Hamilton Orchestra and Opera Hamilton. Brian Prince Bookseller was voted the best bookstore in the province. McMaster University has become one of the best medical schools in Canada. Even the less-than-stellar becomes a monument: a 300-foot limestone escarpment is called the Mountain. Typically Hamiltonian. (But can you walk to the top?)

Hamilton isn’t about being pretty, despite the gorgeous City Hall flower clock, the Chedoke ski hills, the sprawling view from the Mountain brow, stately Whitehern manor or Dundurn Castle, perfectly preserved. The historic buildings housed no-nonsense Scots, like the McQuestens and Sir Allan Napier McNabb and those stern faces in paintings that seem to say, “What have you done to deserve silverware like this?”

It’s about The Royal Botanical Gardens, a name that belies the miles of raw wetland, forest and trails that fire a hiker’s imagination. It’s about the monument to fallen workers at Main and Bay. You’re free to stroll downtown after summer events like Earthsong, Aquafest and the Festival of Friends, but there at the courthouse you’ll meet a green-black statue of a man hanging on to a rusted slab of metal, barefoot, with no head. A reminder of what it takes to build such a place. Hamilton provides for its visitors in a big way, but it asks something of them in return.

At night, after the sun sinks behind Christ the King cathedral, you’ll probably be surrounded by partiers on the Hess Street strip, Hamilton’s cathedral of nightly revelry. Crowds young and old laugh, drink and watch the spectacle of pleasure. Serious fun—that’s Hamilton all over. The ships drift in and out, the people come and go, and the guardians of the steel keep them safe.

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