Sunday, 23 December 2012

Hamilton: Southern Ontario's Best Kept Secret?

Heading Southwest on Queen Elizabeth Way, a vital superhighway that shoots out of Toronto’s West end and skirts Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls/Fort Erie, it would be hard to miss the greyscale stacks and old brick factories that indicate only one thing: you’re passing Hamilton.

At its most Western point, the lake funnels off and you cross the “Allan Skyway”, boasting the best views of what was once the industrial capitol of Southern Ontario, but now barely resembles a long dead era. In fact, the only real reminders of working class heritage are the skeletal remains of the monsters and machines that once ruled all.

Because of its short rise and fall at the fate of a rapidly changing economy, Hamilton is now commonly asserted as ‘Canada’s butthole’; a filthy leftover, full of poor blue-collar remnants that were caught in a city that grew beyond its own capacity to sustainably fill jobs and provide proper housing. But in between the flashes of old Hamilton’s short-lived heyday is a city that still lives on, a city that hasn’t yet succumbed to the intensity of modernity and a place that is struggling to revive itself….And is. Believe it or not, change is present, and Hamilton is beginning to put itself back on the map, but in quite a different way. Here are a few reasons why:

The Hamilton ‘Supercrawl’

The topic of Hamilton as a city in transition would be grossly incomplete without including its burgeoning arts scene, now immensely present in the downtown core. Enter the ‘Supercrawl’: A weekend of never-ending parties that celebrate art from all corners of the earth, colliding in the bars and galleries of James Street and various outdoor stages erected for this very event. Last year hosted the likes of Great Lake Swimmers and K’naan., while giving over 75,000 visitors a weekend that wouldn’t be easily forgotten. The best part: it’s totally free and easily accessible.

The rest of year Hamilton continues to support a diverse range of new ‘up-and-coming’ artists who have completely reshaped the culture scene in the city (if Hamilton even had a ‘culture scene’ to begin with). Many attribute the rise in arts and culture to be the reason why Hamilton didn’t become a ghost town in the early 21st century. Whichever opinion you choose to take, it’s clear that the influx of hipsters, artists and neo-hippies in Hamilton is creating new space for identity and economy.

The Hamilton Farmers’ Market

No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, you’ve never quite seen anything like Hamilton’s Farmers’ Market.

In the centre of the city rests a permanent space dedicated to the immigrant merchants and fresh-ass food you won’t find in too many other places. This multi-level market-style complex houses ethnic goods from around the world and seems to stretch into oblivion; each corner rounded a new culinary adventure awaiting your senses - a mash of Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, African and more.

During the industrial boom of the early 20th century, Hamilton became a main entrepot for skilled labourers that left Northern Europe in search of prosperity inside mills and factories. The market is a byproduct of a European-style center of trade and commerce, gaining its first roots as a Jewish grocer but eventually expanding into the mega-market it is today. Hamilton’s rich history of working-class immigrant settlers that formed the original city is alive and well in the market and can be enjoyed by everyone.

Waterfalls of Hamilton

Probably the last item one would imagine on a Tour de Hamilton would be a picturesque waterfall. Well…Think again, and then think a multitude of cascading H2O, and you have a city with the ultra-cool title of ‘The Waterfall Capital of Canada’. Apparently, a shitload of water rockets over a shitload of high crested rocky cliffs in and around Hamilton.

Albion Falls.
This unexpected treasure is actually a product of Lake Ontario geography. Hamilton is located at the very Western tip of this giant blue body, where plenty of rivers and watersheds flow into the lake. Couple that with the fact that the area is surrounded by a giant riff in the earth known as the Niagara Escarpment, and you get waterfalls…Waterfalls everywhere.

Many flock to the trails and viewpoints of places like Mill Falls, Albion Falls and my favourite, the Devils Punch Bowl to meet these hydrological giants and feel the wrath of thousands of litres of water flying over a cliff.

The Bruce Trail

You’re in escarpment country now, where hiking trails for all age and skill levels creep through the umpteen conservation areas, highlighting the hidden natural beauty of Hamilton’s backyard. From Dundas Valley to the Eramosa Karst, the options for exploring are endless, but the main artery that runs through this network is none other than the Bruce Trail, Canada’s oldest and largest hiking experience.

Running 885km from Niagara to the Bruce Penensula, the trail has gained notoriety as being the god of all hiking itineraries in Canada. More hikers seem to be interested in the trail every year, some undertaking ‘end-to-ends’ that can last up to three months and traverse every kilometre of its winding route. Hamilton serves as a perfect mid-point on the ‘Iroquoia’ section, before the trail heads North past Burlington and Milton.

No matter how you look at it, Hamilton is changing, and growing, and metamorphisizing…Into what, we’re still not sure yet, but I think it’s interesting and you should too. So, next time you’re passing that freaky-ass industrial shoreline along the QEW, consider looking beyond and stepping into Steel City. 

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