From Hamilton to Boston

September 2016
by Ben Shragge

The ambitious young Hamiltonian dreams of Toronto: its cult of failed sports teams, its Babel-like glass condos, its crowds of anonymous diversity. Here, she thinks, I will find the job, the friends, the lifestyle I deserve. And never again will I be run off the sidewalk by a scooter speeding to a money mart.

Hamilton’s authentic character, growing arts scene, and relative affordability are attracting migrants from Toronto and elsewhere, which is changing residents’ perception of their city. Still, the phenomenon of the self-hating Hamiltonian, ashamed of the smokestacks and sidewalk-speeding scooters, is likely to persist. Toronto will remain big and cosmopolitan, Hamilton will remain small and provincial, and glass condos reaching up to Heaven will continue to attract the upwardly mobile, as they ever have.
I’m from Hamilton, and you have to embrace where you’re from. Home is where the memories are. It’s the Eden in your Genesis story. It’s where your dreams take you back to, no matter where you wake up. When I think of Hamilton, I don’t think of steel mills or payday loan billboards. I think of family outings to Dundas Driving Park and Confederation Park; driving down the Mountain at night, seeing the city lights; and browsing the shelves while eating free popcorn at Jumbo Video in Dundurn Plaza—the finest plaza there ever was and ever will be. To reject all that would be to reject a part of my soul, which would be a hopeless exercise in self-defeat. Plus, it’s more fun to root for the underdog, and Hamilton, with its Sisyphean quest for an NHL team, is Underdog City.
That being said, I once resigned myself to moving to Toronto, since that’s where the jobs are in my industry (and many industries). I didn’t actively aspire to live the Toronto dream—renting a condo in a building built yesterday, trading Tim Hortons for Starbucks, and pretending the Maple Leafs had a chance at the playoffs—but for young people beginning their career, the CN Tower’s magnetic pull is difficult to resist. That I ultimately ended up in Boston instead was more by chance than design, but I’ve felt at home here in part for its similarities to Hamilton.
Like Hamilton, Boston has a strong working-class identity, and is the butt of unfunny jokes for that reason. Also like Hamilton, Boston has a ubiquitous local donut franchise (Dunkin’), a civic spirit that crosses class divides, a key geographic landmark (a river, not a mountain), and a unifying team loyalty/enmity. Red Sox vs. Yankees stirs as much passion here as Tiger-Cats vs. Argos does in the Tim Hortons lineups of Hamilton. More broadly, New York is to Boston what Toronto is to Hamilton: an overbearing, self-centered sibling rival with a size advantage.
Of course, Boston has some advantages that Hamilton doesn’t have: a revolutionary history, a clean harbour, islands (though not waterfalls), an actual international airport, an NHL team, LRT. But it’s not too late for Hamilton to catch up in at least a couple of these areas (including, depending on how far left the NDP goes, revolutionary history). After all, Boston hasn’t always been a model of civic virtue: until a cleanup in the 1990s, its now-beautiful Spectacle Island was literally used as a dump. With visionary leadership, Hamilton too could clean up its dumps, both literal (Randle Reef) and metaphorical (Jackson Square).
Unfortunately, no one in Boston has heard of Hamilton, so around here I’m forced to say I’m from “the Greater Toronto area.” But as a proud Hamilton native raised in the faith of the prophets, I believe with messianic fervor that one day, may it be soon, Hamilton’s harbour will be safe for swimming, its downtown businesses will attract more crowds than its methadone clinics, and Torontonians will be the ones forced to say they’re from the Greater Hamilton area. And, on that same day when the lion lies down with the lamb and the nations beat their swords into ploughshares, the Boston Bruins will play a Hamilton NHL team in Copps Coliseum restored.

Ben Shragge is the Digital Content Editor of the Hamilton Jewish News.