Reclaiming Hamilton, The Book, Margaret Shkimba on the Unhappy City

Reclaiming Hamilton, The Book, Margaret Shkimba on the Unhappy City

The latest instalment of Hamilton's local history in book format is Reclaiming Hamilton published by local imprint Wolsak and Wynn Publishers.

During the next few weeks, my daily personal blog posts will include my thoughts (some may call it a review) on the book chapters.

Today, Chapter One "All Happy Cities Are Alike; Each Unhappy City Is Unhappy in Its Own Way", written by local writer Margaret Shkimba - best known for her weekly column in The Hamilton Spectator.

It is a fitting start to this latest addition to the  books written about Hamilton's local history and contemporary existence over the past 150 years. Shkimba provides an information dense summary of Hamilton books past and near present to explain how Hamilton came to be where we are now, then places this book into the collective memory by exploring the whats and whys of Hamilton present.

In doing so, Shkimba provides the rationale for the value of the Reclaiming Hamilton collection of essays.

Our geography - what other mid-size city is divided in half by an escarpment with a large protected harbour - defines us. So do the people who founded the City of Hamilton as a permanent British settlement.

Hamilton is where many United Empire Loyalists - those who fought for or sided with the British King during the American Revolution - fled and resettled. They defined our governmental culture.

Land speculators expanded Hamilton from a small settlement area into a city incorporated in 1846, and land speculation continues to play an oversized role in Hamilton's culture today.

Why is Hamilton Always on the Cusp?

Shkimba poses what seems to have been the question nobody in Hamilton can answer. Why does Hamilton, once known as the Ambitious City, always appear to "be on the cusp of something big, but never fully realizes the dream"?

Hamilton exceptionalism, the idea held what works in other cities will not work in Hamilton is explored. As Shkimba puts it, "A sense of exceptionality pervades our politics and our populace; not exceptionality that excudes excellence, but one that breeds contempt".

It is not just this perverse exceptionalism which holds us back, it is the indecisiveness of our city councils and civic leaders. Of course, Shkimba discusses the Red Hill Expressway, Light Rail Transit, conventional transit, and the early 1980s debate over Elevated Transit between Downtown and Lime Ridge Mall.

(The Elevated Transit line, funded by higher levels of government, was rejected and the proposal moved to Vancouver taking form in the Skytrain)

It is Gore Park which may best exemplify our inability to get things done.

For some inexplicable reason, every decade or so Hamilton City Council rips the park up to build it different, and we argue over the change. There is never agreement, or even contentment, with the park. The most recent rebuild of the park, completed in 2015 with the opening of the east side Veterans Place, remains debated.

Gore Park has never made a ballot issue, not city-wide nor even at the Ward 2 level. Yet, it encapsulates Hamilton's politics well. [With the upcoming City Council debate on removing the Sir John A Macdonald statue, we'll do this all over again]

If we cannot figure out a small park, how can we manage the bigger things?

Hamilton of Today: The Potential, The Pride, The Problems

Shkimba explores the branding of Hamilton, our history of boosterism (amplified in the past decade), and the various slogans over the years which have failed.

"City of Waterfalls", the slogan created by the citizen waterfall initiative lead by Chris Ecklund beginning around 15 years is the most appropriate slogan for our town. Shkimba gives credit to Ecklund for his efforts, and notes the initiative was completely independent of City Hall.

[While not discussed in the chapter, many in the City Hall Old Guard deeply resent Ecklund's efforts . Refer to Hamilton exceptionalism for why]

Being careful what you wish for. The City of Waterfalls initiative succeeded at promoting our waterfalls as civic treasures, which are now problematically busy as City Hall fails to put necessary infrastructure in place for the streams of visitors who travel from across Southern Ontario to visit them.

Hamilton as the "Hate Crime Capital of Canada" is discussed. The fire bombing of Hamilton's Hindu Samaj Temple by three hateful Hamilton men in the days following the September 11, 2001 terrorism attacks in the United States, is placed in the content of other expressions of hate in Hamilton. In the past three years alone, Hamilton City Hall was caught covering-up the employment of the last known leader of the Neo-Nazi Heritage Front in a sensitive IT position, Yellow Vesters have made Hamilton City Hall their preferred place of protest, a white nationalism ran for Mayor, the 2019 Pride festival was attacked by fundmentalists.

Out of these events, Shkimba finds hope. The Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion was created out of the hate bombing in 2001, more recently citizens created PLAID (Peace, Love, Acceptance, Inclusion, Diversity) to counter the message of the Yellow Vesters.

In civic engagement, despite the best efforts of the City Hall Old Guard, there are successful movements. The North End residents who succeeded in securing safer streets with the 30km/h speed limit and road calming of the North End Traffic Management Plan, the blocking of a planned "gasification" plant on the Harbour.

At 1000 words in this summary, I've skipped over much of the chapter. The chapter provides highlights of many events in our civic history which reveal how we become the civic culture we are today. Many of them, I had not read prior.

Shkimba's chapter can stand on its own as a capture Hamilton's present state, enabling for a future reader to understand Hamilton as it stood just prior to the COVID pandemic.

As for the question of why is Hamilton always on the cusp, it remains unanswered except to note Hamilton's present potential to become greater and finally reach beyond its self-imposed limitations.

DISCLOSURE: I wrote a chapter of the book, I gain no payment from sales.