The angular, unloved edifices of Hamilton City Hall-designed in the International Style and built in 1960, when the city's future seemed pretty bright-were finally being gutted and stripped of their cladding as part of a major renovation. So on a Wednesday night in the middle of May, Hamilton's 15 councillors gathered in their temporary chambers in the Albion Room of the Hamilton Convention Centre. They wore red carnations in support of a good cause and, before he took his seat, one of the councillors, Tom Jackson, rhythmically tossed a hockey puck in the air. "This is my good luck charm," he said.
The council, that night, was to formally approve a deal that would clear any local impediments to bringing an NHL franchise to the city-leasing Copps Coliseum, and a couple of other downtown properties, to the co-CEO of Research In Motion, Jim Balsillie, who wanted to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move them north. To many in Hamilton, the idea that the NHL might at long last return to the city, 85 years after it left, seemed a tantalizing improbability, like getting a date with the prettiest girl on campus. Ron Joyce, the co-founder of Tim Hortons and the last man who'd tried to bring an NHL franchise to Hamilton, had already gone public with his doubts, calling it "a 10% chance." Voting to approve a lease deal with Balsillie was, therefore, a bit like Hamilton checking its teeth in the mirror in case that pretty girl should look its way.
Soon enough, it seemed clear that she never would; Balsillie's quest appeared to die in a Phoenix courtroom in June. But that May night in Hamilton, the city was still clinging to its faint hopes. So at the outset of the council meeting, Mayor Fred Eisenberger introduced Rev. John Smith, once a city councillor and local MPP, now a minister at St. George's Reformed Episcopal Church. And Smith prayed for Hamilton. He asked the Heavenly Father to "work out any opposition in different sectors" to Hamilton's NHL dreams, "so that our city might be able to fulfill itself as one of the major cities in this country, and in North America. We ask it all in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen."
For anyone from the largest and wealthiest city in Canada-that would be Toronto, just 50 minutes away-what's down is up in Hamilton. The waterfront and the inner city lie to the north; south spread the suburbs. That gets a bit confusing if you're new to the place. So is the notion that Hamilton has aspirations, that becoming "one of the major cities in this country and in North America" could be destiny, not fantasy.
But it was only a few decades ago that Hamilton, "the ambitious city," had not just Stelco and Dofasco but a cohort of blue-chip American companies that would make any city drool-Firestone, Westinghouse, Procter & Gamble, International Harvester, Life Savers, Levi Strauss. The smokestacks billowed until the evening air in the east end had a taste. Downtown, stores and restaurants thrived. Johnny Pops, head of the Papalia family, made Hamilton a hot spot of organized crime. If there's one thing the Mafia likes, it's the prospect of money, and Hamilton had plenty of prospects. Among all of Canada's cities, it was the great steel hope, packing industrial muscle on a squat, sturdy frame. It wasn't pretty, far from that, but it was a contender.
And then all that went away. Not suddenly, but relentlessly, through a series of body blows. As prosperity plumped nearby rivals such as Burlington, Oakville, Mississauga, Kitchener-Waterloo and-especially-Toronto, it skipped Hamilton completely, cruelly, until most of its big-name companies were gone, the stores along Barton Street deteriorated into dark and crumbling shells, downtown became a kind of forbidden zone, and even the Mafia couldn't make any money. Nine years ago, an incantation penned by Tiny Bill Cody, a popular local musician, spoke to a city finally dropped to the mat. "Hamilton!..." the poem went, "Your opponents are always so huge/And you always lose. Stupid, heroic, blockhead."
The image of Hamilton as a grime-covered palooka destined for defeat has now hardened into something self-perpetuating. When Stelco was indefinitely shuttered by its new owner, U.S. Steel, last spring, the news dismayed but it did not surprise. Yeah, hit me again, said blind, battered Hamilton, the city that fortune betrayed.
But no city is just one thing, and no fighter only loses. Maybe that's why even now, dazed and bloodied, Hamilton is taking stock of itself, its assets and its flaws, and why it's pushing itself to its feet and daring to think that some good might yet come of it all.