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‘It’s a real place, says Glen Norton, the city’s manager of urban renewal. ‘We’re not trying to be anywhere else.’

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Is Hamilton getting too cute? The idea seems a trifle unlikely. The city at the west end of Lake Ontario still has a reputation as a gritty working-class steel town.

But a wave of gentrification has rolled through in the past few years. Young couples priced out of the Toronto real estate market have been coming down the QEW to shop for houses. Galleries and cafés are popping up on once-derelict downtown streets. Throngs of people turn out for gallery-hopping art crawls. This city of drivers even has a bike-share program and a new central-city bike lane.

Critics of gentrification argue that it evicts the poor from their neighbourhoods and turns authentic districts of hardware stores and groceries into hipster havens of yoga studios and galleries. That critique is weak even in bigger cities, where gentrification is bringing new vitality and creativity to downtown streets.

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In Hamilton, the risk of becoming too cute seems small. They still make steel and crush mustard seed there. "It's a real place," says Glen Norton, the city's manager of urban renewal. "We're not trying to be anywhere else." To him, the modest renaissance of the city's downtown is something to cheer about.

In 1991, he was a banker in Kitchener-Waterloo. One day, his manager called him and congratulated him: He was being transferred to Hamilton. "Oh, crap," Mr. Norton thought. He pictured his new home as a wasteland of belching steel mills.

Two decades later, Mr. Norton is one of Hamilton's chief promoters. He lives in a downtown condominium. Leading a walking tour of his little empire, he takes evident delight in pointing out all the new shops, restaurants and restored storefronts.

"If you like to be part of history rather than an observer, it's a great time to be here," he says.

Like many Canadian towns and cities, Hamilton saw its downtown hollowed out by economic decline and suburban flight. Big companies such as Procter & Gamble and Massey Ferguson closed plants or moved away. Many downtown stores closed and boarded up their windows. Streets such as historic James Street North became sketchy no-go zones.

Much of the central city is still pretty grim. Pizzerias and pay-day loan outlets outnumber trendy shops, and street people seem as numerous as hipsters. This is no West Queen West. But gradually, with the help of Mr. Norton's renewal push, parts of the historic district are finding new life.

A new GO Transit station is going in to ease express service to Toronto and back. The waterfront is about to undergo an ambitious redevelopment. The grand old Royal Connaught Hotel is being made over for condominiums.

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The Juno music awards are coming to town in March. Pan American Games soccer comes in July.

On the tour he leads through downtown streets, Mr. Norton bumps into a bike-store owner who blogs about downtown issues, an investor who is fixing up a historic building and the manager of a store that sells Hamilton-themed merchandise, from picture books to T-shirts.

The city has been spending to spur the downtown renaissance. It bought the dilapidated Lister Block for $29-million and opened its tourism office there. It offers grants of up to $25,000 for store owners to spruce up their façades. It cut development charges and offered low-interest building loans.

It has installed artsy street furniture around downtown. It spent $867,000 on a new three-kilometre bike lane. It spent another $100,000 on beautifying a downtown alley with murals, new lighting and other improvements.

A new bike-share system is expanding. To the annoyance of motorists, the city has turned some one-way streets such as James into two-way, slowing traffic and fostering more street life.

Mr. Norton says the number of downtown jobs is growing by 300 a year. Employment in what planners call the urban growth centre has reached 24,700. The office vacancy rate has fallen to 11.8 per cent from 19 per cent seven years ago.

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Hamilton's new senior planner, Jason Thorne, says the city offers the right kind of building stock at the right price for those keen on redeveloping old properties. "The history of Hamilton is writ large on this part of the city," he says.

The Hamilton Spectator reports that more than 20 residential buildings, some of 20 storeys or more, are planned for the downtown. One condo developer is restoring an old vaudeville theatre, another is making use of an old Baptist church.

Planners dream of communities where people can live, work and play. Gradually, through little steps, battered, vacated old central Hamilton is becoming something like that.

If a little gentrification comes in the bargain, Hamilton can only gain from it.

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