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Biljana Njegovan lives in Hamilton and writes about arts and culture for CutFromSteel.com and TheInletOnline.com

If you visit Hamilton and spend some time looking around, you may come across some faded stickers that read: "Go Back To Toronto." Do Hamiltonians generally share this sentiment?

Well, it's complicated. What started off as a mean-spirited joke years ago with the early influx of Torontonians moving to Hamilton has now turned into hurt feelings and a panic about Hamilton's future.

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Many of us grew up hearing about how horrible our city was. It was labelled the "armpit of Ontario" and was perceived as nothing more than a sketchy downtown and a lot of smoke stacks. Friends moved to Toronto after graduation and most never came back because Hamilton "sucked."

The thing is, some of us liked it here. Long before the cute coffee shops and fancy restaurants started appearing, people were happy living here. We had affordable housing, an amazing arts community and a lot of freedom, although, of course, the place wasn't perfect.

A few years ago, our downtown started the slow and steady march toward gentrification and suddenly a chorus of bewildered whispers started coming down the QEW: "Hamilton is cool now," and, "There's so much potential here." This sentiment about "potential" was especially galling. What it meant was that Hamilton was a blank slate but, with the right upgrades, it might be good enough for someone from Toronto to inhabit.

Nobody is faulting Torontonians for wanting affordable housing. We want that, too. While Hamilton has never had Toronto's job opportunities and high salaries, we did have jobs and the near guarantee of affordable housing until recently. We took this for granted. People of my generation grew up assuming that we would be able to buy a house because so many people before us were able to do so. Somewhere from $150,000 to $300,000 was, until recently, what one could expect to spend.

It's important to note that a large proportion of Hamilton's residents live in poverty. The city is also home to a significant number of immigrants and the elderly, all of whom need decent places to live. The arrival of wealthy Torontonians and consequent heating up of the housing market is threatening to turn real estate into a luxury investment opportunity that is available only to some.

While many of us have been reeling from the sudden changes, we've seen a barrage of proclamations about how cheap housing is in Hamilton. It's wild to imagine that a home that quadrupled in value in a short time is still considered a bargain. A Toronto Life article came out this summer that profiled several Torontonians who moved to Hamilton. The story focused on people who bought $500,000 homes in poor neighbourhoods and boasted gleefully about the deals they got and, again, the "potential." Many Hamiltonians have been working for years toward future home ownership in their communities only to be suddenly priced out by bargain hunters.

There are currently dozens of apartment and condo projects in early stages of construction in Hamilton. How this will change our city, our cultural landmarks, our population and our future remains to be seen. Many of the new jobs that have been created through these recent developments have been precarious jobs in the service industry. Ground has barely been broken on many of these constructions, but we are already reorienting our city toward serving these hypothetical, wealthy, future Hamiltonians.

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Much of our blame and hurt feelings should be shifted away from individual Torontonians, who are frankly just looking out for their best interests, and toward Hamilton's leaders, who have been actively courting this type of change.

Most Hamiltonians are resistant to the idea of becoming another bedroom community; that's not who we are. Why can't we study what cities such as Vancouver and Toronto did to grow and learn from their mistakes? Why can't we build our infrastructure to support all of the people who make up Hamilton? What we really need is more affordable housing for low-income families, seniors and young people who are looking for their first home. Oh, and a public-transit system that works, but that's a whole other story.

If you are a Torontonian who is planning to buy a home in Hamilton because it is what you can afford, I'm not going to judge you. I get it. All I ask is that you handle the situation with respect and an understanding of where our hurt feelings come from. I will try to have the same courtesy and sensitivity when I, too, eventually have to move an hour outside of my city in search of affordable housing.

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