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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."

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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.

When campaigning politicians visit Hamilton, "steel" is sure to be the first thing out of their mouths. Even many locals still think of steel first when they think of the city. "It's an anvil from an image perspective, externally and sometimes internally," admits Eisenberger, the lanky, quiet-mannered mayor. He's pretty sure steel contributes to Hamilton's inferiority complex. "I think we have an internal image of, 'Boy, this is a steel town and that's all we are.'"

Yet that's been untrue for many years. Of the two major steel companies here, non-unionized Dofasco is the healthier, having worked hard to stay in front of technological advances. But it's owned now by the global giant ArcelorMittal, and it employs a fraction of the workers it once did. At the main Hamilton plant of the former Stelco, the situation is far worse. In 1981, the work force stood at about 14,000. Through bankruptcy, ownership changes and downsizings, the head count shrank to a mere 1,650 prior to the shutdown early this year. One worker complained that it was the 17th layoff of his Stelco career. He'd had enough, he said, and so he, like hundreds of others, chose to retire rather than live on employment insurance. Since being called back to work in June, U.S. Steel's employees in Hamilton number about a thousand.

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These days, if visiting politicians were smart, they'd be talking up teaching and medicine, not steel: In 2005, the fields of health services and education employed 48,515 people in the Hamilton area. McMaster University alone has roughly the same number on its payroll as Dofasco and Stelco combined. The fact is, it's not Hamilton's economy but its landscape that is dominated by steel. But that's enough to cement the image. Drivers from Burlington and Toronto headed to Niagara approach Hamilton via the Skyway bridge, see those scabrous steel mills on Hamilton Harbour, and recoil. It's like entering a restaurant past the heaping dumpsters in the alley.

Chris Murray, Hamilton's new city manager, had that picture in mind before he came here to work in 1995. He'd lived in Toronto for 10 years. But he says when he first drove into Hamilton the other way, around the tip of the lake via the 403, he was amazed. "It was green. Absolutely stunning." Murray is a short, intense man who tends toward rat-a-tat sentences, as when he checks off some of the under-appreciated virtues witnessed along that route: "Cootes," he says simply, meaning Cootes Paradise, the wildlife sanctuary situated alongside the 403. "Some of the most interesting infrastructure, design-wise, that you'll see in Ontario," he continues. "Bridges that are spectacular."

The word Murray wants you to think of when you hear Hamilton isn't steel; it's prosperous. "Add it up, okay?" he says. "Add up the fact that we have a housing market that is extremely attractive. Add up the fact that you have an arts community that is coming from across the country to this place. Add up the fact that the province is looking at us and the federal government is looking at us as a place to invest. Add up the fact that we've got a transitioning economy. I mean, just come live here."

There are numbers that show things in Hamilton are gradually getting better. The value of residential building permits, for example, rose from $262 million in 2003 to more than $415 million in 2008. But that reality is no match for the local inferiority complex. "People still have this view of Hamilton of ongoing decline as opposed to increasing prosperity," the mayor admits. "That's something that we have to overcome."

A city in need can be vulnerable to the Big Idea, and for decades, Hamilton has seen a parade of experts and developers come touting some great new enterprise that will fix the city right up. In 1985, the urge to believe begat Copps Coliseum in the middle of downtown, which was surely going to attract an NHL franchise, and now, 24 years later, has been deemed unfit for major league hockey service. Developer Harry Stinson said what Hamilton needed to do was watch him turn the vacant but grand Royal Connaught Hotel in the centre of town into the anchor of a towering $300-million showpiece development. Much excitement ensued, but Stinson couldn't raise the money. Meanwhile, experts have arrived to tell the city, for instance, that it should be gay-friendly, and pedestrian-friendly and creativity-friendly. As Marvin Ryder, a professor at McMaster's DeGroote School of Business, says, "We have no end of people giving us advice."

Many of Hamilton's Big Ideas involve generating jobs, to replace those it has lost. Back around 2002, the salvation-du-jour came from John Kasarda, an economic thinker from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Kasarda's idea was to translate the 18th-century practice of building cities around ports into a 21st-century model that would see them built around airports. He imagined a dense and attractive "node" of development. So Hamilton quickly made plans to expand its boundary and create a 2,800-acre "Aerotropolis" that would pull jobs and prosperity toward it like the sun. City council approved the plan in 2005.

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Since then, the idea has lost some momentum. People saw the price of fuel rising and wondered about the future of airports in general. Citizens' groups complained that such a development, which was starting to look a lot like a sprawling business park, ignored the city's own development guidelines and was distracting everyone from dealing with the issues in the core. Mayor Eisenberger thought Hamilton should be concentrating more on redeveloping its extensive brownfields. Still, the Aerotropolis is officially considered one of Hamilton's top development priorities. But now it's called "the employment lands around the airport," as if the jobs, properly planted, will grow.

Last year, urban guru Richard Florida gave his version of the city's redemption at the first annual Hamilton Economic Summit, a cozy affair held at the Old Mill restaurant in Ancaster. Besides reminding Hamilton that entertainment was a bigger economic force than steel right now, a fact of which Hamilton really didn't need reminding, Florida had a lot to say on the subject of jobs. "The equivalent to yesterday's factory worker," he said, "is someone who works in today's service economy-the people who do landscaping, the people who take care of our houses, retail trades, the people who cut your hair." In a city that closely identifies with proud steelworkers, that idea may take a while to sink in.

In its struggle to better its fortunes, Hamilton has lacked an "all for one" ethos. Over time, divisions have formed here based on geography and on class. The east end, where the steel mills lie, has become a dumping ground for whatever the rest of the city doesn't want. Where to put that smoke-belching garbage incinerator? Why, in the east end, naturally. And so tension has developed between the predominantly blue-collar residents there and the more affluent residents of the west end and the suburbs. Feeling poorly treated, the east end has favoured politicians with strong personalities-Sheila Copps and John Munro, for example, and current Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla-who tend to be loud, aggressive practitioners of brokerage politics. One result, in the words of Terry Cooke, former chairman of the Hamilton-Wentworth region, is that "solving individual problems and redressing grievances has taken precedence over larger initiatives and finding a way to collaborate."

In practice, this means that during a council meeting, the downtown councillor will thumb his nose at a suburban councillor and launch his pen across the room. The east-end councillor will harangue the west-end councillor and threaten, "I'm coming after you!" It means that the interests of local politicians and senior levels of government are rarely aligned, and that a project such as the Red Hill Valley Parkway, conceived as early as the 1950s as a way to encourage development in the southeastern suburbs, was fought over for generations and didn't open until 2007.

The amalgamation that forced Hamilton and its neighbours into one municipality in 2001 was meant to get everyone working toward the same end. But the process caused "wounds," says Tim McCabe, the city's general manager of planning and economic development. Egos, pride, community identity all pierced the fabric of co-operation. After eight years, McCabe says, "I think they're coming around."

It could be a while yet. The 15-member city council is referred to, sometimes by councillors themselves, as "the 15-mayor system." Take Lloyd Ferguson, who represents Ancaster, once a town unto its own, now perhaps the most moneyed ward in the city. Ferguson likes to play golf at the secluded and exclusive Hamilton Golf & Country Club, located in Ancaster. Often he plays with Don Schroeder, CEO of Tim Hortons. This Canadian institution is a source of hometown pride, and one might think that "Timmy's" owes an allegiance to the east end, where it started out. But when the company went looking for the ideal spot for its new $30-million roasting facility, offering 50 steady jobs and a boost to Hamilton's morale, did it wind up in that section, so hard hit by U.S. Steel layoffs? No. "We got them to Ancaster," Ferguson says proudly. "Into my ward and my community."

If there's one region of Hamilton that gets the most co-ordinated lip service from its politicians, it's the downtown, which has been Hamilton's bête noire going back to the 1960s, when the city went to work demolishing the best part of the core, ripping out hundreds of homes and handsome buildings, including the grand old city hall, and then taking more than a decade to install an arena, some nondescript glass boxes and a bleak, low-ceilinged shopping mall. Since then, the rest of the core has steadily deteriorated, and some of the best buildings, like the Lister Block, have sat vacant and boarded-up for years, vandalized and infested and argued over. The benefits of various infusions of energy and cash-the renovated Art Gallery of Hamilton has a dynamite collection-have been offset by the depressing effects of locating 256 social agencies here, including halfway houses and group homes. A couple of years ago, the state of the core was so authentically decrepit that when the creators of the Don Cheadle movie Talk to Me needed a location to recreate the 1968 riots in a derelict section of Washington, D.C., they picked a corner of downtown Hamilton and didn't have to change much.

Despite the general agreement that something must be done, the same factionalism that pits ward against ward has produced disdain for the core, an almost phobic averting of the eyes. McMaster University, thriving in the west end, refuses to locate student residences downtown because, says McMaster's president, Peter George, "The undergrads told us they didn't want to live downtown." Too many city staffers live in the suburban wards and have a get-in-and-get-out relationship with the core. Even people devoted to solving Hamilton's problems, such as members of the Jobs Prosperity Collaborative, a committee that works closely with city hall, turn queasy when someone suggests meeting downtown. Says one member who has seen this reaction, "Other people in the committee are like, 'Are we sure we can't meet at the Old Mill again?'"

Hamilton's downtown needs some heroes. The process of rebirth in a devastated core tends to be slow, incremental and citizen-based, according to Roberta Brandes Gratz, an American expert on cities' economic ecosystems. "Usually, where it tends to go right, you have a couple of really forceful citizen leaders," Gratz says.

It's lucky, then, that Hamilton has people like Jeremy Freiburger, who has been pushing for a greater arts focus for the downtown. He's the founder and executive director of the Imperial Cotton Centre for the Arts, which develops and manages studio space for 70 artists and helps to galvanize cultural initiatives in the city. Freiburger's effort has been one of the most encouraging signs in the core, but until recently he was ignored by city officials.

"We got no support," says Freiburger. Hamilton's leadership was caught up in old, industrial thinking, he says, and some city bureaucrats were straight out of the Fifties. "How they got the job is completely beyond me." After trying for three years to get the city's attention, Freiburger's organization spent $30,000 on a study of cultural industries' economic impact on Hamilton. The research showed that culture contributed thousands of jobs and injected $250 million annually into the local economy. Of course, that's nothing compared to farming-or so said a councillor from one of the rural wards-but it helped to make the conversations more productive. The city's new official plan, finalized in June, now incorporates Freiburger's data and recognizes culture as one of the key "clusters" in the city's economy. And recently city hall invested $150,000 toward Freiburger's latest initiative: developing a creative catalyst centre akin to the Banff Centre. Says Freiburger, "Finally we've cracked through the wall."

In pushing against the city's intransigence, Freiburger learned something that outside money has long known: Hamilton can be difficult. "When we first came into Hamilton," Waterloo-based developer Hugh Hicks remembers, "other people told us, 'Stay away. Hard city to work in.'"

Even the province has had trouble in this town. In the late 1970s, the Bill Davis government wanted to give Hamilton a light rail transit system that would link its downtown and waterfront to the airport. The government saw it as a chance to test-market something it wanted to sell worldwide. But Hamilton was sure that if the province wanted to give it something like that, there must be something wrong with it. So it said no to a freebie that would have transformed the city. Needing a place to show off its system, the province wound up selling it to British Columbia for Expo 86. In Vancouver, they called it the SkyTrain.

Hamilton's bickering factions and complicated approvals have made it arduous to build anything, at least by comparison to newer cities such as Burlington. Until recently, many zoning bylaws had been locked in place since the 1940s, and weren't flexible enough to respond to new ideas, such as the repurposing of old industrial structures for cultural or residential use. "Nearly every application," says the city's Tim McCabe, "required a committee of adjustment variance, or a rezoning, which can be a six-, eight-month process."

Since amalgamation, the city has been revamping much of its zoning. It streamlined its development-approval process and implemented a series of tax and loan incentives to encourage brownfield remediation and downtown improvement. And McCabe has tried to inject an "open-for-business" attitude into city hall.

In the past six years, about 1,000 residential units have been built downtown. The upscale condo building near the downtown GO terminal that Hicks and his partner eventually built filled with doctors and other professionals.

Since 2003, the annual value of commercial building permits has risen steadily from $58.9 million to $139 million in 2008. The creation of a new research and development zone in the west end cleared the way for McMaster University's Innovation Park, which has begun to attract leading-edge firms such as Trivaris, a technology incubator.

McCabe looks forward to the day when city staff move back into the renovated city hall, because he'll be able to open a business facilitation centre on the ground floor that will "hand-hold" developments from application to construction. The days of needing a building permit, a sign permit, a servicing permit and all the rest, are numbered. His dream, says McCabe, is to have one catch-all City of Hamilton approval. "It's a major shift in culture," he admits.

But the bigger shift for Hamilton, the crucial shift, is yet to come. If it isn't Steeltown or a centre of industry any more, what is it? What could it be? Nobody's quite sure. The comparison often made to Pittsburgh just doesn't hold. Pittsburgh got the chance to reinvent itself from scratch. The disaster for that city-the demise of its steel industry-was also its blessing. The industry simply left, and allowed Pittsburgh to begin imagining how else to use those old buildings and brownfields. In Hamilton, the industry limps along, with no end nor glory in sight, while city politicians cling to the idea of manufacturing like a security blanket. Even Mayor Eisenberger still refers to the city's steel industry as "a very good asset," although, to an observer, its economic benefits no longer offset its vast, ugly footprint.

Hamilton won't, or can't, embrace a new vision, so it dithers. In developing its economic strategy, the city put the notion of "jobs" first and identified no fewer than eight economic clusters, including advanced manufacturing and "transportation logistics" (shipping and warehousing), it thought it should pursue. Its assets, meanwhile, are difficult to leverage. Health and education, though accounting for plenty of jobs, are largely wealth-redistribution, not wealth-generation, activities. There is some small benefit to being the region's medical teaching centre and McMaster University attracts research money. But these don't generate enormous spinoff benefits in the manner of industry. Because of its hospitals and university, the city sees potential in biotechnology and imagines biotech firms setting up shop and handing out jobs. But biotech firms tend to employ highly educated people in small numbers. Says McMaster's Marvin Ryder, "What does that do for laid-off U.S. Steel workers? They might be able to sweep the floors."

Ryder is willing to speak hard truths about Hamilton. And he has some credibility. In 2000, he chaired the transition board that created the new amalgamated city of Hamilton. He's willing to admit that the way Hamilton's wards were drawn up merely entrenched parochialism. "I'm going to call it a failure," he says. Unfortunately, it's probably too late to de-amalgamate. With the disappearance of industry, the tax burden has shifted to residents, so Hamilton needs all the Hamiltonians it can get.

Instead, Ryder thinks the city should take a hard look at its assumptions of itself. If it lacks the economic foundations of a real city, should it be trying to act like one? He looks at the increasing number of Torontonians buying houses here at bargain prices; he looks at the statistics showing that 57,365 people a day drive from Hamilton to work in Toronto, almost four times the number coming the other way. He factors in the likelihood that Hamilton will be tied in to the Southern Ontario Metrolinx light rail network. He looks at all that and sees one thing: Bedroom Community.

"No!" exclaims Tim McCabe to the very idea. "You could never have a city the size of this be a bedroom community. What would it be a bedroom to, Toronto? Not a chance."

Maybe it's the term "bedroom community" that's problematic. It suggests a place with no heart or soul, which doesn't fit a city with Hamilton's history, and doesn't recognize its infrastructure, the bones that history brings. So if not a bedroom, then…what about a living room?

In his speech at Hamilton's first economic summit, Richard Florida refuted the notion that companies moved to a city because they were given tax or business incentives. Lycos, he said, moved from Pittsburgh to Boston, despite the latter's higher costs, simply to get access to the people that were already there. He raised the example of Providence, Rhode Island, a slapped-down former industrial city that found a new niche: "Giving people from Boston an affordable and attractive place to live."

If you ignore the industrial blot in the east end-and in most of the city, that's surprisingly easy to do-Hamilton has all the makings of "affordable and attractive." The Niagara Escarpment lends a striking beauty to the landscape, and conservation and waterfront areas are easy to get to. There are grand old houses here, equivalent to those in Toronto's Annex or Cabbagetown but a third of the cost. And Hamilton is more of a true city than Burlington or Mississauga can hope to be, with an actual downtown, not just a zone of big-box stores (although it has those too), along with artists and musicians, old warehouses ripe for repurposing as lofts and studios, and a rich sense of place.

But if it is to take the path of Providence, Hamilton will have to stop its bickering and turn away from the endless pursuit of "jobs" by realizing that jobs no longer come bundled in bunches of 500, or boxed in large, grey factories assembling "tech," but in handfuls of mobile, educated individuals looking for the benefits that a city brings. They will have to focus more resources than ever before on quality of life, so that the thousands of graduates turned out every year by the local colleges and university have reason to stay. Deal with the brownfields, clean up the downtown. Make it even easier for art and culture to prosper here. Stop mourning the death of Steeltown, and start fostering the birth of something new.

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