Not far from Toronto is the city of Hamilton. I’ve only passed through it, rarely spending more than enough time to catch a bus or ride a bike through it on the way to somewhere else.
Where Toronto is a city of film makers, the provincial government seat and the headquarters of banks, Hamilton is its more industrial cousin. It’s biggest industry is steel and the waterfront is dominated by Stelco and Defasco, two major steel manufacturers. Over half of Canada’s steel is produced here. But like most North American steel companies, they have seen better days. As someone who lived on the east coast of the US for much of his life, I can’t help but compare Hamilton to New Jersey.
But it also is starting to be noticed. Fewer and fewer people are able to afford Toronto real estate prices. The current average home price is approaching $870,000. Compare that to the under $500,000 value that Hamilton has.
In general its economy hasn’t done as well as many other parts of the country. One side effect of this is that unlike Toronto it does not have so many gleaming new towers going up. People are not knocking down small bungalows and building massive McMansions on them. In some ways it’s a city that seems to be stuck in an earlier age. For me this means there is still lots of interesting architecture around. Or maybe it means I’m getting nostalgic about how I think cities should look.
And so I wake up one Sunday morning determined to go and see a bit more of what Hamilton is about. When Daegan wakes I ask him and he’s up for going as well. Like our New York City trip we decide to pick a destination and then work from there. And so out the door we head.
We make our way to the subway and it is really busy. There was a time not so long ago that stores weren’t allowed to be open in Toronto on Sundays. A friend of mine who is my age even remembers that when he was young that some stores had even gone so far as to install curtains in the windows to prevent window shopping. Today is Sunday, you should be in church, not staring through the window at a new pair of saddle shoes!
But those days are gone. Clearly everyone is out and about and it isn’t even 10:00.
As we get closer to the GO Bus bus (regional transit) station (which is near the Skydome) we see more Blue Jays shirts and figure there must be a game today. We make our way out of the subway and to the bus station to wait for a bus to Hamilton.
The bus is already waiting for us and within a few minutes its door opens. We’re lucky today that we’re in a double-decker bus, and further lucky as we get to sit in the very front – we’ve got a great big window seat.
While we’re riding I hear the family behind me talking. The kids behind us, about 8-10 years old are speaking a mixture of English and Hindi. Their parents on the other side of the aisle are making calls giving and receiving wishes of Happy Rakhi. About the same time Mitali, my Hindi teacher sends me a Facebook message wishing me a Happy Rakhi as well. We chat for a minute and I tell her I’m practicing my Hindi listening and she tells me I should talk to the children. I’m too shy, though, and also in a chance to use one of the words I’d learned in our previous lesson, I said that here if a grown man talks to kids often he will be viewed as “badnaam.” – dishonourable, or sketchy. And so I am content to just try to understand their conversation – mostly about which of them is driving the bus and who is the boss
We make excellent time and before long we arrive in Hamilton. Our timing is such that we’re ravenous. It’s time to find some food. We check my phone and see a few options including one that looks like a really down to earth neighbourhood Italian place. We make our way there and find a paper sign in the window. It’s closed for the owner’s summer vacation. We then walk up and down the street only to find that most places are closed.
Finally, we see a tiny storefront advertising a deal on thalis. I love Indian food but it is funny that even when I am trying to have another kind of food, I still end up with an Indian meal. I suppose it’s a good “problem” to have.
I hear two people in the back speaking Hindi and so my rule for Hindi practice in the world applies. If I understand someone speaking Hindi, then I must try to speak Hindi as well. And so, after the owner carefully describes what each dish is and asks us what we want, I realize I have forgotten how many choices we’re allowed and so I ask:
“Ham kitane sabziyaan le sakte hain?” – how many veggies can we take?
He tells us and then laughs and says “I guess you already know what these are.”
We sit down to wait while our bread is made and plan our day ahead.
The food is OK but I think it suffered for it being toward the end of the lunch hour. It also seems, in terms of spice, to be catered to the Canadian palate – in other words, nothing too spicy or flavourful. Still, we are now no longer obsessing about food and we can get on with our day.
We walk up the street toward the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The streets are oddly empty of cars, and even the sidewalks have very few people though there do seem to be a fair number of people out drinking early in the day.
We go inside and show our Cultural Access Passes. These are a great perk of becoming Canadian citizens. For one year after getting our citizenship we will get free admission to over 1,400 attractions in Canada including many museums.
Today we are there mostly to see the Vivian Maier exhibit. While photoblogs and Instagram made street photography popular, Ms. Maier was doing it decades ago – and for her own joy. They were never exhibited and many of her negatives were never even developed. It wasn’t until after she died that her amazing work was found and shared.
Her photos are copyrighted so I can’t share them here but you can get a look at them in this Google Image Search. Daegan was really familiar with her but I hadn’t seen her work until that day. In our last trip to a photography exhibit – this one by Henri Cartier-Bresson – Daegan explained to me his idea of “The Decisive Moment.” – the moment that you photograph that captures the essence of the event. Vivian Maier was able to capture that so well. I also particularly like it because it shows daily life. As much as I enjoy seeing a pretty landscape or a picture of a beautiful monument or building, I find those boring. Show me photos of people having their day to day life, though, and I can look at those for hours. And this is just what we do.
Despite the fact that there’s a relatively famous photographer on exhibit, I love that the museum is relatively empty. The same emptiness that felt a little bit post apocalyptic outside the museum, feels really comfortable here. This is nothing like the mob scene at the Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario or worse, fighting through crowds of people trying to take selfies with the artwork at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This feels lovely.
There is an excellent exhibit of women’s artwork that takes up almost the entire second floor. It starts with an introductory note that ask us to think about the fact that we never see a collection of “Men’s artwork” and goes on to talk about the small percentage of most museums’ art collection that is devoted to work made by women. It’s not as if there are barely any women artists after all. In fact, as I think about it, I know far more women who are artists than men.
In one room is a large piece that catches my eye, the “Bruegel-Bosch Bus” – a bus inspired by the work of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Brugel – both of whom created art work with so much going on in them. You can literally spend hours looking at their pieces (though some of it, particularly Hieronymous Bosch’s work, can be pretty disturbing). The same is true for this bus:
After this we decide to head out and explore a bit. The next item on our list is to find the Hamilton Central Library. We walk toward it and find an alley with interesting graffiti. As I go to explore it I catch myself being a little hesitant. There are so few people I realize that I’m nervous about going in an alley and seeing other people. I never have that feeling in Toronto and in fact many of our graffiti-filled alleys are filled with people.
On the last piece I notice a caption: “If this neighbourhood is for artists, how come I don’t see any art?” I did see a little but definitely not as much as other parts of town.
We arrive at the street the library is on – and it still feels empty and post-apocalyptic. Maybe I was afraid of zombies hiding in the alleys.
We arrive at the library which is attached to a mall and find…
The library is closed on Sundays. Who closes their central library for 50% of the days that most people have off? We peek through the windows. It looks nice but we can see hardly anything.
And so we head out from there, our hope now is to find a coffee. We both want to sit, relax, and chat about all we’d seen. But surprisingly we don’t see anything. Not only don’t there seem to be many cafes or even a Tim Hortons, we don’t even see a bar – which is surprising. In most cities I’ve visited, you can almost always find one. We eventually pass a dark and somewhat sketchy looking place called “Happy Hourz” that has only one person in it, perhaps the owner.
We loop back around, hoping to find a coffee place between us and the bus station when we happily find somewhere that is open!
(See what I mean about people not spending money on renovations? This place looks great!)
There’s a good selection of records and we enjoy the air conditioning for a while before deciding we really need that coffee. Out the door we go and literally in front of us a GO bus is stopped at a stop that happens to be right in front of the store. Is it our ride back home? We look and see it is going to another part of Toronto far from where we’re going. But then Daegan points at a bus coming right behind it and says “There’s ours!” I think he’s joking until it pulls up and it is! That boy seems to have an infinite supply of luck, I think.
Without a coffee and with the comfortable motion of the bus, I am rocked to sleep for most of the trip home. I wake up as we get within the Toronto city limits.
On the subway on the way home we talk about our trip. Both of us are disappointed with our experience in Hamilton. We had a great day because we enjoy exploring places, but it lacked something. But we also agree that perhaps we would get a different impression had we come on any day but a Sunday. After all, our GO bus didn’t just take us on a 60 km ride, it may well have taken us back to the Ontario of 1965.
And so, Hamilton, we’ll be back. But next time it’ll be on a Saturday.