The Unfamiliar Distributions of Hamilton

Urban Renewal / Urban Re-distribution / The Fetish of the Undiscovered

I had the opportunity to revisit Hamilton last weekend after two years away from the city. I took a walk through some of the familiar neighborhoods (including Barton/Barton East, Locke, James Street, Aberdeen) that I had developed a strong attachment to over the course of 2004-2009.

I’ve come to understand my time with the city as a period of young love. While I value the intensities of feeling (for the undiscovered, the overlooked, the unsettling) that recall themselves when I remember the city, at the same time I am mistrustful of my former judgements because of their youthfulness. As a result, returning to the city was qualified with a mark of caution because i expected just as much to find myself among deflated ruins, as among vindicated half-memories.

Small cities on the order of Hamilton, Halifax or Winnipeg breed loyal communities. These communities are generated by a sense of individual distinction. Unlike New York or Paris, which insert themselves into the urban fantasies of whole generations, cities on the order of Hamilton can principally be understood as a city-overlooked. To love Hamilton–at least as an outsider–is to love with a star-crossed sense of chosenness. The current community that champions the coming (to come) urban renewal of Hamilton is brought together by a shared sense of distinction in the counter-factual beauty of the city.

Last weekend was a good time to visit. There had been an Art-Crawl the night before, still showing in traces the morning after. The sun shone and it was hot. On James Street there were new boutiques and a clean and lofty CBC building. The Lister Block had been saved.

Nonetheless, the East End presented an atmosphere of visible decline. US Steel closed operations in the city more or less just before my last visit. Barton Street seemed to have been doubly abandoned over the last two years. Three pound dinners could still be had for $10 (see below).

A Reflection:

The East End of Hamilton (and comparable urban spaces) maintains a particular hold on me because, in distinction from Toronto or Buenos Aires–cities ostensibly¬†populated by people like me, who have similar compulsions and vintage obsessions–so much of the space in Hamilton’s East End feels under-scrutinized. One imagines that in the corner of a junk shop some perfect and undiscovered object is hiding. The diamond-in-the-rough affection that people feel for the city in general is recapitulated in these highly particular interactions (and vice versa).

The somewhat counter-intuitive outcome of this whole arrangement is that retail establishments in the very neighborhoods in which one goes searching for the undiscovered have little incentive to signify their contents on the street: There is no market. The perfect opposite prevails in the commercial centers of major cities ,where the facades of structures attempt to signify the existence of more than could possibly be contained in their walls.

As a result, walking around in the East End is draped in a sense of the empty, until this sense opens in to fullness in a an otherwise nondescript shop/warehouse.

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