Many know it as The Hammer, Steeltown, or Steel City.
But for an increasing number of people, Hamilton is simply “home.”
The Southern Ontario city, often ridiculed for its pollution-belching smokestacks and blue-collar sensibilities, has been attracting new residents and new investment at a dizzying pace.
In Shift Change: Scenes from a Post-industrial Revolution, Stephen Dale wrestles with Hamilton’s ongoing gentrification and speaks to those on the front lines of the city’s transformation from gritty industrial hub to white-collar boom town.
He finds the notoriously hardscrabble downtown and North End are being flooded with developers’ money. As a result, tight-knit communities are being dislocated, low-income residents are being displaced, and artistic and cultural pursuits are being disrupted.
“In a gentrifying neighbourhood, the enemy of diversity, experimentation, and individuality is rising rents,” Dale writes. “When the circling sharks smell heightened profit potential, quirky old-timers and marginal newcomers soon find themselves in circumstances where they can’t compete.”
The first wave of newcomers included Toronto-area hipsters snapping up affordable Hamilton real estate or rental accommodations to pursue their artistic, culinary, or small business dreams.
Others soon followed with plans to continue working in the GTA while living in Hamilton for a fraction of the cost.
Not surprisingly, property values started rising dramatically. This attracted real estate speculators and developers, who made real estate prices and rents rise further still.
“Cumulatively, housing prices in central Hamilton rose by 126 per cent between 2006 and 2016,” Dale writes. “By 2021, Hamilton had the third-least affordable housing in North America, according to Oxford Economics North America, whose index cross-references a city’s housing costs against the incomes of its inhabitants.”
Dale approaches Hamilton’s transformation as a truth-seeker rather than a cheerleader for any particular stakeholder in the complex struggle between commerce and community.
He points out the good, bad, and the ugly of the situation and respects the reader’s ability to process the information independently.
This kind of introspection is aided by Dale’s examination of some of the leading theories on gentrification and his reflections on how it has affected larger cities like Toronto and San Francisco.
And while it’s true this book will have more poignancy and immediacy for Hamilton-area residents, its lessons will be of interest to readers across Canada and beyond.
Indeed, Shift Change is a faithful, absorbing, and thought-provoking report from the front lines of societal transformation.