Hamilton ranks as Ontario’s best real estate bet – but which neighbourhoods are worth a closer look? For answers, we asked an unconventional expertMay 14, 2015
In late spring, the Real Estate Investment Network, Canada’s top real estate research organization, delivered a report that put smiles on the faces of many locals. Entitled Top Ontario Investment Towns 2011-2015, the report analyzed hundreds of cities and towns and pegged Hamilton as the top city for real estate investment opportunities. (The scoring was an upgrade from a similar fi ve-year ranking in 2009, when Hamilton took second spot behind K/W and Cambridge’s Technology Triangle.) But where to buy? We looked to Aaron Segaert, a selftaught photographer and longtime civic booster, for some thoughtful direction.
While Segaert was holed up at McMaster, laying the groundwork for a doctorate in sociology, he was also making a name for himself in another community. That name, Flar, was an online identity that is, elsewhere, an acronym for “fl ash-augmented reality” – linguistic kismet that hinted at a passion for photography, specifi cally targeted toward the urban landscape. From 2005 until he moved to Ottawa in 2009, he explored a city so often scorned, capturing the character and contrasts of Hamilton and its many neighbourhoods. His work presented the city’s familiar riches to city lovers from around the world. The enthusiastic response ignited some urban crushes and demonstrated that Hamilton is a well-kept secret even among those who think they know it well. And it confi rmed what many who’ve fallen for Hamilton know too well: Although it may invite comparisons, this is a place unlike any other.
When did you first arrive in Hamilton, and what where your initial impressions of the city?
I arrived in Hamilton during the summer of 2002 after I was accepted into the doctoral program in Sociology at McMaster University. Searching for an apartment was literally the fi rst time I was ever actually “in” Hamilton, notwithstanding drive-bys on the QEW or 403. I was immediately struck by Hamilton’s dense urban fabric and bustling big-city feel. My wife and I searched all over for a suitable apartment and ended up fi nding a place in Dundas – a nice, quiet, historic setting close to McMaster with lots of amenities. We stayed in Dundas for six years. Much of my fi rst impression was shaped by the 1960s and 70s architecture that dominates the core – a lot of it hasn’t aged well – but I knew right away Hamilton was a real city. I’d lived in southwestern Ontario my whole life, yet here was this substantial city I knew almost nothing about other than the usual negative stereotypes. I love cities, and learning about places and their histories, but Hamilton was all the more intriguing because it was like a big secret. There’s so much to see in Hamilton – not just the architecture, but the natural setting, the views from the Escarpment, the distinct neighbourhoods, the industry. The character and history of the city are apparent in all these things, and photography was really a natural outgrowth of my desire to share and communicate these secrets with others.
What’s your background in photography? Did you advance scout at all, or were these tours more spontaneously documentary in nature?
I had no background in photography; I was inspired to learn about it by my desire to showcase Hamilton. I started with a digital point-and-shoot in 2006 and once DSLRs became more affordable, I moved to a Nikon D50 in 2007. I used the wide angle zoom that came with the camera and later added a telephoto zoom. These entry-level lenses were actually quite versatile, and since I was a student and couldn’t afford expensive equipment, I was forced to focus on technique. I never took any photography courses, I just carefully observed the work of others and read as many photography books as I could get hold of. I learned most from the feedback I got posting photos online. I think people learn best when they have a purpose, and my purpose was to show the “real” Hamilton – the character of various neighbourhoods and the beauty that is often missed by those whose preconceptions make it easier to see the bad. I wanted to show the city to outsiders but I also wanted people within Hamilton to see it with new eyes. I felt I was exploring the city. I took photos as I explored, and I always felt anticipation as I walked down a street for the first time.
You found a pretty ready connection to the Hamilton area through its architectural stock. What is it about this place that stands out to you?
There are probably two things: the dense Victorian city and the unfi nished modern city. Hamilton has some extremely interesting Victorian neighbourhoods that are relatively intact. There are some architectural gems scattered throughout these areas which show that Hamilton was a major city in the 19th century, that there was wealth and prosperity, that Hamilton was Canada’s “Manufacturing Metropolis.” Then there is the downtown core, which has lost so much of its Victorian heritage, replaced by grand visions in the 60s and 70s. I think that mid-century modern, brutalism and International style architecture defi ne Hamilton as much as the Victorian styles. I say unfi nished because the vision of Hamilton as a modern city stagnated as the city entered the postindustrial world by the 1980s. Hamilton has a 1970s skyline – a major boom of skyscrapers, replacing the old Victorian city, that just stopped. Instead of the postmodern architecture and shiny glass towers that dominate other Canadian cities, there are empty lots. Hamilton is truly the rustbelt in Canada, its siblings are places like Cleveland and Pittsburgh. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a unique challenge for Canada.
What drew you deeper into the city on your photo tours?
Mostly the anticipation of discovering new things, seeing the history and the potential, and I kept being surprised by how much the city had to offer. Hamilton is not an easy city to love; you have to give it a chance. I lived in Dundas, one of the most charming and historic towns in Ontario. Then, as a McMaster student, you become familiar with Westdale. It took some time before I started to discover different areas of the city, like Ottawa Street or Concession Street. It took a couple years before I fi rst encountered Locke Street South; since then, it has become probably the trendiest shopping street. Now James North is enjoying a renaissance. It really felt like something was happening to the city during the time I lived there, that it was changing for the better.
Were you consistently engaged during these trips, or were there trips that didn’t play out as you had hoped?
I was always excited to explore and never disappointed. Hamilton is such a diverse city, each neighbourhood that I toured seemed to have a unique identity. I think Hamilton has been called a “little big city” because it has all the elements of a big city, but the overall size is manageable and you can get to know all the various parts. For me, it was fi nding the next amazing streetscape, an old stone house, a Victorian factory in the middle of a neighbourhood, an ornate old school or some other sign of the rich history of the city.
You seemed to have gained quite an architectural education by the end of your time here. Was that a secondary passion that was ignited inadvertently? If so, can you describe how it took hold?
I’ve always been interested in architecture, but exploring Hamilton’s tremendous stock of older housing spurred me to learn a lot more. It really started as an attempt to understand the history and development of Hamilton’s neighbourhoods. Hamilton’s neighbourhoods represent different eras and by identifying particular housing styles I was able to put neighbourhoods in historical context and learn something about their histories. Because Hamilton was established as a city during the Victorian era and then boomed shortly after the turn of the century, there are great examples of many prewar building styles. But it’s more than just the styles, it’s the format. The rowhomes and the long rows of identical houses contribute to Hamilton’s distinctive urban character. I believe Hamilton’s architecture and urban format are its greatest assets. The city really has a wealth of great architecture, particularly residential, and some of the best urban neighbourhoods in all of Canada.
Longtime residents will admit to there being no small amount of geographic division – east/ west and north/south to a certain extent, but more than that, upper and lower city.
Hamilton is a city of extremes, more so than most other cities in Canada, I think. Hamilton is the most American city in Canada, not only in the sense that it’s a rustbelt city, but in the greater division between rich and poor and the pattern of suburbanization. Thriving suburbs and declining core—this is a pattern you typically see in the United States. All of the largest cities in Canada have more or less thriving cores. If you look at the old city of Hamilton, pre-amalgamation, especially the lower city, you see a city that is economically depressed. If you look at Greater Hamilton, the region as a whole is doing all right, with a growing population and new development and investment. Burlington, Stoney Creek and Ancaster are all fast-growing places with good economic prospects. However, I wish there were more balance. Too much new investment seems to be at the expense of the lower city, as if it’s somewhere to escape from or avoid. I think it’s encouraging that more and more middle-class families and professionals seem to be choosing the lower city, but these are urban pioneers – it’s still on a small scale.
What parts of the city would you recommend newcomers make a point of visiting, or locals to give a second look to?
I always tell visitors to Hamilton to go off the beaten path because Hamilton doesn’t promote itself. Driving or walking around the city is great fun for anyone who appreciates architecture or has an interest in cities or history. Depending on what they might be interested in, I usually suggest Locke South, James North, Downtown Dundas, Westdale Village and Ottawa Street for shopping or dining. Augusta Street is a good place for authentic pubs, Hess Village for the younger crowd. For locals, I think the Bayfront, James North and Ottawa Street have already caught on. I wish more people would go to Gage Park. The neighbourhoods around it are among the most beautiful in the city too, especially St. Clair. Downtown is another place that locals need to give a chance. Gore Park should be the centrepiece: It’s one of the best urban spaces in Canada but it hasn’t been used to its full potential. It’s kind of a catch-22: Downtown has fallen so far that it’s no longer a destination, yet it will never come back until it is a destination. Obviously if more middle-class people take a chance and move into neighbourhoods like Central, Beasley or Landsdale it would help the downtown a lot. These areas have amazing housing stock, but it will take a lot of hard work and money to make them as beautiful as they were meant to be. I’ve seen slow but sure progress. Stinson and the North End are good examples. And it would be great if more of the place names and streets were better promoted. Oldtimers who grew up in the lower city know the names of all the neighbourhoods. Much of this is lost to suburbanites, and with that, these areas risk losing their identity. It doesn’t have to be that way.