I’ve only ever known Hamilton as rusty industrial hulks and uninspired 60’s skyscrapers passed on the way to Niagara.
Warning: this was an impulse trip. Crappy phonecam photos ahead.
James St. North is a centre of Hamilton’s art scene and hosts a monthly art (and restaurant) crawl of which Supercrawl is just the biggest iteration. Large parts of the street were blocked off to form canvasses on which to paint and draw, which people (and especially children; it’s always children) took to with gusto. A harpist set herself up in front of the armoury and across from a brass band; it was beautiful, but could also have been a statement on the quixotic adventure of interventionism and/or pacifism.
The street is filled with art galleries and art centres on the ground floors of beautiful three story buildings in a Bloorish/Dundasy way. I wanted to visit and explore them because I’m a sucker for galleries with huge lineups, but then there was the music.
Churches are designed to make sounds like Bruce Peninsula‘s awesome. I mean that in the traditional sense – the high ceilings, the tall windows, the acoustics are all designed to strike awe in the pews with the human voice. 10 metres of soaring, sun-punctured walls should be in their riders; Steamroller especially can really fill the space. They’re now in the leadup to the release of their new EP Open Flame on October 4th. From what I’ve heard, Salesman (above) is indicative of their new sound – more gospel, less drums, and making full use of the voices of Daniela Gesundheit (Snowblink), Misha Bower and Tamara Lindeman (The Weather Station).
The first time I ever saw Basia Bulat was, coincidentally, opening for Ohbijou with Bruce Peninsula (and the second time was at a church, which also works wonderfully with her music). For her show at Supercrawl, she brought along the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, and arrangements by Owen Pallett. There were some off notes, like replacing the violin and snare drum section in Pilgriming Vine with string, brass and woodwind sections playing in turn. For the most part, it was an interesting take on familiar and well loved songs (like Run, above from YouTuber sreinisiv) but at its best, as in closer I Was a Daughter, the minimalizing instincts obvious in both come out in a seductive show of smoky French jazz and modernism; voice, metal, wood and string controlled and working off each other to stir the soul.
Wandering King St. to find something to eat, I met Carlos, the owner of the ‘Moroccan-Brazillian’ Barbarossa Café. Sadly, for both my appetite and my palate, he wasn’t serving food but he was happy to share his experiences as a Toronto ex-pat. To him, Hamilton is a diamond-in-the-rough, gorgeous Beaux Arts and Deco pieces (there’s a reason Wikipedia’s History of Hamilton, Ontario article ends at the war) rejected by the local nouveau riche but snapped up by Torontonians looking for a nearby compromise between small town and urbane. It is also a very class-aware city.
The small part of the city I saw (King East and James North) had massive bingo halls, little Chinese and Latin American restaurants, burger joints and sandwich shops, fast food chains, and urban eateries all together. Given the spectrum of upkeep on display, it’s hard to say that it’s a divided city, at least physically. It does seem to be gentrifying though I’m not sure whether as an extreme form of Toronto’s westward movement or as a native renaissance. It’s a 50 minute bus trip, and it has a better art scene than most of the suburbs so it wouldn’t be an unreasonable new frontier, but GO doesn’t seem to be interested in making it happen.
Let’s GO to Hamilton
Two things about transit service stop Hamilton from being a nice alternative after Bohemian Embassy takes a real hold on Queen and they open up a successor in Parkdale. First, tickets are $9.50 each way, or just under four tokens. Second, the last bus out of Hamilton is at 11:30 and the last bus out of Toronto is at 12:30. Any suburbanite can tell you that catching the last train is a drag, and the TTC gives you two extra hours. I’d considered staying for the Broken Social Scene set and ride out the night with Olenka and the Autumn Lovers and the most accommodating late night diner I could find, but I settled for a Kevin Drew walk-on with J. Mascis instead. Between the beautiful architecture, cheap property, and ample post-secondaries, Hamilton has plenty going for it as an art scene. It’d just be nice if it was easier to get to.