The boundaries of what I consider downtown Hamilton are somewhat arbitrary. Downtown for me is often defined by the radius of wherever I can walk 15 to 20 minutes from my neighbourhood.
This usually means walking 15-20 minutes toward the core, as into Gore Park, Jackson Square, the Farmers Market, and James Street North. I do venture east on King Street on occasion to pick up some German delicacies from Denninger’s or to peek into J.H. Gordon Books. But for the most part I find that I rarely continue to walk east past the infamous steel Downtown Hamilton archway at King and Wellington. The gateway so boldly implies that wherever you were just east of Wellington, you weren’t downtown.
On foot I don’t often explore beyond this imaginary boundary unless it’s through the Stinson neighbourhood side streets (a more picturesque and relaxing route for walking). Travelling outside the designated “downtown” area more often than not calls for transportation by car, bus or if I’m feeling dangerous and daring by bicycle — whatever mode of transport that offers the quickest way to travel through the main thoroughfares such as Main or King Streets.
There’s no need to stop, to dawdle, or look at storefronts (what storefronts?). Just keep on keeping on; this isn’t downtown and there’s not much going on. Right?
As I drive from east to west on King along some of the roughest patches of road in the city, bumping along the potholes, I sometimes sneak quick-second glances at the old buildings and seemingly abandoned storefronts. I imagine a time when this “dejected” part of downtown was considered part of the whole, when it must’ve hustled and bustled like the rest of King Street once did.
There’s a part of me that is intrigued by this “other” downtown side of King East, similar to how much of Hamilton pulls at my heartstrings. I’m a nostalgic optimist who gets caught up in daily fantasies about Hamilton’s past and potential future. What can I say?
On a recent hot and dry summer afternoon I decided to get to know King Street East on a more intimate level. I took a long walk way down King East — waaaaay past Wellington and its Downtown Hamilton sign.
An almost immediate and obvious observation was the street broadening to accommodate the four and five lanes of car traffic. It felt like I was in a different world. As the traffic moved with the timed traffic lights I felt the ebbing and flowing of the one-way King Street traffic blowing by me, and then leaving eerie ghost-town-like gaps of four-lane emptiness.
But as I walked, I could tell that once there was a time when this leg of King Street was alive and thriving. Its buildings have the height and stature of a proper downtown cityscape. There are storefronts and neighbourhoods north and south that have some real character and charm.
For a little extra read on the Carlton Tavern (it’s for sale) click here. Paul Wilson writes about the soon to close Tavern.
This whole strip of King feels like it was lost in some bizarre time warp from the ’60s and ’70s — perhaps that’s when businesses started to falter and pack up for the ‘burbs?
Having grown up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was reminded of Sesame Street — or New York in that era: slightly gritty, with that rusty kind of soft-focused haze that all things filmed during that time have. There were lots of automotive and used car dealerships with those old shiny tinsel banners (see my post on that here), closed up and abandoned storefronts with For Sale or For Rent signs.
I did pass by a few places that seem to hold it down on King East, like the classy Newman’s Menswear established in 1927, Rebel’s Rock Irish Pub, plus a few other restaurants and eateries. I noted a music therapy practice called Fermata that stood out and was looking fresh and new.
King East does have signs of life. The people I passed were friendly, said their hellos and waved as I snapped my photos. I do believe it has the potential to one day become something more than just buildings most people speed by in their cars. Maybe one day the storefronts will again start to cater to the surrounding neighbourhoods by providing practical stores and destinations found in other thriving communities — say a bakery, a deli, a library, a doctor’s office or a mom-and-pop grocery store.
On my way back west on King, I sat for a moment in the shade by the fountain in the parkette (a miniature Gore Park) across from the First Place building at Wellington. I had a great view of the two different and divided worlds of King East.
I wondered if and when these two seemingly opposite “downtown” city spaces would ever merge into one.
I hope that the bravery to set up new shops and try out new things continues along King East as it has in many other arteries of the city like James North, Locke, Ottawa and Concession streets. It is a nice chunk of city that needs just a little love and appreciation.
This post was originally printed in The Hamilton Spectator on Saturday, August 4th 2012 -you can find it here.