Since moving to Hamilton, I have been keeping a close eye on a short stretch of John Street, South and North.
At first glance, the two-and-something blocks between Main East and King William may seem a semi-abandoned and derelict portion of a “typical” downtown Hamilton street. But if you look a little more closely you might notice signs of life, both old and new, and, dare I say it, rejuvenation.
I spend most of my walks downtown wandering with my eyes up, taking in the old architectural beauty of the Victorian cityscape and observing the history of the buildings that line the path of the daily meanderings.
There’s some great character and history to the buildings on John Street. Take, for example, the John Sopinka Courthouse (formerly the Dominion Public Building built in 1934). It’s a beauty of a building, the depth of an entire block, enveloped by Main, John and King streets. With its ornate Art Deco stonework and lettering on the exterior it’s not a surprise that on the inside, fitting with its architectural era, you’ll find glossy marble floors, and polished metal work decorating the elevators, tills and counters. Everything has a certain sparkle and sheen to it that you just can’t find in many buildings these days.
Across John Street, next to the abandoned Crazy Horse Saloon, you’ll find the old Royal Connaught. It’s hard to miss, as it too occupies nearly a full city corner (not to mention it’s been boarded up for the past 10 years).
When I walk by the old Connaught I sometimes get a waft of the musty dankness seeping from the cracks of its boarded-up windows, and with that I usually feel a little pang of despair as I wonder about its fate. Wrecking ball or refurbish? Word on the street as of late is that the Connaught will indeed see new life again. I can’t wait. What a difference it will make to the core and surrounding areas. Is it too early to say aloud the silent chanting I’ve secretly been saying in my head: “Ren-nai-sance! Ren-nai-sance!”?
Just past the courthouse and the Connaught, over the tail end of Gore Park and past the old 1940s Pagoda Chinese restaurant sign at King and John, you’ll find a scene that is typically Hamilton. It’s no frills. Hamilton is what it is and that’s what I like about it.
You’ll see folks going in and out of the John Street Clinic (one of the city’s methadone dispensaries), or waiting for the bus, leaning against the backdrop of yet another stretch of seemingly abandoned buildings such as the Golden Fortune Restaurant or Treble Hall.
However, despite the description, things here are not quite as they seem. This little stretch is teeming with life both old and new. There’s change happening here on John, slowly but surely.
Take Treble Hall, for example, one of my favourite buildings in the city. Built 134 years ago (that’s 1879), Treble Hall has been undergoing a full-haul restoration by owner Jeff Feswick of Historia Restoration. Moulin Rouge, a French-inspired café and clothing store, occupies two of Treble’s street-level retail spaces. A bit of Paris in Hamilton? Why not?
Just across the street from Treble Hall you’ll see Downtown Bike Hounds, which a few years back made the move to John (relocating from Cannon and James streets). Maybe owner Sean Burak had the same inklings of optimism about John that I do. Regardless, every downtown needs an urban bicycle shop and bike rental place in its core. Next to Bike Hounds is the tasty and always busy My Thai restaurant that has been going strong for a decade already.
If you are old enough to remember taking a dinner “vacation” to the Grotta Azzurra at the Capri Ristorante Italiano — a destination-themed restaurant from the ’60s — then you’ll know the Capri is a Hamilton fixture. Although the second floor “grotto” is no longer open, Capri is still serving up classic pizza and pasta on its main floor.
Recent to the block is my new favourite art gallery, the Nathaniel Hughson Gallery. The gallery features some fabulous established Ontario artists. It’s named after one of Hamilton’s city founders, who at one time owned much of the prime downtown real estate from James to Mary streets and from Main to the bay.
At King William and John is Lulu’s, serving one of the best shawarmas in the city. If you haven’t tried their chicken shawarma, you’ve been missing out.
There are many new and old businesses on John, ranging from shoe repair, hair weave and beauty supply to the London Tap House, a Greek restaurant, Korean BBQ and Chinese hotpot. They’re all — a pretty amazing and eclectic mix — on just these two downtown Hamilton blocks.
Let’s be honest: John, like much of downtown Hamilton, still has a long way to go. But I’m optimistic and excited to see these changing downtown streets start to take shape. I hope one day to see streets like James North, King William, John and King — all of them coming back to life — start to connect together. Imagine that, a full chunk of our city core hustling and bustling like it did back in the day.
Some may say my optimism, and my daydreams of the Hamilton I want to see, show me to be naïve. Perhaps I am. But how will Hamilton ever change if we don’t start to see the potential for all that we’ve already got?
Hamilton, you’ve got a soft spot in my heart. I’m here for the long haul.
This article was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator on Saturday, March 16th 2013. You can see the article from The Spec website here.