Back to the Future?

This video surfaced a couple of years ago. It is a promo film about Hamilton from 1946:

Posted on YouTube on Apr 7, 2011 by 905Hamilton (original by Earl Clark)

And this one, dating from 1983, was re-shared last fall:

Posted on YouTube on Sept 5, 2012 by hillsvideo (original by Hill’s Video Production)

These reminded me of a part of this Simpsons episode (starting at 1:02), a parody of city-booster short movies that were once fairly popular. And it’s ironic that the episode is about an issue Hamilton and other Ontario cities will continue to discuss for several years. But I digress.

It is interesting to look back and see how Hamilton leaders and promoters viewed the city and its future. But it’s sad that many of the companies endorsing Hamilton in that ’83 video are no longer in business, or were bought out and downsized. It’s also kind of sad that the video shows so many things that haven’t changed in 30 years.

Hamilton used to be known as the Ambitious City — a nickname sarcastically bestowed by a Toronto writer in the mid-1800s that was positively embraced and carried into the 20th century, when The Hammer was being forged into an industrial powerhouse. But by the early ’80s industry was in decline. Growth had slowed, the building boom of the 1960s and ’70s had quieted to a low murmur, and the local economy began a long, painful restructuring that is still going on today. Enthusiasm waned, and city-talk took on a different tone; Hamilton became a punchline, even among its citizens (and to some, it still is).

There were economic reasons for this: a big recession in the early-1980s pounded the city, and another in 1990-91 bruised it again. I think there were political reasons too though, as leaders went from enthusiastically proclaiming a bright future for the city, to a lower-key tending of the needs of the day without offering much in the way of a greater vision and goals for the coming decades. Hamilton’s social fabric likely reflected it too, being affected by economics and politics, but probably serving to reinforce them both as well.

Today there seems to be a renewed emphasis on the future, and evidence of real progress as many small changes and a few larger ones have been piling up. Not all is rosy… there are differing views about how to move ahead, and heated debates over certain issues, some of which lack clear local leadership. There’s also a risk the energy could dissipate.

But for the first time in a long time there’s a feeling that something good is happening. Does that reflect a change in attitudes? Economic shifts? The momentum of a few gains finally pulling more along in their wake? Or is it just the influence of the Toronto-centred growth wave hitting Lake Ontario’s western shore? It’s probably a combination of a lot of things.

With apologies to Spielberg and Zemeckis, is Hamilton finally having its own “Hello, McFly?” moment and realizing there’s more to see in the bigger picture?

Some day, historical geographers may do a case study on the city, if they’re not doing so already. It is interesting how the pendulum seems to have swung — will it continue upward, or will it swing back down once more?

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  1. Quite fascinating to watch that video from 1983, a lot of optimism about where the city was going. I tend to think that optimism is back and it’s being shaped by the changing industries in the city. I look at McMaster and the Hamilton Health Sciences network of hospitals driving R&D and growth and the residual benefits it has had on the workforce.

    • I agree, it’s back – I think there’s been a culture shift and there are people who no longer accept the old self-limiting perspectives that seemed to dominate for so long.

      Institutional employment and innovation don’t always result in a “value add” to the economy in the same way other industries do. But people need to consider the next steps for organizations like Mac and HHS… commercialization of their research.

  2. In Toronto, they think Cootes Paradise is an retirement home and the Beach Strip is a dance…remember that billboard campaign? I believe it was sponsored by a local radio station. It was prime example of what little was known about our wonderfully unique city outside our borders. Nothing has really changed. Try telling people in Toronto about our waterfalls, hiking trails and waterfront. They WILL laugh in your face.

    I agree wholeheartedly that Hamilton lacks leadership! This city was built and has thrived on the vision of our forefathers. All of the qualities that made Hamilton attractive in 1945, still exist today. With people who possess the same enthusiasm as our forefathers to lead us, Hamilton can once again flourish! The first step is to stop looking at what we once were but instead, look ahead!

    Thanks for posting, Mark!

    On a personal note…my late mother work at Tuckett’s Tobacco until the time she married my dad :) (featured in the first video)

    • I think that was the Spec. I remember those billboards.

      But I’m not sure as many Toronto-area folks will do that these days – it’s not that they have any specific bias against Hamilton, it’s that they just don’t know it, or don’t consider it, just like many of us who live around here wouldn’t think about Brampton or Vaughan or Newmarket very often.

      When I would tell my Toronto colleagues I’m from Hamilton, or have chosen to live in the area, the common reaction is usually “why would you want to be so far away from work???” :-)

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