Think back more than 30 years. Think of Brooklyn in New York City. What comes to mind?
If you’re of a certain age, you may be thinking of two John Travolta vehicles: the movie Saturday Night Fever and the television show Welcome Back, Kotter. In both cases, Travolta’s characters lived in a grimy, unpleasant borough overshadowed by Manhattan that was nobody’s idea of a nice place to live or a fun night on the town.
Decades later, Brooklyn is barely recognizable. It has changed so much for the good. But is that transformation also achievable in places such as Hamilton, Ont., also known to too many as a grimy, lunch-bucket town with few attractions? To be sure, Hamilton has changed dramatically from the steel town it used to be. But it’s been decades since downtown Hamilton was the place to go on a Saturday night, and its transformation is not nearly as successfully as Brooklyn’s – at least not yet.
Are there lessons to be learned?
Hamilton’s chamber of commerce apparently thought so, because on Nov. 16, it invited the head of Brooklyn’s chamber to come to The Hammer to tell Steeltowners how America’s fourth largest city managed its transformation. Yes, you read that right. With a population of 2.6 million people, if Brooklyn were a stand-alone city, instead of a borough within New York City,
“Brooklyn used to be the poster child for ‘white flight,’” said Carlo Scissura, the CEO of Brooklyn’s chamber of commerce, in his speech in Hamilton. “Now it’s the epicentre of cool.”
While every head of every chamber of commerce is prone to hyperbole, Brooklyn objectively has some wonderful things going on. Its downtown, formerly known for its dilapidated buildings, now has new developments and thriving businesses.
A wealthy businessman named Bruce Ratner decided to spearhead the construction of a US$1 billion arena, which kick-started $5 billion worth of surrounding business and residential developments known as Pacific Park. Barclays Bank will spend $400 million over the next 20 years to put its name on the arena, now home to the NHL’s Islanders and NBA’s Nets.
Brooklyn has intensified development, building up rather than out, which has subsequently attracted high tech incubators, artists, small businesses, and thus more tourism and jobs. Investments in broadband, more bike paths, and more public transit have followed.
“You need a 24/7 nightlife,” Scissura says. “You can’t renew a city if everything shuts down at 5 p.m. Give artists cheaper rents too. It’ll pay off.”
Furthermore, manufacturing has returned to Brooklyn. The local chamber of commerce has even developed a Made in Brooklyn certification program for products, further making an impression that goods coming out of the borough are cool.
“You can do it too,” Scissura told Hamiltonians. “You can make Made in Hamilton special.”
Scissura acknowledges this kind of development can bring gentrification, which delivers its own kind of problems. “Be careful not to price out immigrants, or the ‘mom and pop’ stores which have been there for generations,” he says.
The Brooklyn-Hamilton comparison goes further. Both municipalities find themselves situated in the shadow of a bigger, world-renowned location. But Scissura tells Hamiltonians not to fear that.
“Don’t be afraid of Toronto,” he says. “Cast your own shadow over Toronto as Brooklyn does over Manhattan.”
Hamilton has been improving in recent years. Council recently approved construction of a new downtown LRT that could dramatically reshape one of the sadder parts of the city. The affordability of housing has prompted many former Torontonians and new immigrants to move there. More cultural attractions, night life, and interesting streetscapes have come with that population influx.
The old James Street North train station has been spectacularly renovated by the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) into an event facility, and there are similar plans to bring other classic buildings back to life. Gritty is in. Authentic old buildings are coming back.
And, of course, thanks to the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, the city got a new football stadium and home for the CFL’s Tiger-Cats (even if the stadium was built in the wrong place to kick-start other developments, as the Barclays Center did).
The good news is: Brooklyn’s doing it. And Hamilton is paying attention.
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