Saying a fond farewell to Hamilton, my hometown

City has a lot to offer its residents and should learn from others on such ideas as LRT

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First Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, June 22, 2016, Opinions, pp A13.

When I was young, I thought my neighbourhood at Upper Paradise and Rymal was the most important place in the world. It was there, surrounded by the winding streets and cul-de-sacs of the west mountain, that I felt safe and secure. I drew borders around my little world, determined to protect myself from the odd and frightening world which lay beyond. In big, bold letters on my mental map, I labelled the outside world with the medieval warning: 'Here be dragons'.

The prospect of leaving that bubble was terrifying. Beginning school five kilometres away was a fact met with incredible frustration. Despite my initial protestations, as an 8-year-old, I was not so powerful as to permanently forestall the inevitable beginning of school. Begrudgingly loaded onto a big yellow bus, I was whisked away from the place I felt safe to a strange new world.

It did not take long for me to realize that stepping outside the imaginary borders I had established was not as terrible as I had let myself believe. From that point forward, I was determined to grow the little map I had drawn in my mind.

I sought out opportunities to explore and learn from the world around me. Volunteering for political campaigns across Hamilton brought me to new communities and added essential pieces to my map. Streets became familiar, neighbourhoods were given names and political boundaries were drawn. Neat lines separated Carpenter from Falkirk, Ward 8 from Ward 7, Conservative bastion from New Democrat stronghold.

Beginning graduate work in Toronto familiarized me with a city I had long observed with a sort-of regionalist indifference. Before long, the pubs of Cabbagetown were as familiar to me as those on Augusta. When my partner James started his own graduate studies in Ottawa, my map ballooned to include new parts of this country.

A stint as an intern with the City of Hamilton's Planning Department added requisite details to my mental map. Each of this city's neighbourhoods became etched into my memory, from the incredible resilience of McQuesten to the unrelenting growth of the Albion area. Spending a summer speaking with business owners and residents across our communities opened my eyes. I learned about issues Hamiltonians faced when key industries closed, cutbacks made providing essential services difficult and road reconstruction scared away even the most loyal of customers.

Through exploring and pushing past imaginary boundaries in my mind, I have learned so much about Hamilton and our world. Despite all this, there is still so much to learn. And so I begin my next great adventure, starting my doctorate in geography at McGill University in Montreal.

In preparing to leave my home, I have come to recognize what I have learned from this city. Hamilton taught me the importance of community, pride in one's home, and respect for the people, movements and ideas of the past that shape the places we live today.

For everything this city has taught me, there is still so much it too must learn. I know my hometown can push itself further than ever before. Our ambitious city has so many amazing opportunities to grow, so long as it does not fear the unknown.

Building light rail transit can positively shape development across Hamilton. Redrawing ward boundaries can change the way city hall operates and empower residents to get involved. Addressing the lingering impacts of amalgamation can bring us together and create stronger local identities. A legacy of industrial decline and environmental indifference can be reversed to create healthy, strong and vibrant neighbourhoods.

We must open ourselves up to new opportunities and embrace the uncertainty that comes with great change. It can be frightening, but it is essential that we do not forego long-term benefits for fear of short-term upheaval. Only when we realize this, can we become a better city.

Saying Hamilton can be a better city does not mean this is not already a great city. It is important to remember, though, that no great city has remained static, rather adapting and changing with time to better suit the needs of its inhabitants. It is how those cities rise to meet those challenges that, in fact, makes them great.

As I ready myself for a new adventure, I remain ever-hopeful that my home, Hamilton, will become more daring, more adventurous and more ambitious in the years to come. Regardless of what happens, to me, Hamilton will always be the most important place in the world.