Hamilton's James Street North: A Hidden Gem

As a former Hamiltonian, I have watched with interest Hamilton struggle to cling on to its status as one of the top 10 cities in Canada.  Like Pittsburg, Buffalo and other cities in the North American Rust Belt, Hamilton has had to reinvent itself.  It is no longer the “ambitious city” (a former moniker)! Similarly its status as a “steeltown” has long disappeared with its now more diversified employment base.

James Street, one of the oldest streets in Canada, has a history, which dates back to the early 1800s.  It was home to Hamilton’s first department store (Right House, 1893) and first skyscraper (Piggott Building, 1929, 18 floors).  Lister Block, the first indoor mall in Canada, was built in 1886, burned down in 1923, was rebuilt in 1924 and in 2011, was restored to its early 20th century charm.

James Street is also home to Lloyd D Jackson Square, a mega downtown indoor mall built in 1972. It includes a public square on top that never really worked.  The mall was part of a major downtown renewal project that includes a theatre, civic art gallery, convention center, arena, central library and farmers’ market – basically   everything an urban planners and developers at the time thought was needed to revitalize the Downtown.  The thought was downtowns needed an downtown indoor shopping mall to compete with the suburban malls - Calgary built TD Square in 1977, Edmonton built, its City Centre Place in 1974 and Winnipeg built Portage Place in 1987. 

Forty years later, Hamilton’s downtown, not unlike Winnipeg’s and Edmonton’s still struggles to become the vibrant live, work and play places they were in the ‘50s. Lesson – Urban vitality is an art not a science! 

Morgenstern's is not truly a department store. Just one floor, mostly clothing.  There is an entire section of first holly communion dresses and lots of party/graduation dresses that are right out of the '60s maybe '50s.  We are always surprised it is still there when we visit. 

Hamilton City Centre/Jackson Square  shopping mall looking south from James Street north.  Once downtown was home to several department stores, today there are none.  

The barren bleak public plaza that was created on top of the Jackson Square shopping mall above street level.  Public plazas must be at street level or at least visible from the street to be welcoming.  Plazas need animated shops and restaurants opening up onto it with patios. The buildings here turn their back on the plaza and have no interaction.  What were they thinking? 

James Street North: A Hidden Gem

However, an area just north of the “super blocks,” once called “Little Portugal” now branded as James Street North (JSN) that is becoming very attractive to indie artists in many different disciplines from across southern Ontario.  JSN, a seven block district, extending from Wilson to Murray Street, consists of early 20th century, low-rise brick buildings that are ideal for low rent street level retail, restaurants and cafes with studios and apartments above.  The street retains its historical authenticity architecturally and culturally with several Portugal-based restaurants, pubs and shops in operation. 

JSN is a Jane Jacobs urban village with a diversity of buildings, activities and people and its mixture of local pubs, clubs, cafes, bistros and shops. There is no Tim Horton’s, Starbucks or Lululemon.  What there is is a new energy with the opening of the Art Gallery of Hamilton Shop and Annex, as well as CBC Hamilton studios.  C

The CBC and Art Gallery of Calgary building is the gateway to the James Street North Arts District.  This is the only contemporary urban design element in the entire district. 

James Street North streetscape is one of narrow sidewalks with lots of small shops. Doesn't take many people to generate a vibrant ambience. 

This could be in Portugal, but it is downtown Hamilton's James Street North.  This is just blocks away from Hamilton's downtown Farmers' Market one of the largest and oldest in Canada. 

New independent restaurants are starting to populate the streets. These are small intimate spaces that encourage human interactions. 

Ola Cafe is just one of the many Portuguese shops that adds an authenticity to JSN's sense of place.  You can't create this with urban redevelopment it takes decades to create character like this. 

An art exhibition in one of the many bohemian art galleries, mostly artists' cooperatives vs commercial galleries. Meet the artist not the owner!

There is a playfulness and spontaneity in the galleries. This mask/head was taken off the wall and an impromptu performance happened. 

Mom and pop cafe, no Tim's, Starbucks or Second Cup in sight.  


Initiated in 2009, Supercrawl built on the popularity of JSN second Friday art crawls.  It has quickly grown from a one-day street festival into a major two-day arts festival attracting 80,000 people in 2012. The 2013 event September 13 and 14th will expand yet again to include waterfront concerts at Pier 8 at the end of James Street on the waterfront.   

Supercrawl organizers have announced that this year's free musical acts will include Said The Whale, Chelsea Light Moving (with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth), Young Rival, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Steve Strongman, Yo La Tengo, Sandro Perri, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and 2009 Polaris Prize winners F***ed UP.

Artists and patrons enjoying themselves at one of the monthly Art Crawls along James Street North. 

Artists and patrons enjoying themselves at one of the monthly Art Crawls along James Street North. 


If you are in the Hamilton area and are interested in art and architecture, don’t just drive by. Drive into the Downtown and check out James Street North. Take a walk back in time.  JSN should be on the radar of anyone who is into urban exploring, art, architecture and flaneuring. 

Below are just a few teasers.  If you like this article you might like the blog:  "Cities of Opportunities" 

Downtown Hamilton has several elegant early 20th century churches. 

Hamilton's Farmers' Market is a foodies mecca. The old clock I believe is from the old Hamilton Birk's Building 

Downtown is full of exquisite buildings in various states of aging. There is a wonderful urban patina that creates a unique sense of place.  This is not your pretty restored historic district. 

James Street North architecture collage

Hidden amongst the architecture and urban patina are some wonderful ornamental elements from the past which enrich the streetscape.  Decorative and ornamental elements have been lost in the age of minimalism. 

The Lister Building and people wandering James Street during one of the monthly art crawls. 

Fountain in Gore Park is a throw back to age of urban ornamentation and decoration. 

Hamilton's Central Library and Farmers' Market are a key component of the city's 40 year struggle with downtown urban renewal experiments. 

If you liked this blog you might like:

Cities of Opportunities  

Curse of Minimalism  

Queen of the Rails Goes to Alaska

Editor’s Note:

My 81 year old mother, who now likes to known as “Queen of the Rails” is on a three week adventure that will take her from Hamilton, Ontario to Prince George, British Columbia to meet up with a tour to Queen Charlotte Island. She then headed back to Vancouver with them, before heading out on her own to Bellingham, Washington, where she hooked up with a tour company that organized a ferry adventure (not a cruise ship) to  Skagway and Juneau in Alaska.

Then she takes the train to Whitehorse, in the Canada’s Yukon Territory for a few days and then bus to Edmonton and then Calgary.  Stay with us a bit then head back to Edmonton to get train back to Hamilton. For most of here trip she is staying in Hostels.

She is an inspiration to all of her children, grandchildren, her friends and ours too.  Received the email below and thought I’d share it with my “Everyday Tourist” readers.

June 13, 2013

Hi All from Juneau Alaska:

For some this is the first email you have received from me on my adventure I can only say weather has been great and the trip, train, ferry and hostels have been a true adventure.  So here are further adventures from "queen of the rails!" continues.

Yesterday I took a boat trip to Tracy Arm, which is a fiord and glacier. It was a 2.5 hour trip out and back so a little long but when we reached the glacier was so worth it. We sat for about hour and half watching and listening to incredible chunks of ice fall into the water. 

On the way we saw the most amazing iceberg even more incredible than in Iceland.  It was huge and just looked like a blue glass sculpture that you could see through. We saw five other amazing ones and of course hundreds of small ones and ice floes with harbor seals and their pups on them. We did see porpoises in the distance, artic terns (birds) and another bird that they said was "pigeon something" forget the second name but they were like puffins black and white with red feet really neat.

On the way back we were entertained with two humpback whales showing their tails and rolling over - a real bonus.

When I left the boat I headed to small cafe selling Russian dumplings.  We were treated to making these when I was on the Russian river cruise last year, amazing how the trips connect. The dumplings were very good.

Then back to the hostel, which is up a huge hill about the  elevation of the Jolley Cut (a road up the Niagara escarpment in Hamilton, about 500 ft elevation change) but much steeper. I had about two blocks still to go when a truck stopped to ask me if I knew where the hotel was. I didn’t but had a map so asked it they would take me up the hill (you really get desperate at times and I wasn’t sure I would make it) they said of course and took me to hostel. I showed them where the hotel was on my map so all was well.  I think my guardian angel sent them!

Today is a more relaxing, stopped in at the church, but mass is at 12 and I just can't climb that hill again until it is time to go back to the hostel so just made a visit to the church.  I met the priest (had seen him on Tuesday) while walking so had a chat and then I headed to the quilt store - Oh My Gosh what a wonderful place.  I had been in on Tuesday and looked around. Wanted to buy everything, but because I am overloaded had to limit myself, kept thinking that Whitehorse will have one so will wait.  Sure enough the sales clerk told me there is a great one there. I did buy a panel that is an interesting design by a neat famous artist from here, also a t-shirt something I never buy, but couldn't resist.  Then got out of there!!!

I am at the library now where I will sit and read my book until it is time to meet a lady I met on the boat who asked if I wanted to go the Shrine of St. Therese (anyone interested can check it out on the internet) also to the hanging gardens. There is no public transportation to take you to these places and taxis are very expensive, but she made a deal and we are going for $50.00 each but most tours are very expensive so not a bad deal - I couldn't have gone alone and what the heck its all part of the adventure.

Well I guess I have really run on this time but this email is sent to me to so I have a record of my adventure. Hope everyone is doing fine back there and you are enjoying some summer wherever you are. I have dragged my fleece, t-shirt, jacket everyday and never used them, so today I only packed a sweater. Bought a plastic poncho to ward off the rain - good gamble for $3.00

For those who missed my earlier emails the flowers here are incredible I have never seen such huge rhododendrons, there are tulips poppies of every colour, forget-me-nots and loads others.

Take care 

Queen of the Rails

 If you want to read Queen of the Rails' first blog click on Discovering Hosteling in your 70s 

Church at St. Therese a quiet place for contemplation and reflection.

beach at St. Therese Shrine 


Iceberg calfing at Tracy Arm

glacier at Tracy Arm

ice becomes abstract painting at Tracy Arm 

Tale of Two Donuts or should I say Doughnuts!

Being a native Hamiltonian, I consider myself to be somewhat of a donut, or should I say "doughnut" aficionado as Hamilton is home to Canada's iconic Tim Horton's coffee and donuts (3,453 franchises in Canada and 4,285 world-wide).  

Timmy's is to Hamilton what Starbucks is to Seattle. Yes there is one on almost every corner.  Did you know that Canada has more doughnut shops per capita than any other country?

However, like everything in this world, the donut, or should I say "doughnut" has gone upscale.  No longer is a plain glazed or maybe a Boston Cream enough for the foodies.  No! Today the donut, or should I say "doughnut" has to have some exotic combination of ingredients like bacon and peanut butter. Who thinks up these things?

Sex Shop

Probably one of the first upscale wacky donut, or should is say "doughnut" boutiques was in Portland. It has been ten years now since Voodoo Doughnut opened up in the Old Town district next to a sex shop.  Today, it has become a major tourist attraction and has the line-ups to show for it.  

People flock to get one of their signature Voodoo Doll donuts (or should I say "doughnut") which is a raspberry jelly filled primitive doll-shaped donut with chocolate frosting (see pics below).  

As a donut, or should I say "doughnut" loving, dessert diva/devil Brenda and I had Voodoo at the top of our "must see/must do" list. However, like all good flaneuring plans we found something even more interesting.   

While exploring Alberta Street, we came up a colourful clown-like building (see pics below) with two different entrances that looked interesting.  The sign said Tonnali's Donuts and Cream and it was time for a snack so we had to check it out.  

We were transported back to the '50s with a huge counter full of old fashion donuts like Maple Bar, Chocolate Twist, Old Fashion Glazed, Maple Buttermilk and Old Fashioned Cinnamon Crumb - none of the "what will they think of next" combo names!

Brenda had a simple glazed donut and I opted for the blueberry fritter - both were just the way we like them - fresh melt-in-your-mouth, with a sweetness that isn't over the top.  It was one of the best finds of our trip to Portland and worth the trip to Alberta Avenue, along with its indie art galleries and bohemian shops. 

We got to Voodoo Doughtnut in Old Town (there are two other locations) a few days later, but the line-up was too long for us to wait.  Next time we will get there earlier!    

Donut vs Doughnut?

Bet by now you are wonder, "How do you spell donut, or should I say doughnut?"  While a quick internet search, tells me that "doughnut" is the original spelling and dates back to 1800s.  This spelling makes sense as it is "deep fried dough."

The term "donut" came into use when the manufacturing of doughnuts became more commercial and probably originated in New York in the early 20th century - but the history is sketchy.  

If you want more detail information on donuts I'd suggest hub pages.   For example, who knew that there is a National Donut Day (first friday of June, rats just missed it) and that it was started in 1917 by Salvation Army giving away free donuts to veterans of WW1. Bet you didn't know that there are ten billion doughnuts made in the US every year!  

As an everyday tourist I may not be able to get to Voodoo or Tonnalli's again soon, but fortunately we have Modern Jelly Donuts here in Calgary that I can visit (not everyday) for that touristy doughnut/donut experience. 


This unassuming sign and building is home to one of Portland's biggest tourist attractions Voodoo Doughnut.  They say the magic is in the hole but from what we saw it wasn't the hole people were buying. 


We saw a lot of people buying the Voodoo dolls with their pretzel pins.  There are fun and each one is unique.  

Yes this is a popular place with long line ups most of the time.  We did not wait in line for a doughnut!  Things to see, places to go!

Saw this and thought this is our kind of place.  I am sucker for bright colours, especially yellow.  I also love all things bohemian and local.  This looked like something from the '50s - a good decade! 

Inside Tonalli's is exactly what you would expect a counter full of doughnut s- even in the middle of the afternoon.  What we loved is that there was none of the designer doughnuts here. 

Miss B went for the glassed cake doughnut in the traditional shape while I had the blueberry fritter (being a bit of fritter expert).  Note the classy glass of water; this is authenticity at its finest!  We both loved our selection. 

There wasn't much of a line up on the Saturday afternoon we were at Tonallis. Too bad! The Voodoo patrons could probably paid for the taxi to get to Tonallis with the money they would save and it would have taken less time than waiting in line.  

There are two entrances to Tonallis and just to cover their bases they have the "donut" spelling on one and "doughnut" on the other.  

Cities of Opportunity: Hamilton/Calgary

Just received an email from a childhood friend with a link to a 1940s promotional film "Portrait of a City" about Hamilton, Ontario (our hometown) that sent shivers up my spine.  

It was a 20-minute marketing film that talked about Hamilton as the "City of Opportunity" with an ambitious and enterprising spirit. How the City was the "United States Industry in Canada." here were shots of Hamilton's amazing parks, recreation and sports activities.  

It painted a picture of Hamilton as a place of incredible beauty, with bustling streets, shops and the largest open-air farmer's market in Canada. Hamilton was a city on the rise both a tourist destination and one of heavy industry. A proud city!  What a difference 60 years can make?  

Hamilton's historic Gore Park in downtown.

Hamilton's historic Gore Park in downtown.

Moving to Calgary

I couldn't help but compare Hamilton in the '40s to Calgary, Alberta today.  A city that is currently Canada's "City of Opportunity" as evidenced by recently being called the #1 destination for U-haul vehicles in Canada (Annual National U-Haul Migration Trend Report). "We're moving to Calgary" has been heard by parents across Canada from their children looking for opportunities to pursue their careers.  

Today, Calgary is often referred to as the most American of Canadian cities with heavy investment from the US oil and gas industry.  It also has the most expats of any city in Canada.  Just this week, the Investment Property Bank ranked Calgary #1 for commercial real estate performance in 2012, beating out San Francisco, Houston, Perth and 28 other cities. 

It is ironic that early this month, Calgary Tourism and Economic Development released its promotional video linking tourism and economic development in much the same manner as the 1940s Hamilton film "Portrait of City."  The only difference being it is shorter and faster paced - a reflection of the times. 

Population Growth

It is interesting to look at where Hamilton ranked with regard to the top 10 ten cities, population-wise, in Canada over the past 60 years (Source: Urban Canada, 2nd Edition, Harry H. Hiller).  

In the 1930s, Hamilton was #5, dropping to #7 in the 40s and 50s, then up to #6 in the 60s and 70s, then down to #9, where it has been ever since.  

At the same time, Calgary moved from #7 in the 30s, wasn't even in the top 10 in the 40s, then #10 in the 50s, #9 in the 60s and 70s, jumping to #6 in the 80s and 90s and then #5 in the 00s and #4 in the 10s.  

The other winners in the "Cities of Opportunity" in Canada over the past 60 years are Ottawa, Edmonton and Mississauga, the losers are Windsor and London.  

Calgary the new Hamilton?

In many ways, Calgary has replaced Hamilton as Canada's "City of Opportunity" since the mid-20th century.  It is Calgary that now has the strong, ambitious enterprising spirit. I had coffee just this week with a young professional (creative class) who moved from Hamilton to Calgary. She liked Hamilton and thought there was lots of potential, but their wasn't the collective ambition, nor the enterprising spirit needed to capitalize on the opportunities.  She commented on how many former Hamiltonians she had met in Calgary since moving here only a month ago. 

I remember attending an International Downtown Association conference in the 90s and one of the senior Downtown managers saying, "every city has its heyday."  Those words have stuck with me.

While I don't believe Calgary has had its heyday yet, we should realize that we need to continue to adapt to an ever-changing world if we are going to remain Canada's "City of Opportunity." Nobody stays on top forever!

Ironically this blog was originally written in 2013, now in 2017 Calgary has fallen into hard times and some are wondering if its heyday was in fact in the early 21st century. 

Link to: Hamilton: Portrait of a City Film 

Link to: Calgary: RightHereYYC video