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For the Love of Hamilton

This regular HAMILTON CITY Magazine feature will highlight people, from all walks of life, who have embraced Hamilton as their new home.

Kathryn Lee was born and raised in Ancaster but left for the bright lights of Toronto in her 20s. She would eventually return, lured back by Hamilton’s real estate bargains and burgeoning potential. Nearly two decades later, Lee finds herself married, a mother and happily living in the St. Clair neighbourhood. She recently sat down with Marc Skulnick to recount her journey home, reminisce about growing up in Ancaster and revel in the tight-knit community of her Ward 3 neighbourhood.

You grew up in Ancaster and moved to Toronto for a number of years. What made you decide to return to Hamilton?

When I first moved to Toronto, I had just started teaching and I found this really cool two-bedroom apartment in the Roncesvalles area that was actually pretty affordable but I decided I should try and save some money, so I thought I would get a roommate. Well, after a few years of mostly disastrous roommates, I decided to go back to living on my own and I figured if I was going to be spending all my own money every month that it made more sense to be paying a mortgage instead of rent. But all I could afford in Toronto was a shoe-box size condo and I’ve never really considered myself to be a condo kind of girl. So I moved to Hamilton because that’s where I could afford a house and it made sense for the future because my parents were nearby and I figured if, eventually, I was to have a family that would probably be pretty helpful.

Kathryn Lee, pictured with her son Mac, moved back to Hamilton in 2005, something she never thought she'd do. Photos: Alan Lee

What was the reaction of your friends and family when you told them you were moving back to Hamilton?

Most people were pretty supportive. I did probably say goodbye to a few friends that, in hindsight, were probably more like acquaintances when I left Toronto but the tried-and-true stuck by me and came to visit. And I think my parents were pretty happy to have me close to home again. My dad was a born-and-bred Hamiltonian so I think he was actually kind of excited that I decided to call Hamilton home.

Your husband Alan grew up in Ottawa and moved to Toronto as an adult. Did he take much convincing to make the move to Hamilton?

Alan didn't know anything about Hamilton and was definitely skeptical as to whether or not he would like it. But the fact that I had a house, and he was sharing an apartment with a roommate converted him pretty quickly. He would take the bus out every weekend to come stay and took to calling my house his cottage. He eventually ended up falling in love with the city and truly appreciates its grit and potential.

Kathryn Lee, with husband Alan and son Mac, take in a Forge soccer game.

What neighbourhood do you live in, and why did you choose that one?

It was 2005 when I moved back to Hamilton and at that time, as a relatively young and single woman, I decided to live in a safe and relatively developed area of Hamilton that had areas of interest that I could walk to. So, I looked for houses in the Locke Street area. The house I ended up buying was on Ray Street South and shortly after I moved in, they opened the Starbucks so that was pretty exciting because there weren’t a lot of coffee shops and fun places to visit in Hamilton at that time. Locke Street was still mostly antique shops when I moved there. It’s been really fun seeing all of the areas develop over the years. When we were looking for our second home, we initially wanted to stay in the Locke Street area, but we got priced out pretty quickly because it had gone from an up-and-coming area when I moved in to a fully established ‘place to be’ in Hamilton. So we started to our expand our search and accidentally discovered the St. Clair neighborhood, which we loved so much. It’s full of all these big gorgeous old houses and when we moved into the neighborhood in 2014 it was really this incredible undiscovered gem of Hamilton. Now St. Clair is a very desirable area and it’s been a total shock to see the house prices around us skyrocket like they have, but we’re so glad that we decided to live in this neighborhood because it’s truly full of the greatest young families. And we've met such great people over the years and our son has so many wonderful friends. Ironically, our house is just around the corner from the tiny little house that my dad and his two brothers grew up in. When we started looking in the neighbourhood, my dad actually said to me, ‘I don’t think you want to live in that neighborhood.’ But I said to him, ‘I get it Dad but actually I think I do!’ He had seen the area’s decline over the years and was worried about us having a family there but I saw the potential and we moved in and have never looked back. The area is starting to develop some cool stuff nearby now, which is great. We really love where we live. 

What’s your favourite thing about where you live?

Probably like I mentioned before, the people. Within a couple of years of us moving in, 10 houses sold on our street. It was so amazing and incredible to see the rejuvenation of our area and specifically our street. So I put flyers in everybody’s mailbox and invited our street to an outdoor party one fall. The weather turned out to be terrible, so I ended up having 50 strangers in our house for a potluck and we had the best time! We have a street email and keep in contact regularly. We even have one gentleman on our street who is a professional Santa and he comes around every year and gives the kids magic candy canes to help them sleep on Christmas Eve. We get our eggs from a neighbour whose sister has chickens. Our son’s best friend lives two houses down and it’s like a real old-fashioned friendship where they just run down the street and knock on each other’s doors. It makes my heart happy. It’s sort of like a fairy tale. When I was on maternity leave, I would go for walks and there were only a few young families in the neighbourhood at the time, so whenever I passed another young mom I would just say ‘hey!’ and we started hanging out. A few of us started a Facebook page so we could communicate with each other because group texting wasn’t really a thing in 2015, so we would just post messages like ‘heading to Lifesavers Park, meet me there in 15’ and from there our Facebook page has grown to encompass a lot of the neighbourhood and even a lot of Ward 3. We all still see each other, and our kids are still friends and we’ve seen our little group grow. It's just really awesome to see how the community has grown in general and how invested people are in making our neighbourhood great.

What was your biggest surprise upon returning to Hamilton?

(Laughs) initially probably the Starbucks! I honestly couldn’t believe that Starbucks was opening in Hamilton. It sort of felt like a measure that the city had made it. Now I almost never go to Starbucks because there’s such an incredible variety of independently owned places and that has been a real surprise … to see the development in Hamilton over the years. I always had faith that it would come, but I think it felt a bit like the white whale initially, a dream I was chasing. It was really cool to see it happening.

Where’s your go-to spot for a nice meal out?

I don’t think we have a go-to. We like to try any new place that opens when we can but we don’t get out for dinner as much as we used to. Once a week we do takeout 'cause on Friday nights Mommy doesn’t want to cook! We like variety but if I had to choose I would say on nights we don’t want to think about what to order we would go with Nabil’s on Wilson for shawarma and falafels, HFC on Concession has the best fried chicken, Tall Tree Sandwiches on King is so tasty and incredible value for the amount of food they give you, Sushi on Fennell is the best sushi we’ve found in the city, and Le Chinois is an old family favourite. We’ve been eating there since I was a kid and they had a restaurant on King Street. It’s been closed for years but there’s a takeout version near Limeridge … the orange beef is seriously addictive.

What’s one local event you look forward to every year?

Probably Supercrawl. Our method of going has definitely changed over the years though. We used to go at night just the two of us and now we go during the day and spend most of our time in the family zone. That bubble pit is outrageous.

Kathryn Lee, pictured with son Mac and dog Stella, hopes to see the waterfront become more of a destination.

What is Hamilton’s best-kept secret?

Well I used to say the waterfalls and nature trails but that secret kind of got out during the pandemic. The trails were so busy with out-of-towners that they actually had to be shut down, which was a total bummer for locals. Now, I might say the Central Library; we love it there. It’s a regular weekend trip for us to get books and then stop at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market afterwards for a coffee and a bite. The market is another one actually … it always blows my mind how many Hamiltonians I meet that have never been there. 

Hamilton needs more: 

Neighbourhood shopping districts like Locke Street, Ottawa Street, James North etc. Barton Village is coming along, which is great, but there are wasted stretches of King and Main that need love. The waterfront should be much more of a destination so it’s exciting to hear about the future plans for down there, finally!

Hamilton needs less:

Tim Hortons, hair salons and cannabis shops. I’m sure that will ruffle some feathers!

As we mentioned in a previous question, you were born and raised in Ancaster – any particular memories of growing up in the area that stand out?

Boredom? No, I’m kidding. It was a great little town to be a kid. We had the rail trail behind our house and there used to be a forest on the other side of it where we played a lot. As a teenager, the bush parties were pretty legendary but otherwise there wasn’t a ton to do. The Cineplex in the Meadowlands opened when we were in high school, it was pretty ground-breaking for us. My mom donated her old beater to my brother and I in our final few years of high school and that opened my eyes to life beyond Ancaster. Suddenly, we could go shopping at Jackson Square in Hamilton (believe it or not, it was THE coolest mall at the time!), have lunch at the Great Canadian Bagel in Dundas, and head to the Second Cup in Westdale. That was probably my first taste of Hamilton outside of Ancaster. Honestly though, when I left, I never thought I’d come back, let alone buy a house in Hamilton. It’s been humbling to fall in love with a city I couldn’t wait to get away from.

Since this is our first For the Love of Hamilton of the year, we have to ask: any new year’s resolutions, either personally or professionally? 

In 2020, I quit my teaching job with the Peel District School Board to work closer to home. I was tired of the commute and tired of giving my energy to kids from another district. I wanted to feel more invested in my community and help kids who have the potential to change our city. It’s been a journey but a good one. I had to start over as a supply teacher, a weird quirk of switching school boards, but it’s been great getting to know Hamilton in a very different way, by teaching at schools all across the district. Now that I have a permanent foot in the door, my goal this year is to accept a job I’m excited about at a school close to home. Ideally, I’d love to be able to walk or ride my bike to work … a huge change from years of two-hour daily commutes! Personally, I’m starting a choir with some friends. We’re called Vocal Point.  Thankfully, we all love a good pun, and we’ll be rehearsing Tuesday evenings at Laidlaw Church on Ottawa Street … so come join us!