Brantford: The rebirth of a community

A growing university and a revitalized downtown core have worked to create a sense of community that Brantford hasn’t seen in almost 20 years. The economic recession in the early 1990’s and the loss of the city’s main industry left countless people without jobs and shelter and placed financial strain on many others. It was the manufacturing sector that brought thousands of people together and created a sense of familiarity and community: everyone was brought together based on where they worked. Once the manufacturing sector left, the sense of community and pride disappeared.

Brantford, and the downtown core in particular, fell apart as some left for better opportunities and others struggled to make ends meet. The opening of the Brantford campus of Wilfrid Laurier University has lead to numerous revitalization efforts by the city and residents of the downtown. Now, over 10 years later, the city has a downtown to be proud of.

A public square, countless community events and a rise in new small businesses gives people a reason to come downtown, and as a result, become involved in their community.

Similar to how the manufacturing industry drew people together and brought in people from outside of the city, Laurier and the new downtown have been able to create a sense of pride in the local community. No longer is the city simply known for its poverty in the 1990s, drug abuse or being the birthplace of Wayne Gretzky. It’s now known as a hub for education, with two universities and a college in the downtown, as well as being a cultural hub that attracts students from around the world.

The city has used this development to promote a sense of community and pride. Annual events like the Jazz Fest and Scare in the Square all draw people into the downtown. Harmony Square has been used for a number of other events throughout the year, encouraging people to embrace the redeveloped downtown. These events draw in countless people and give them the opportunity to interact with people they might not otherwise interact with. It’s really helped foster a sense of community because people have something to be proud of.

Everyone has their own reason for coming to Brantford, be it for work, education or even to be closer to family. And while everyone has their own reasons for choosing to call the city home, each person contributes to the growing sense of pride and community within the city. Attending an event, volunteering or supporting local businesses are all ways that people strengthen the community relationships that have made Brantford so successful in the past.

Lee Hiscock, owner of Brown Dog Coffee Shoppe on Dalhousie Street lived in the downtown 15 years ago, right around the time the city’s unemployment rate and poverty peaked. Hiscock has seen first hand how the city has transformed itself from an economically depressed city with little opportunity to a bustling and growing city with a bright future.

“It’s come a long way,” says Hiscock,. “Small businesses have more opportunity now because of the redevelopment.”

Hiscock and Brown Dog are one of many small, locally owned businesses to open up in recent years. Others like Burrito Brothers, the Pantry Café, The Works and Rocklings have all seen considerable success. Coupled with the numerous events, like the Jazz Festival that draws around 28,000 people, it’s easy to see the success Brantford’s downtown has seen.

The University of Washington published a document that outlines the important factors that lead to a sense of community. Among them were: attending community events, buying from local merchants, organizing and attending community parties and welcoming newcomers to the community. None of these would be possible in Brantford if it were not for the redevelopment of the downtown.

As the city continues to grow and redevelop, the sense of community will only grow as well. People are becoming proud to be from Brantford again, not just because the city has become a hub for education and international culture, but also because it has shown its resilience by shedding its former reputation.

“It’s really turned around from what it used to be,” says resident Paul Jamieson.“ No one had a reason to go downtown, and no one really cared about the city all that much.”

“I guess once the city started giving people a reason to go downtown again, with the redevelopment and all, everyone started seeing that there was some good to the city. People are starting to become proud of how far we’ve come.”

There are many other cities that have stories similar to Brantford. Countless “Rust Belt” cities in the United States, like in Buffalo and Detroit, lost a considerable part of their economy due to the loss of manufacturing. However, like Brantford, these cities have seen considerable revitalization and have given people communities to be proud of.

“When I used to work for one of the farming companies, we were all kind of family. Most people knew each other and it just seemed like a nice community because we all had so much in common. But that changed, and I think as the city has redeveloped a bit, we’ve kind of got that sense of community back,” Jamieson added.

“When there’s a big festival downtown or something, people from all over the city go and it’s just nice seeing people smiling, having fun and you know, talking and laughing with their neighbours. It’s good to see, especially after everything the city has been through.”

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