• The Cotton Factory in Hamilton, Ontario

    A former textile mill in Hamilton's industrial north end has been transformed into a hub for community and the arts, appropriately named The Cotton Factory. (Photo: Aaron Murphy)

The metal treads in the stairwells of the former fabric mill in Hamilton, Ontario’s industrial north end still bear the stamp of the Imperial Cotton Company. The year they were fabricated, 1900, Hamilton, Ontario was on the brink of an economic boom fueled by steel, the product that would come to define it. No less important were textile manufacturers like Imperial Cotton, which churned out heavy-duty canvas for sails, mechanical belts and hose, and roofing for railway cars.  

More than a century later, the complex of stately red brick buildings at 270 Sherman Street is still known as The Cotton Factory, but its output has diversified: it’s now a “creative industries complex,” an array of shared studio, workshop, office and event spaces that is becoming home base for the young entrepreneurs and artists behind the Steel City’s ongoing renaissance.

“We want to create a critical mass of the arts in Hamilton,” explains Rob Zeidler, the Toronto real estate developer who purchased the 150,000-square-foot property in 2014. At that time, The Cotton Factory had already begun its evolution into a hip — and more importantly, affordable — space for creatives who had been priced out of Toronto’s trendier neighbourhoods, but Zeidler envisions it becoming a community hub, hosting conferences, live performances, and exhibitions that engage the population at large. “We want to be a city within a vibrant city.”

Zeidler has seen firsthand how a flourishing arts scene can revitalize a neighbourhood; his sister was the driving force behind Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel, one of two historic buildings reinvented as funky hotspots that anchor the now-thriving art and design district of West Queen West.

“It’s like having a hundred little fires going. If you get critical mass, they feed each other,” Zeidler says.

A similar transformation is taking place on Hamilton’s James Street North, where boarded-up storefronts have been filled in recent years, first with galleries and studios, then with vintage clothing stores, coffee shops and restaurant, all of which stay open late during the street’s wildly popular monthly “Art Crawls.”

Zeidler calls James Street North the new West Queen West and hopes that Barton Street, the closest main thoroughfare to The Cotton Factory, can become the new James Street North. The Factory’s diverse roster of tenants, which includes photographers, musicians, filmmakers, manufacturers of small-batch skincare products, jewelry and furniture designers, a tattoo studio and even a pro wrestling company, are eager to see their neighbourhood rise, Zeidler says.

“Here, it’s not competitive; people are boosters and will come check out something new and exciting.”