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"Art Is the New Steel" reads the slogan of the Print Studio, a gallery and artist workspace on James Street North. The city, once mostly known for its industry, is now getting noticed for its burgeoning art community and galleries.

Located two hours northwest of Buffalo between Niagara Falls and Toronto, Hamilton (nicknamed the Hammer), once was responsible for more than 70 percent of Canada's steel production. In an all-too-familiar story, the industry dwindled to a fraction of its former self and the downtown core deteriorated.

But a shift has begun. Art is at the forefront of a transformation, which has seen many new galleries opening, along with more restaurants and coffee shops. Artists, lured by inexpensive rents and a supportive arts environment, are putting down roots, especially in the James Street North neighborhood. So noticeable is the influx of creative types, especially from Toronto, that national Canadian media has made the bold declaration that Hamilton is "the new Brooklyn."

There are those who disagree. Dave Kurak, who co-owns Mixed Media, a shop for artist supplies and stationery, says that the city is not nearly as affluent as Brooklyn, nor is it a suburb of Toronto.

"Hamilton is Hamilton, and it's a community of its own," he states.

Kurak says that the city gives artists a chance to do what they might not be able to do elsewhere. "When we first opened up here five years ago, people thought we were crazy," he says. "It was really rough."

Five years has seen a lot of changes, and one of the best ways to experience them is on the art crawl that takes place the second Friday of every month on James Street North. Stores, restaurants, galleries and studios keep their doors open until about 11 p.m. so visitors can explore exhibitions, chat with the artists and enjoy the convivial atmosphere. Grazyna Ziolkowski, a pottery artist, looks forward to it every month. "It's a chance to connect with the community in a real way," she says.

But the unpretentious art scene is worth touring anytime. An ideal place to start is the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Located downtown on King Street, the AGH is the third largest public art gallery in Ontario and considered one of the 10 best in Canada. Its more than 9,500 works focus on Canadian historical and contemporary art, as well as a considerable historical European collection.

"The Master of French Realism," on view through Jan. 15, is a breathtaking display of mid-19th century French realist painters, including James Tissot, whose masterpiece "Croquet" is a highlight of the exhibition.

Another striking permanent exhibit is the "Bruegel-Bosch Bus," a 1960 Volkswagen overflowing with familiar symbols of our modern world. Oblivious to any dystopian message, my 9-year-old son was enthralled with the endless details that mushroomed from every part of decrepit hippie van -- model skyscrapers, roller coasters and factories, plastic Spidermen, Transformers, Smurfs and countless other plastic toys of our childhoods. We tore him away after 45 minutes to take part in Family Sundays, where we got a chance to dig into paints, glitter and craft supplies to create our own masterpieces.

After AGH, the next stop on any art tour of the city is nearby James Street North, to check out the galleries and studios of Hamilton's contemporary artist. Popping in and out of storefronts has an almost treasure hunt feel with some places and exhibits having more appeal than others, but almost uniformly, you'll find friendly, welcoming people willing to talk and explain what they're all about. Some places not to miss include Mixed Media, HIStory and HERitage, The Print Studio, White Elephant and Hamilton Artists Inc. For coffee and treats, Mulberry Street Coffee House can't be beat and Acclamation is a delicious choice for lunch or dinner.

Whether "Hamilton Is the New Brooklyn" or "Art Is the New Steel" is debatable, but one thing is for sure: "The Hammer" has an art scene that is well-worth a trip.

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If you go:

Art Gallery of Hamilton, 123 King Street West, Hamilton (905-527-6610; www.artgalleryofhamilton.com). Open Tuesday and Wednesday, noon to 7 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, noon to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Admission is $10; $8 for students and seniors; $4 for children.

Family Sundays activities are offered the last Sunday of every month, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Registration is not required.

For more information on Hamilton, visit www.tourismhamilton.com.