Hamilton, I love you but things just aren’t the same anymore. What was once a cool working class city has turned into a smarmy opportunistic nightmare seemingly overnight. It’s time to start having some unpleasant conversations.
Today, while you’re at work drinking your coffee Hamilton’s mayor, economic development department, and a select few other groups are on their way to Toronto to kick off the ‘Hamilton Consulate‘ event. Hamilton has spent $40,000 on the ‘Hamilton Consulate’ project where for two days Hamilton will set up shop on Queen West to try to convince Torontonian’s to bring their investments and business to Hamilton. There’s even a speed dating session, where people can meet with some of the brave souls who have dared to boldly trek down the 403 and make Hamilton their home.
It seems to me that Toronto isn’t having any trouble with investing in Hamilton. At what point do we stop and ask: is this good for us? and how much more of this do we need? Luckily we don’t have to wait for Elon Musk and friends to develop a time machine to see what the future holds for Hamilton. All we have to do is hop on the highway to Toronto and have a look at what’s going on there today.
The ‘Hamilton Consulate’ event is happening on Queen West, an area of Toronto that was once known for its ‘grit’ and grassroots culture. The area is often mentioned when discussing the feel of Hamilton’s James Street North. There is no shortage of articles about the fallout of gentrification and over-development happening on Queen West, and the death of the small independent businesses and ‘artsy scene’ that once existed there. Toronto mourns it. Just like they mourned the closing of the great Toronto institution, Honest Eds. And just like music fans mourn the closing of the 10+ small music venues in the past year. Toronto knows it is in the grips of gentrification and the city has even officially addressed the music venue closures. They have been discussing gentrification for years, and here we are, setting up shop in the overpriced ruins of their former art hub as if asking them to bring us their mess. If you’re curious about how this same phenomenon has affected creative cities in the US, check out this article from PBS.
The rapid boom of condo development and the sharp rise in rent has just about gutted some of Toronto’s most beloved cultural institutions and all of the signs are there that it is starting to happen to us too. We are a much smaller city than Toronto and we have recently lost Homegrown Cafe, The Baltimore House, and Casbah Lounge (although that’s set to re-open this week as a DJ space). The number isn’t as staggering as Toronto’s but we are a smaller city and we are now down to just a handful of small / mid-sized venues; the venues where live music is grown, nurtured and perfected. The cheap studio spaces that lead to so much of the James Street cool have become housing in some cases. The artists and musicians that made their home in the neighbourhood are, one by one, being pushed out and replaced by people from Toronto looking for some ‘grit’ and grassroots culture.
The current situation in Hamilton is as such that we don’t publicly discuss the troubling trend of accelerated development here because it is seen as ‘anti-progress’, ‘anti-change’, and ultimately ‘anti-Hamilton’. The people in charge of keeping an eye on our housing market, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), released a report in January about problematic housing conditions in three Canadian cities: Toronto, Victoria, and Hamilton. “Price acceleration in Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto and Hamilton indicates that home price growth may be driven by speculation as it is outpacing what economic fundamentals like migration, employment and income can support,” said Bob Dugan, chief economist with CMHC. Vancouver used to be on that list but nobody can afford to live in Vancouver so people fled to Victoria. We don’t need to encourage the real estate boom in Hamilton – it’s already happening and it’s already on a dangerous track. The thing that’s really troubling about this fact is that, compared to the other cities mentioned, Hamilton is a smaller city with a proportionately larger low-income population. After decades of surplus housing options, we have little experience with issues around affordable housing and rent. We don’t have the controls or services in place to support communities struggling with displacement and gentrification in the way that those larger cities do. The City’s leaders and developers seem way too busy cashing in on this boom to think about where it’s all headed.
I don’t think that I was the only one who raised a skeptical eyebrow when real estate companies started sponsoring things like The Hamilton Music Awards, or Supercrawl. It can’t possibly be a coincidence that real estate began sponsoring the arts downtown and writing blogs about how cool Hamilton is right around the time the trickle of Toronto home-buyers started coming in.
What’s happened here is that our genuinely great arts scene, a scene that’s been thriving for decades despite a lack of funding and support, has been co-opted and used as a sales strategy. And the plan has worked better than anyone anticipated. Supercrawl choosing to hold their official festival launch in Toronto, alongside the economic development office and condo developers, speaks volumes. Deciding to launch the festival in Toronto as part of a ‘Hamilton Sales Pitch’ event clears up any lingering doubts about how far away from ‘grass roots’ and ‘community focused’ this festival has come.
I have supported Supercrawl for years and I continue to do so through my writing on Cut From Steel. In fact, just this week I published an interview with Billy Talent who are playing the Supercrawl kickoff show this Saturday. I have and will continue to support the biggest music festival in Hamilton. I love music and writing about music. At the same time, I do have a healthy amount of skepticism about the ways in which our culture and the arts have been used as bait for development. The fevered boosterism; cheerleading the positive, while turning a blind eye to the negative, is partly what’s gotten us to this current state of affairs in Hamilton. People need to speak up. If you’re not cool with something that you see happening in your city – say something.
Hamilton is a lot more than the few blocks between Gore Park and Liuna Station, Locke Street, or Ottawa Street. There is a whole city out there. A largely working class middle-low income multicultural community who is now suddenly unable to afford Hamilton. There are generations of people who have grown up in Hamilton and who have worked hard who are suddenly being pushed out of their neighbourhoods by Toronto developers and Toronto salaries. We have a problem with poverty in Hamilton and to see that problem exacerbated while we’re publicly celebrating our booming real estate industry and ‘investment friendly’ neighbourhoods is frankly tone deaf, and completely out of touch.
Local artist Russell Gibbs released his, now famous, ‘You Can Do Anything In Hamilton‘ t-shirts in 2012. I got one. Everyone got one. It was like Beatles mania with those shirts. Someone had finally put into words the thing we loved about Hamilton so much. A lot has changed since 2012. There are lots of things you just can’t do here anymore. You can’t rent a cheap art studio or jam space downtown. You can’t afford 3-5 nights of live music every week. Unless they’re financially well off, young people could never afford a home anywhere near the downtown. You can, however, have a $75 dinner on Barton Street; you can spend $1200/month for a sketchy JR-1-bedroom in a highrise; you can pay money to play ping pong; eat food from a truck; have a craft beer while getting your beard trimmed. And like some strange fold in the time-space continuum, you can have a $200 steak and then walk across the street to wash it down with a $3 Lakeport at Happy Hourz*
We need to start publicly talking about some of these concerns. You can welcome your well-meaning Toronto neighbour and still talk about the very real issues we’re dealing with here. While many people share concerns about the pace of growth and the gentrification happening in our city, few are willing to speak about it publicly. Our leaders and, for the most part, our major media have maintained that this is a good thing. Is it really?
*If anything should happen to Happy Hourz it will tip me over the edge. Let’s not even joke about that.
This is an Op-Ed: the views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by everyone at The Inlet.