Whenever I walk through a “bad” neighborhood, I can’t help but wonder: If the modern city marks the pinnacle of human civilization, then what comes after?
Progress and industry changed the city of Hamilton, Ontario from a small lakeside hamlet into the clanging metal monolith that was “Steeltown” Canada.
The ride lasted long enough, but then, like it did everywhere else, the steel boom tapered off. I can think of several American counterpart cities: Pittsburgh and Erie, PA; Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio. All are Great Lakes area cities built out of industrial booms—all are now lumped together as the “rust belt”; cities in search of new purpose and meaning in a new world. Such is the post-industrial plight of the city.
Hamilton’s steel industry hasn’t disappeared altogether, but it’s much smaller and offers far fewer people the jobs it once did. Most significantly, steel no longer represents the full strength of the city and the half-million human lives that take place on the edge of Lake Ontario.
Gentrification is not a new hope, nor is it a new story—it’s been the battle cry for post-industrial cities ever since they became post-industrial. The birth, death and rebirth of North American urban centers is one of the major themes of the past decade, but how exactly does it happen?
“Arts and Industry” is a common enough term that often pairs the one with the other, although in reality, the two rarely occupy the same space. Art and industry are both forms of manufacturing, though one is usually concerned with function and the other beauty.
In the Hamilton neighborhood of James Street North, industry’s function has clearly dwindled—and, true to the brightest hopes of gentrification, art has taken over. Empty warehouses with cheap rents have attracted a bona fide arts community that is producing. Creative youth may not be flocking to Hamilton, but the gathering that has taken place seems to be self-selecting and interested in establishing this area as a place where art can happen and does happen.
Hamilton’s new James Street North is still a young idea, but it’s definitely an honest event. In nearby Toronto’s West Queen West or Kensington Market neighborhoods, signs inform the visitor that they are now in the “Arts District” or the “Fashion District”. In Hamilton, there is no need for any signs—the street itself speaks to the visitor. There is an evident attitude of change visible in the doorways and shopfronts you pass.
Dave Kuruc, owner of the local art store Mixed Media stands firmly on the point that any kind of gentrification be totally organic, “Once you start calling any place the Arts District, it ceases being that.”
I have traveled in neighborhoods before they are gentrified—where broken buildings and empty, overgrown streets give way to crime, drugs, litter, and impoverished lives. I have also visited “trendy” neighborhoods long after real gentrification has taken root—where exposed brick galleries sell overpriced art to wealthy tourists and where only corporate executives can move into the million-dollar lofts looking down upon the street.
What sets Hamilton apart is that whatever is happening there is happening right now. Obviously, a scattering of art galleries and one cool coffeeshop does not a trendy neighborhood make, but what is evident is that people who would have once shunned these streets are now spending time there, moving there and working there.
For all the talk of gentrification, I have only seen the before and after, and never the “during.” It was only in James Street North that I felt like I had stepped into the midst of the much-buzzed-about post-industrial process.
But regarding Dave’s point, I shouldn’t be mentioning any of this at all. Too much buzz can kill the fragile burgeon of a creative awakening. And so I’m writing this to let the world know that there is absolutely no gentrification in Hamilton. Nothing interesting is happening here at all, so move along. There are no young artists moving into the neighborhood, there is no phenomenal art on display, there is no vibe, no hipness, no trends, no spirit or soul or community or solidarity. It’s just a street in a city by a lake in Canada.