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To the Footsoldiers of Gentrification

On the development of downtown Hamilton

by Daniel O'Rourke

To the Footsoldiers of Gentrification


There's a lot of discussion of this article on the Mayday Website. Click here to check it out.

Let's cut the crap — what's happening on James Street North is gentrification. Phrases like "economic development" and "revitalizing the core" are just euphemisms for the stark reality of replacing one group of people with another, more desirable group

We in the arts scene, along with politicians and business owners, often talk about improving the downtown community. But too often that phrase means "we want our community to exist in the space where yours used to be".

A community does not just refer to the physical streets of the downtown, it is a network of social relations. Art galleries replacing immigrant-owned stores and apartments being converted into studios may give the neighbourhood a "cleaner" look, but the result does not contribute to the existing network of social relations in the downtown. In fact, social ties are weakened when residents are removed and replaced with a different group of people.

Gentrification is a pattern that has repeated itself in similar ways in big cities all over the world. Many neighbourhoods in Toronto have experienced a similar process to what we're seeing in downtown Hamilton.

Here's a sense of how the story goes: Art galleries can be considered the foot soldiers of gentrification – the first ones in, but completely disposable. Because artists typically don't make a lot of money from their work, we will naturally look for cheaper places in which to work and live. Often, these are neighbourhoods populated by immigrants and poor and working class people. However, in order to make money from their work, many artists feel the need to attract higher income people to their spaces. Hence the creation of events like Art Crawl, designed to fill the James North strip with people who did not initially live there and would not have gone there otherwise.

At first these people with more money come just to visit. But over time, the business community increasingly caters to this new market. On James North, many new bars and clubs are opening at price points often double what was seen in this same neighbourhood five years ago. As these changes advance, people with access to more money begin to live in the core as well, driving up rent prices. Many apartments in the downtown, including the tall buildings around John and Robert that have historically been inhabited by recent immigrants and people on fixed incomes, have had their rents increased by the maximum legal amount every year for at least the last three years. Having pioneered the neighbourhood (in the killing-all-the-buffalo sense of the word), the arts community finds itself unable to keep up with rising costs, becoming more dependant on government and corporate grants for its survival.

From the way our local government operates, it appears "cleaning up" the downtown core means making life more difficult for many of its inhabitants (i.e. people living in poverty, people of colour, and those living with mental health issues). I have witnessed the changes in policing strategy. I see groups of eight cops making foot patrols through poor neighbourhoods, harassing those they see hanging around in public spaces. I see the way they sweep everyone out of Gore park around four o'clock. I see the crackdowns on minor offenses like biking on the sidewalk and jaywalking. And I see the increased repression of sex workers, even as the laws are on the verge of changing.In a misguided effort to stay on the good side of these politicians and capitalists, I also see members of the arts community collaborating with this attack on poor people. There are gallery owners organizing public forums demonizing sex workers in the neighbourhood. I have witnessed business owners chase pan handlers away from their stores. Other store owners install cameras to assist the police in persecuting sex workers, homeless people, and others in the neighbourhood who use this public space.

The way this story usually ends is that the arts community will be driven out in turn. Slowly, the grants will dry up, the prices will keep increasing, and rezoning applications will be approved. Then the ultimate goal of the gentrification project will become apparent: to fill the downtown neighbourhood with young professionals, the people who are employed in those big glass towers that seem so far from our lives, or work in the hospitals here while commuting from their homes on the mountain. (The Queen West neighbourhood in Toronto is a great example of this exact scenario in recent history.)

So it's clear that the arts community is not the villain of this story – its members are just being duped into believing that the city, property owners, and other capitalists share their interests. But the latter do not care about art, they do not care about our vibrant community. They are more interested in profit. Our interests as creative people are more in line with the working class folk who are being displaced than they are with the capitalists who are profiting.

It is important to think critically about the impact of the arts community in the downtown. We need to get beyond the comfortable ignorance of, "I'm not gentrifying – I'm broke!" If we truly believe in building community in the downtown, then we must welcome criticism and constantly enquire if our actions are actually making the community stronger. Before celebrating the opening of yet another bar, before inviting the police to lockdown the neighbourhood for an event, before dismissing our neighbours with the slur "crackheads", let us ask ourselves – Who benefits from our actions? Are we making the downtown community stronger, or are we just fragmenting it along class and social lines?

All of us in the arts community must choose sides in this struggle. It's time to stop alienating and criminalizing other people and communities in our neighbourhood. It's time to undertake projects that look locally to marginalized people in the downtown, rather than just towards people who can shell out $800 for a painting.

If we want to be able to talk about a downtown community, we must seek to connect with what already exists there. Downtown is not the dirty, dangerous, ignorant place that the advocates of gentrification would have us believe. Let's get creative and abandon the current path of replacing one community with another.

End Note: Toronto's Sketch is an example of an arts group doing important community development work. Sketch is an art studio for street youth that makes space, equipment, and resources available to a community that would otherwise not have access to them. Fantastic art is produced while connecting with and empowering people in the neighbourhood. Another example is The Purple Thistle Youth Collective in Vancouver. Designed for and by unschooled youth, kids come there to make art, hold workshops, learn from mentors, and experience involvement in a collective. Both of these groups have bucked the trend of gentrification in their neighbourhoods by taking deliberate steps to include people who are being silenced and excluded. Information about both of these groups is available online.

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