The art of dialogue

First, the context.

About three weeks ago I wrote an article about art and Hamilton that argued the development of a neighbourhood does not do much to resolve poverty, and that low-income neighborhoods are a symptom for problems like unemployment, crime and poor health instead of a cause. I wrote that art should be used to express the full complexity of a neighbourhood, rather to simplify it, and that a neighbourhood should be something that every one of its members has the ability to change.

On the website where the article was posted, Jeremy Freiburger, the founder of a local non-profit arts service Cobalt Connects, left a comment saying he found the “article painful to read” and that the “distanced academic approach to understanding cultural community growth [is] as thin as the paper [the] article is written on.” So, naturally, I contacted Freiburger for an interview.

Part of what Freiburger’s organization does is figure out how buildings can be renovated and repurposed to best suit the needs of artists. Frieburger is almost like the poster child of gentrification, the process of a neighbourhood’s buildings being developed and increasing in price. In my article, I criticized the type of neighbourhood development that Freiburger is involved in as not actually being helpful to those in poverty. After speaking to him, I’m not so sure.

The Mulberry Street coffeehouse on James Street North is the result of work by Freiburger, and was also the place where he and I met. Before it was a coffee shop, Mulberry was Hotel Hamilton – infamously run-down low-income housing. I had seen the Mulberry coffee shop as the quintessential example of gentrification: a coffee shop for the wealthy took the place of housing for the poor, who ended up displaced.

“I’ve been involved in this industry  for a long time – the idea of regenerating buildings – and I totally understand the conversation around displacement,” said Freiburger. “The gentlemen that lived at Mulberry, the owners actually found them better housing, on [James] street for the same price they were paying here.”

The stories of displacement are told often, and loudly. The stories of how that displacement is prevented? Not so much.

Though I saw Frieburger as a figurative poster child for gentrification, it turns out that this had literally been true – but it was by no means Freiburger’s decision. “Maybe about a year or so ago, there was a big push from a group out of McMaster that came out on an art crawl, and had made up stickers about gentrification and calling people ‘fat cats,’ me in particular, and a number of other people, but I was named specifically,” said Frieburger. “They stuck them to buildings, they stuck them to artists’ artwork, they went around stickering wherever they wanted. That caused a huge rift in the community, for sure.”

This sticker campaign was needlessly confrontational, and I’m sure that it didn’t help anyone better understand the reality of how gentrification is playing out in Hamilton.

“To be equally confrontational, I found out who was leading that group of people, in my view, and found out that the person leading it was actually a professor from McMaster University,” said Freiburger. “So I wrote a rather scathing email to her and to Patrick Deane and her boss, and was responded to by the legal department at McMaster, asking me to cease and desist my actions or face a lawsuit, because what I was doing was defamatory. Yet, putting stickers with my name on it throughout the community saying I was an evil fat cat who was displacing poor people isn’t defamatory?”

Before speaking to Freiburger, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What ended up happening is like when a character in a movie seems like a villain, but they actually end up being pretty good. Snape provides a perfect example. When talking about difficult topics like gentrification, it’s important not to dismiss anyone.

“I think Hamilton is still at a point where we can shape how we want to change this city,” said Freiburger. “But if we can’t find a way to have positive dialogue about it, no one is going to change their ways.”

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