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Development or gentrification? Students need to be cognizant of their role in Hamilton's rapid gentrification

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By Nina Gaind

Walking through Supercrawl felt different this year. I felt weird about the presence of five Toyota cars positioned directly across from an art installation. I also felt a bit out of place, as many local faces and businesses from the past had disappeared, replaced by shiny new coffee shops and boutiques. The unoccupied lot beside CBC Hamilton was empty, where in past years it has been populated by local artists selling their unique DIY crafts and teenagers hanging out in the back (do you know what I’m referring to?).

Despite these changes, the thing that made me the most uncomfortable was the couple comments I heard from Supercrawl goers, referring to Hamilton and the space they were occupying. I heard people making jokes while in a long time standing James Street North shop, laughing about how outdated and cringe it was. I heard people snickering at the presence of homeless folks, and making a joke out of the poverty in Hamilton. These deeply unsettling comments symbolize a larger problem with the changing scene in Hamilton, and the language people use causes further harm to the people being pushed out of these social spaces.

Growing up in a town on the edge of Hamilton, I noticed ways in which people spoke about Hamilton. People talked about the city’s poverty with disdain, associating low-income areas with crime, rather than compassionately understanding the drive behind the perceived danger. With the recent wave of gentrification, more people from outside of the downtown area have been spending time in in the downtown core, changing how the city is perceived. This is exemplified in streets like James Street North and Barton Street being described as “up and coming”, while not even 2 km away there are some of the highest poverty rates in the country. With this rapid gentrification, Hamiltonians who have historically occupied these spaces are being pushed further and further away from these areas. For example, an affordable housing project in the North End was recently bought out by investors, leaving people who relied on this without homes. As a student who spends time in these spaces, I listen as the language used to describe people of low-income neighbourhoods becomes increasingly harmful and offensive. Local Hamiltonians are spoken about in ways that stigmatize their lived experience calling certain areas “sketchy”, “ghetto” and “ratchet”. These terms are highly racialized and classist, and do nothing but further the marginalization low-income people face throughout the development of Hamilton.

This issue is highly complicated and has many layers to it. Gentrification is not a simple concept, as development in the city has positive and negative consequences. As a student, I want to use my voice and privilege to acknowledge the power I and my peers have when we occupy spaces downtown. Students are positioned in a very grey area when it comes to gentrification and development. On one hand, we are not the people directly investing and developing land in Hamilton, rising rent prices and pushing low-income folks to the margins. On the other hand, we engage and spend time in these new coffee shops and stores, supporting local businesses and enjoying these spaces. While we might think our presence as students is trivial, our identities as students give us social power. Our identities as educated individuals give us more mobility to access physical and social spaces than local Hamiltonians. It is important for us to be mindful of this fact and reflect upon how and why we perceive others to be different from us. This being said, I recognize that university students come from diverse  backgrounds and experience oppression in many aspects of society and this should not be ignored when talking about this issue.

This city belongs to the very Hamiltonians we ridicule. As we continue to spend time in gentrified areas in Hamilton, we should be aware of the language we use when talking about others, specifically marginalized folks who are being negatively impacted by the cities changes. Using divisive language feeds the narrative that people who live in poverty are bad and dangerous, which physically and socially separates people more in society. When we start to change the tone of how we describe others, it can help to create more respectful relationships between people we may deem different from us. We must respect the history of Hamilton and recognize presence of poverty, looking to the root causes of inequality. I am hopeful that we as students can continue to enjoy Hamilton while being mindful of our identities and interact more positively with local Hamilton community members.

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