For newcomers to the city, the Locke Street Festival might be a little-known gem. But for locals, it’s an annual tradition connecting neighbours, business owners and artists in Hamilton’s lively downtown core.

This year, festival organizers estimate that at least 20,000 people showed up despite Saturday morning’s grim weather conditions.

Tweets began appearing in the early hours – would the festival be rained out? Who’s still going? Tourism Hamilton tweeted: “For those wondering, the Locke Street Festival is rain or shine.”

By noon, the skies had cleared and Locke Street South was packed with busy vendors, students and families wandering the narrow corridor from Aberdeen Avenue to Jackson Street West.

The Festival is one of the most popular single-day events in Southern Ontario, with 15,000 people participating in 2009, over 200 vendors from Ontario and Quebec and about a dozen local musicians playing each year.

For both longtime Locke Street business owners and up-and-coming artisans, the festival provides a prime opportunity to show off merchandise, often handcrafted.

Natasha Gatto was a first-time vendor at the Festival. It’s one of the first venues she has attended to gain exposure in the community at large for her custom bathing suit line.

“I work from home and rely a lot on word of mouth advertising,” said Gatto, a 23-year-old George Brown graduate and Hamilton-based designer.

“Having my own booth was a great experience – it was a bit discouraging to set up my tent in the rain, but I ended up speaking to a lot of people and getting more business.”

A visitor to the festival in previous years, Gatto spoke to a vendor selling vintage clothing last year and decided to book a booth for herself this year.

Her clothing line, “Gattina,” is a mix of swimwear and lingerie and uses soft laces, light cottons and sheer mesh fabrics. Her Fall/Winter 2012 collection launches this September, and Gatto will be showing more of her line at Open Streets on Sept. 23.

“I think Hamilton’s a good place to start. There are a lot of young people here interested in the arts,” she said.

“In a city like Toronto there’s a lot of competition. I don’t think there are many others in Hamilton who are doing the same thing as I am.”

When the festival was shut down due to overcapacity at around 9:45 p.m., many locals took to social media and the web to express their disappointment with the decision.

With its many local business partners, devoted attendees and old-school charm, Locke Street’s annual festival continues to attract loyal supporters and out-of-town visitors – a standout in the Greater Toronto Area’s arts and culture scene.

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