Local artists and cultural workers express their concerns about gentrification and the housing crisis in Hamilton

C/O Hamilton Artists Organizing

The arts and artists have long been associated with the gentrification of inner-city neighbourhoods, the displacement of vulnerable groups and working-class communities. With increasing focus on creativity in urban development, artists and cultural workers have become a vital part of city revitalization projects.

Yet their creativity has become highly valued not so much for their innovation, artistry or vision, but more for its power to attract investors and wealthier residents. This has caused real estate values to rise, residents to be pushed out and poverty conditions to intensify. Hamilton is no exception to this trend of art-stimulated gentrification.

Walking down James Street North, you may have seen the slogan, “Art is the New Steel”, on public art, t-shirts and posters. The emerging arts districts in Hamilton have brought social and economic changes, leading to the recent dramatic shifts in housing costs and migration of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour groups to more marginalized neighbourhoods.

Walking down James Street North, you may have seen the slogan, “Art is the New Steel”, on public art, t-shirts and posters. The emerging arts districts in Hamilton have brought social and economic changes, leading to the recent dramatic shifts in housing costs and migration of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour groups to more marginalized neighbourhoods.

Reports from the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton in 2019 revealed that about 45 per cent of residents spend a disproportionate amount of their income on their rent. Furthermore, between June 2019 and June 2020, the city’s rents experienced the highest spike in the country, increasing by 33.5 per cent.

The rise in unaffordable housing is one of the seven urgent issues highlighted by Hamilton Artists Organizing in a letter to Mayor Fred Eisenberger and the city council. HAO is a loose collective of artists, musicians, writers and cultural workers mobilizing against gentrification in the city.

The rise in unaffordable housing is one of the seven urgent issues highlighted by Hamilton Artists Organizing in a letter to Mayor Fred Eisenberger and the city council. HAO is a loose collective of artists, musicians, writers and cultural workers mobilizing against gentrification in the city.

The group formally formed in 2019 and began drafting the letter prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, a larger group of local artists, including current members of HAO, have been assembling and discussing the involvement of the arts in gentrification for some time.

They have engaged in conferences such as Gathering on Art, Gentrification and Economic Development at McMaster and Pressure Points: Gentrification and the Arts in Hamilton at Hamilton Artists Inc. art gallery. Sparked by these conversations, the collective ultimately formed to take direct action and break the cycle of art-powered gentrification.

“The fact is that artwashing and these kinds of vanguard behaviours by artists to move into communities and gentrify them is a historical relationship that needs to be interrupted,” said Derek Jenkins, a multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and member of HAO.

The letter was written as a group, with perspectives and contributions from artists who are new to the issue and by those who have been researching the issue for a long time.

In addition to rental costs, the letter questions and demands the current plan of action with regards to the shortage of adequate social housing; class-based disparities between neighbourhoods; poverty; homelessness and loss of service providers; with references to impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Until the Hamilton city council responds and meets these demands, the group and supporters have promised to withhold their services and focus more on highlighting the actions, or the lack of actions, from the city.

Since being published in January of this year, the letter has garnered more than 580 signatures from community artists and cultural workers. There have also been overwhelming inquiries from local artists to join HAO.

HAO believes the purpose of the letter is two-fold: it is aimed at both the city counsellors and artists. Artists are in a unique position in that they are at both ends of the gentrification cycle. They not only help fuel it, but they are often part of the group that experiences displacement due to redevelopment.

It is easy for artists to become ensnared in a vicious cycle of moving to a cheaper area and then being forced out due to their creative activities that raise the economic potential and property cost of the neighbourhood. Take Barton Village as an example.

It’s considered one of the cheaper neighbourhoods in Hamilton; however, it has seen a recent boom of cafés, expensive restaurants and art spaces due to the high saturation of artists in the area who help raise civic interest.

As an artist, it can be challenging to not be complicit with gentrification.

“Many artists are precariously employed and many are experiencing the housing crisis as well. It can become a very difficult problem for artists to weigh the costs of opportunities that may adversely affect their living situations,” explained Jenkins.

“Many artists are precariously employed and many are experiencing the housing crisis as well. It can become a very difficult problem for artists to weigh the costs of opportunities that may adversely affect their living situations,” explained Jenkins.

However, it is often these city and corporate-funded work with less community-minded interests, such as painting a mural in a derelict area, that fuel the cycle.

Members and supporters of HAO hope the letter and their continuous work will help raise more awareness about the power of the arts in gentrification.

“I hope that the artist community can lend our support in ways that we can. As part of our practices, we have all of these skills that we can offer in various contexts. I think it would be really exciting to see how artists can support local organizing,” said Danica Evering, writer, sound artist and member of HAO.

In the coming months, HAO is planning to have general meetings to continue the conversation around gentrification and expand the collective’s network. They encourage student-artists and activists to join.

In the words of Hayden King, an Anishinaabe writer and educator: “Artists must recognize that they’re an active player in gentrification and if they are committed to social justice, they should devote their energies to ensuring that people are not being displaced.”

In the words of Hayden King, an Anishinaabe writer and educator: “Artists must recognize that they’re an active player in gentrification and if they are committed to social justice, they should devote their energies to ensuring that people are not being displaced.”

It is these words that drive Jenkins, Evering, HAO and the artist community to continue raising their voices against the housing crisis in Hamilton.

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