Photos C/O Grant Holt
A long table draped with cloth and vases filled with fresh flowers may have transformed Hamilton Artists Inc.’s gallery space into a typical dining room, but the scattered blank cards and copies of the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network newsletter foreshadowed much more than a meal will be shared.
The room was quiet as a few artists and community members stirred around the table. Little Theo sat on the ground preoccupied with a puzzle, seemingly unaware of the projection of multidisciplinary artist Lisa Lipton’s experiential feature film, The Impossible Blue Rose, behind him.
As special guests from the Stoney Creek Towers trickled into the room, small talk turned into big conversations around the topics of displacement in Hamilton, tenant rights, the East Hamilton rent strike and the city’s development plans.
The voices culminated to discussions around gentrification in the city, a perfect fit in terms of time and place, as traffic reached its peak along James Street North outside of the gallery. By now the artists, community members and tenants were serving themselves tabbouleh, falafel and shawarma with rice.
Abedar Kamgari, the programming director at Hamilton Artists Inc., welcomed everyone and led introductions. She asked the guests to look around and identify whose present and whose absent and perhaps needs to be brought to the table.
Kamgari highlighted the importance of hosting the Shared Conversations: Community Dinner event at an artist-run centre and the responsibility Hamilton Artists Inc. has to the community. The dinner is part of a series of synchronized events happening at the same time across artists-run centres around the country.
The conversation seamlessly transitioned to the economic injustices happening in Hamilton that are being driven by gentrification.
Guests spoke about their experiences at the Stoney Creek Towers and across the city, from unaffordable rent hikes, lack of heating during the winter, several month waits on repairs and alarming rates of bug and pest infestations, new and legacy tenants are being impacted by the sidelining of Hamiltonians’ home rights in favour of gentrification.
The guests were also humble in their approach, some identifying their privilege and roles in gentrification. One couple moved to Hamilton after their rented Toronto home was bought out by a tech millionaire. Another recalled the story of her neighbour who moved to the Stoney Creek Towers out of fear of being homeless.
A professor of English and writing studies at Western University made Hamilton her new home after being impacted by gentrification in North-end Halifax and London. The guests shared a consistent pattern of recognizing the complex relationship of being negatively impacted by gentrification and contributing to it.
The multi-layered conversation also focused on deciphering the roles of artists and art spaces in gentrification in Hamilton. The guests spoke about finding a balance between utilizing artists’ practice to revitalize the downtown core and ensuring that art remains accessible and affordable.
While this may paint artists as drivers of gentrification, a key part of the issue is the appropriation and misuse of art spaces by community members, developers and the city. For example, gallery spaces along James Street North have acquired an elitist persona, often used as a selling points by realtors.
One guest remarked that many artists and art spaces are unknowingly the foot soldiers of gentrification. Groups are utilizing art to invest and further their own profit without permission from the artists.
Sales representatives and the city of Hamilton market James Street North as a cultural hub for investors, boasting the short walk to the GO station and accessibility to the Greater Toronto Area, but efforts towards providing artists with resources, funding programming and investing in affordable housing are being called into question.
At this point in the conversation, everyone’s plates are cleared. The guests thoughtfully calculated how much they could eat, leaving no remnants behind. Coffee and tea pots are passed around the table as talks of solutions take over.
Artists can learn from the striking tenants of Stoney Creek Towers and seek out advice from their experiences working towards the goal of justice by challenging, lobbying and putting pressure on the community to change for the better. Motivation to overcome the negative effects of gentrification can be fostered by looking at the exemplary successes of dedicated individuals.
While there is no one simple solution towards overcoming the intersecting issues contributing to gentrification, artists and the community still have a responsibility to address them. Artists have to work with their neighbours, listen to their perspectives and continue having these conversations.
The Impossible Blue Rose continued to play in the background till the end of the dinner, a consistent reminder that art will always be there, but how it’s used to change the city’s landscapes and the experiences of its people is in the hands of the community.