Change is frightening, but the redevelopment of downtown Hamilton after decades of neglect is helping to improve the health, safety, culture and spirit of Hamilton.
By Lucas Mascotto-Carbone
Published July 06, 2015
Recently my good-friend and fellow urban enthusiast sent me a link to a blog post with a stern warning to take what I would be reading with 'a grain of salt' and sit down while doing so. Intrigued, I opened it up and what I discovered was absolutely appalling.
Set-up on a basic blogging website, "The Hamilton Institute" as it was titled, published a 5,400 word essay on July 2 regarding gentrification in the downtown core. The anonymous essay, presumably written by a lone author, also included a manifesto which states amongst other things, to stop funding transit, stop building condos, and attack the artists who inhabit downtown as all of it represents a capitalist police-state agenda which seeks to destroy whatever semblance of community this city has.
Now, normally I would let this sort of opinion slide. But as I also found out while reading, the author has made posters and is planning to post them around development projects in the core. So I'm going to try to bring some reason to what seems to be an increasing threat to the revitalization of the downtown core.
At the very beginning of the essay the author states in bold text:
Two years ago, even the arts industry f**ks could claim, without feeling too dishonest, that they were creating something local and durable. Now we watch their flagship galleries and favourite restaurants close while a Starbucks and McMaster satellite campus open in Jackson Square, with condos going up on all sides.
Okay, presently there are only two Starbucks in the lower city - one on Locke Street South and the other in the Sheraton Hotel complex in Jackson Square. While we all know that the upscale urban coffee chain is a harbinger of gentrification, it has not done any harm to the community and has actually helped support businesses on Locke by attracting a steady flow of patrons. It has even helped renew a once-blighted part of Jackson Square.
Also, the store in Jackson Square is a franchise operated by Vrancor so all of the profits aren't necessarily going to directly feed into the corporation.
The McMaster Continuing Education Centre in Jackson Square is a godsend. Not only did it take over an office building that was abandoned since 1997 but it brought with it roughly 200 staff members and 4,000 students who have been continuously supporting the stores in the long-depressed shopping centre and the area surrounding.
Also, the new Family Medicine building at Main and Bay Street again took over a property that the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board had abandoned for a new sprawling headquarters on a suburban plot and gave this city a brand-new, community-oriented facility that will be providing medical services for decades to come.
These facilities haven't pushed artists or galleries out. Instead, they took over vacant and abandoned properties and have actually added business to the local stores.
Finally, the artists who first came to downtown Hamilton should be given the utmost respect. Not only did they defy all odds to support this city when the rest of region scoffed at our core, but they brought with them events like Supercrawl which brings in over 100,000 visitors every year.
In addition, they have been continuously fighting for safer streets, public transit funding, bike lanes, and public art to make our community more inviting and humane. They are not a part of a vast industry that supports the exploitation of the community but rather a part of a vast community which supports our local economy.
In a sub-heading titled "From developing the arts to the art of development" the author weaves together a laughable story about how the artists, desperate for money, branded the downtown and partnered with the police to push everyone out and sell their properties to big business for a profit.
For those of us who lived downtown, at first Art Crawl was a good chance to busk, pan handle, or sell things to the ever-larger crowds that appeared one day a month, but as the event morphed increasingly into a policing operation, the opportunities for this shrank. By the time of the first Super Crawl, the policing operation for Art Crawls was beginning two days in advance, tearing down posters, clearing away the usual suspects, warning people they would be ticketed under the Safe Streets Act if they were present in their usual spots. The artsy business owners advocated for more surveillance cameras, for the removal of sex workers, and more enforcement of minor offenses. Their s**t-eating snitch lobbying led directly to the creation of the ACTION team, a community policing operation, which bases its legitimacy on regular surveys of local business owners.
It's difficult to read through this paragraph, let alone bring attention to it, but I believe its necessary to highlight that the author received their information from the "Toronto Media Co-op" an independent news source with a long history of criticizing the police and other groups of people who dare to merge into existing communities, such as the artists on Queen Street West or the young professionals flocking to Yonge Street.
While I sympathize with people who have actually been terrorized or profiled by the police, since when is it an entirely bad thing when business owners recommend to the police to take down old posters and warn people that inappropriate behaviour will lead to ticketing?
Think of it as being told that you're having company come over to your house for dinner later in the evening. Do you clean your house up to make it presentable for your guests? Or do you leave the dirty dishes stacked in the sink, the floors unswept, and the children's toys lying around?
Does cleaning your house merit being called names because it compromises the integrity and spirit of what your house really is during the busy workweek? Since when do business owners, who brought economic stimulus to a blighted area, wanting to make the street presentable to guests and customers creating a police state?
Toward the end of the essay, when asking what we can do to fix the onslaught of development, the author says:
A bare minimum ask we might make of people moving here (and of ourselves too) is to refuse to become the political base for developers and for gentrification's boosters. The wave of people moving here, primarily from Toronto, has combined with the existing artsy, urban progressive space to produce a pro-development population in the core. Many people who move here get swept up in this - they're paying twice the rent of the previous tenant or paying a hundred thousand dollars more than a house was worth a year earlier, joining on calls to clean up the neighbourhood, calling the cops on their neighbours rather than getting to know them.
This paragraph is a bit hypocritical. Spending almost 6,000 words to tell the world that Hamilton, due to recent developments, is becoming a police state which warrants radical change only to finish off by saying that newcomers to the city should not be political is strange and if anything, part of a police state rhetoric.
Isn't inhibiting development also part of a paranoid police state? And isn't categorizing a diverse set of people and reducing them to nothing but potential radicals also a police state ideology? If a filled office building or a new coffee shop is so scary and setting the sails of our region for disaster then I suggest living in rural isolation because there won't be much hope for humanity elsewhere.
I know that change is difficult. Our downtown core experienced a long and brutal decline that many of us became accustomed to. Combined with decades of car culture and suburban development filling our minds with the idea that the downtowns of cities everywhere are undeserving places of crime and blight, we've become almost convinced that there's no other future for our city.
But let me tell you, the redevelopment happening in the core as I type this article is overwhelmingly positive for all of us, and the people who have been supporting it should be proud that they set a course which has improved the health, safety, culture, and spirit of Hamilton.
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