Downtown Bureau

Hamilton: Cultural Capital of Canada

As a challenge to our City Council, I offer this: develop a marketing campaign with appropriate funding that will promote Hamilton as Ontario's newest cultural capital.

By Jason Leach
Published May 31, 2005

Many of you are probably intrigued by the headline of this article - or else you're already dismissing it as another empty "rah rah Hamilton" story with more heart than fact.

Maybe we aren't the cultural capital of Canada ... yet. Or are we?

Some recent discussions with local artists and my first ever trip to Montreal last month has got me thinking about this. Allow me to explain.

In most cities, the art and cultural community are seen as the lifeblood and heart of the city. Toronto proudly advertises its Contact Photo Festival, Word on the Street Festival, Beaches Jazz Festival and the plethora of festivals that occur in the Distillery District.

While in Montreal, I stopped at their main tourism office as well as a smaller one in Old Montreal. I was pleasantly surprised at a few main things.

The ages of the people who served me. No offense to my elders, but there is something about being in a city as a 27 year old, walking into the tourism office, asking if they know where I can find any Fair Trade cafes, and receiving an immediate response and offer to print off all of the addresses.

I've asked that same question in tourism offices here in Hamilton and in Ottawa and was returned a blank stare accompanied with, "What's that?" The young hipsters in the Montreal offices knew exactly what I was talking about and exactly where to find them. They sent me off with dozens of addresses.

Promotion of artistic and cultural events. Montreal seems to live and die by the arts, and is doing just fine, thank you. Here in Hamilton, all we ever seem to promote are the city-owned HECFI facilities, and a few Victorian events at Dundurn Castle and Whitehern - more city-owned facilities.

Don't get me wrong. I love Dundurn and Whitehern as well as the world-class facilities of HECFI, but Hamilton is literally exploding with art, culture, dining, music and theatre, and most people who live here don't know about it. Outsiders have no clue at all.

The quality of promotional materials. Hamilton has begun to improve in recent years, but without a doubt the best promotional materials you will find in this city come from places like the Kensington Gallery or Staircase Café and Theatre.

It's time for our taxpaying tourism office to "up the ante" with the quality and coverage area of promotion as well as the facilities promoted. Folks from Buffalo to Toronto should hear about us as often as we hear about them.

As a challenge to our City Council, I offer this: develop a marketing campaign with appropriate funding that will promote Hamilton as Ontario's newest cultural capital - maybe even Canada's newest cultural capital.

Sure, we just lost the Canadian Music Hall of Fame bid and we don't have any groundbreaking new museum on post-modern architecture or design opening, but a quick scan of the Internet and a stroll through the downtown core offers a strong case for this claim.

We are the third most multicultural city in Canada and have a wonderful assortment of cultural amenities. I realize that Hamilton's art community enjoys the sense of being an "underground" movement, far from the spotlight of corporate North America, but we need to find a better balance.

Our cultural community should be front and centre in this city, with appropriate support from city hall to ensure we don't become another Toronto, where artists are literally being run out of town by constant "yuppifying" of their neighbourhoods.

A recent chat with Shara Ross of the newly opened Kensington Gallery shed some light on this well-known phenomenon.

She used to live in a warehouse in Toronto with several artists in the area, but as usual, they began to get displaced by developers looking to build more cookie-cutter condos and "trendy" lofts.

Neighbourhoods that were once frowned upon by average citizens had suddenly become the hip new address in town. And why? The arts community. Artists aren't scared to go into the neighbourhoods that are rough around the edges. In fact, they like the vibe and feel of living in a warehouse with huge windows shining in on their work.

Shara found herself moving to Hamilton for the first time in her life in an attempt to escape the constant gentrification of Toronto. Every corner has a Hortons, a Starbucks, and an overpriced, bland clothing chain. The sense of community is lost when this happens. Imagine Hess Village or Locke Street with a Wendy's, Tim's and Winners.

Several cities are developing strategies for "no-chain zones," where local entrepreneurs are encouraged to open hip stores and cafes to help create a sense of uniqueness and place.

Hamilton needs to do the same, and fast, according to Ross. She's convinced that as the city turns the corner, corporate Canada will come knocking. I think she's right.

We've already had rumours confirmed that Staples and Shoppers Drug Mart are snooping around for downtown locations. I'm not completely against these types of companies moving in, but the city needs to do whatever possible to help steer our urban development after the pattern of Montreal instead of Toronto.

I was able to walk on streets of Montreal for hours on end without ever seeing a Montana's or Second Cup. The streets were full of locally owned fair trade cafes, sushi bars and live music venues. Think about it - who goes to Paris or New York to find the local Winners or GAP?

While this problem continues to grow around the world, I'm convinced that this sort of thinking is not only barely existent at Hamilton city hall, but probably frowned upon and looked at as being "anti-establishment" or "anti-business". I call it "pro-Hamilton" and "pro-sustainable development" [Dare we suggest "pro-entrepreneur"? - Ed].

Hamilton's future has never looked brighter. We will always have problems to deal with, but with proper promotion and funding of our arts community, we could become a major tourist destination in the Golden Horseshoe.

Recent articles in The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star made this very point and painted a very bright picture of our future.

Let's do a better job of promoting what we already have. As one newly transplanted artist from P.E.I. said, "Hamilton has the highest number of artists, per capita, in Canada. That's why I chose to move here."

I can't verify that statistic, but it feels right.

Cultural Links

This is not a complete listing of local artistic and cultural groups in our city found online, but it is a good sample to get you started. Take a few minutes and acquaint yourself with Hamilton - the Cultural Capital of Canada. If you know of more, post them below in the Comments section.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.


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