Letter: Closing James for Art Crawl Could Lead to Institutionalization

By Letter to the Editor
Published September 20, 2013

I am one of the members of the band "Bill and the Art Crawlers." Perhaps you have visited with us during a Spring, Summer, or Autumn James North Art Crawl. We are the band that plays in front of the Christ Church Anglican Cathedral on James North near Colbourne.

Our experience over the past couple of years playing at the Art Crawls has been terrific - wonderful audiences of people who dance and sing along with us or simply visit and listen. The ambiance is engaging, the police are polite and patient, and our relationship with Matt Thompson and the staff of Cathedral Place, as well as the business people who make up the makers' market entrepreneurs, is solid and grows better with each Art Crawl.

I've met many great people, whom I will dub The Art Crawlers. I walk around the community before and after our time playing at Cathedral Place. During the course of Art Crawl I've never seen so many smiles, happy faces, and cameras in one place, in one block, in one community, flashing photos of the variety of performance and visual art on display. We wish we could play outside the Cathedral at each Art Crawl year-round, but we'd get a little chilled strumming guitars and beating drums in subzero temperatures.

Art Crawl is a great idea, and its great strength is in its organic nature. We are very fortunate to be able to experience a truly open celebration of art and humanity, the people who make it, those who appreciate it, those who work hard to make a living in the arts, and those who drop by to enjoy the unplanned, unorganized, and ad hoc nature of each Art Crawl.

Everyone is welcome, from tourists to Hamiltonians, to members of the immediate downtown community, and I often find celebrants from afar to be as engaged as much as the locals and artists are. Art Crawl's people-focused nature means that it cannot go stale, and the challenge brought by the creativity present will always surprise and enlighten minds to thought and possibilities without fear and barriers, demands and denigration.

Through playing the Art Crawl, I have been witness to Hamilton at its best - I have not yet seen (and hopefully never will see) an ugly incident of violence nor a serious accident. The police are almost invisible and the amount of trust that people have in each other to attend, create, present at, and socialize in an unplanned celebratory format while producing an atmosphere of mutual respect is more that admirable.

It is a sign of the civility with which the people of Hamilton can carry themselves and extend to each other. It is our city's monthly party and a source of open and engaging discourse and discussion, without anger, frustration, or outrage.

I understand Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr wants to introduce a motion to the General Issues Committee to close off a large portion of James North during the Art Crawls of May to November. Presumably this would begin in 2014.

I have no doubt that it is not the intention of Councillor Farr to explicitly or implicitly choke off the organic nature of Art Crawl, nor to claim a safety issue as a means implying that some manner of "control" over Art Crawl should be exercised. Yet I am concerned that such a move could be the beginning of the institutionalization of a great idea, and therein its death.

A few points to illustrate these concerns:

I wonder if, at some future point in time, we'd reach a condition where Art Crawl would formally be deemed in some way a city cultural event in need of more formalized event policing as result of its status changing due to the closure. I would ask James North business owners, and those artists who realize commercial gains important to their careers, if they could carry the extra costs should they be asked to do so - business owners and event promoters in other areas of the city have had a few things to say about such costs, some of which are not endearing. These costs could prove insurmountable to an arts community that has struggled for so long to establish itself.

The City would stand to lose parking revenue, and those parking spaces are important to businesses, artists, and Art Crawl participants alike. The practical need of getting in and out with bulky items and equipment would be more problematic.

I wonder if we would reach a stage where Art Crawl would be seen in a formalized perspective - inviting the unsolicited formation of "steering committees", "cultural committees" "safety committees", and attempts at proprietary control of the structure and participation of artistic presentations and the behavior of all who visit. Art Crawl is an event that occurs by the means and efforts of people and for people - an almost purely organic event that does not need, nor has ever needed formal control structures, does not need committees, and has never needed either.

I understand that potential good could be realized from closing off James North during Art Crawl, but let's tread carefully on this one - I wonder if this is the first step towards institutionalization of a great idea, and the beginning of its decline into a programmed, planned, mediocre, innocuous and uninspiring street event like any other anywhere.

Art Crawl is Hamilton's chance to have its say to others and to itself about its own reality and its own state of affairs while displaying it creativity, diversity, and civility to itself and those communities around it. Let's not let it be killed off for the sake of a safety issue that, up to this point, is non-existent. Fair enough Councillor - but let the Art Crawl evolve as organically as it already has, on its own, as it has through time, to find its own way forward.

Robert Fick

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:04:55

I so agree.

I make an effort to spend some time at every art crawl even on the coldest days. What draws me there is the street atmosphere with the mix of old-timers, artists, crafters, hipsters, buskers, vendors, and, of course, the art itself. There is both a sense of excitement and comfort. It seems weird, but I feel at home there.

There may come a time when Art Crawl grows stale and changes are needed, but until then, it ain't broke so don't fix it.

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By Arthur Crawley (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:38:11

You're afraid of Art Crawl stagnating. But it will stagnate if it doesn't grow and evolve. Lots of cities close streets for special events, it's not going to poison the Art Crawl if people can walk in the middle of the street and not get hit by a car. All it will do is make more room for outdoor events - bands, dances, outdoor sculptures, whatever - and bring more people to discover James North and all it's treasures. Art Crawl is great but James needs business the rest of the month too. The more exposure it gets the better chance it's shops will have to survive and florish.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted September 23, 2013 at 14:45:17 in reply to Comment 92363

This. Monthly pedestrian crawls are not a Hamilton invention, neither is closing off a street at night on a regular basis. If Art Crawl were to become institutionalized, it would not be as a result of the city closing James St. North to traffic for a few nights a year.

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By DanJelly (registered) | Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:43:02

Hi Robert,

First, let me say I really enjoy your band. My brother Matt, and I have been vendors at Makers' Market all summer and your music has been a great addition to the event.

My feeling, having attended crawls as both a crawler and as a Makers' Market vendor, this motion from Jason Farr is something many crawlers have been talking about. As I understand it this has at least some support among the shop owners(although I would not presume to speak for any of them). I think this is a very organic next step, and one that unfortunately will require some official involvement from the City.

What I hope is that this will simply become a matter of closing the street and allowing a more free, safe and natural flow of people as they move along James North during the summer crawls. I think the general consensus is that there shouldn't suddenly be big tents, stages and other formal additions to the crawls because of the street closure. I think it's just been recognized that the event is attracting enough people that it could benefit from a little more space.

I love it when James North is closed to traffic, whether it's for Supercrawl, or for the Open Streets events that have been held once or twice a year for the past several years. It creates a more laid-back mood when people can just walk wherever they wish.

One caveat: I think that Councillor Farr's motion should include the block north of Barton -- James should be closed between Wilson and Murray. There are galleries and restaurants on that stretch that sometimes get forgotten. I understand there are traffic flow issues with the Bay Street bridge closure, but we have until next May or June to sort that out (assuming the bridge isn't finished by then).

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By Crawler (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:44:55 in reply to Comment 92364

I think the concern is that once the street closings begin there will be a requirement to formalize the crawl due to costs. Buskers and street vendors will be required to get permits, a vetting process may be established, and businesses may be required to pay to participate. It will become about organization and money rather than people and art.

It may be unfounded but it is a legitimate concern.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 20, 2013 at 13:41:41 in reply to Comment 92371

If street closures are going to become a monthly thing at James North, the city should be trying to identify ways to reduce those costs. The full setup of fences and officers is fine for a yearly event, but monthly? The city should be looking at other municipalities that offer routine or seasonal closures for temporary pedestrian-only streets, because those cities don't pay multiple officers per-intersection to do it.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2013-09-20 13:42:09

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By Crawler (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2013 at 14:24:37 in reply to Comment 92372

Cities reduce costs by passing them on.

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By Cedric (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2013 at 13:50:02 in reply to Comment 92372

But This Is Haaaamilton! Nothing that works in other cities will work here because We're Soooo Diiiifferent.


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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted September 23, 2013 at 14:46:00 in reply to Comment 92373

love the cynicism!

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By Iain (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2013 at 18:22:52

Why don't we just close it every Friday night? Show the other weeks of the month some love too.

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By Jim Street (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2013 at 07:51:39

Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington Market:

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By tenni (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2013 at 08:15:27

Sorry, but I find all the bands, people setting up trinket pop up and low quality art on the sidewalks unappealing. As a person involved in the beginning of the art crawl it has gotten too carnival like and distracting to the original purpose. I've been in galleries during art crawl when some poor quality band has amplified their sound to the point that you can not hear an artist in the galleries talk. Some street squatters are simply rude and attention seekers. Others, like the man who sings opera add a great deal to the ambience and he doesn't need amplification. He has skill and talent. I know that my view will be found offensive to some but this is my view and I was there at the beginning. I'm still visiting.

I don't know if it is wise for the city to get too involved but some things are not working as they should in the present anarchistic format.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted September 22, 2013 at 11:56:30 in reply to Comment 92442

The only musician I have found to be over amplified is the fellow with the pipes. I have encountered businesses, however, especially a new one, that believes it is necessary to deafen everyone who passes by but I think that can be dealt with by bringing it to his attention.

I have yet to encounter a street vendor who has been rude. Yes, there is art of varying quality, but there are also wallets of varying weight. In our market society, to each according to his/her ability to pay.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 22, 2013 at 08:23:30

Personally I love the idea. Some of the best cities I've been to are ones with regular street closures so everyone can safely enjoy urban living. Montreal closed St Catharine all summer this year. Bogota has had weekly ciclovias for years. Toronto shuts down Kensington Market every week and its not become institutionalized at all.

Great cities offer great car-free public spaces. Hopefully Hamilton can begin to head down that road (insert cheesy joke here).

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By missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2013 at 15:36:36 in reply to Comment 92443

A bit closer to home is the ever popular Dundas Cactus Fair ...

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted September 22, 2013 at 11:51:41 in reply to Comment 92443

If the idea is to turn it into a pedestrian mall, great idea. But once a month closings for a few hours are costly.

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