Gentrification and the City: The Struggle for Re-Claiming Public Spaces in Hamilton

By: Nicole Rallis (This is Hamilton)

As McMaster graduate students, Layla and I came to Hamilton with very little prior knowledge about the cultural and political life of the city. More specifically as globalization students, we did not foresee ourselves to be engaged with the vast amounts of social justice activism happening on the ground in Hamilton.

We self reflexively realize the shortcomings of our project in having spent such a diminutive amount of time in the city (currently local residents of only ten months). It is, of course, difficult to really grasp the complexities and cleavages of the many social justice issues facing the city. However, we are lucky to be members of a community with strong grassroots resistance to social injustices, and have been able to learn a lot about the city in a short amount of time through the help of many local news sources, independent publishers and ‘on the ground’ activists.

It did not take much investigation and research to realize one of the largest issues facing the city today is the struggle over public spaces. Like many other cities across Canada, Hamilton faces gentrification struggles, “in pursuit of sanitized downtown cores pandering to a creative class of young urban professionals” (Mann, 2010).  Social justice activists Hayley Goodchild and Sarah Mann have written extensively on this issue, describing the struggles of a quasi post-steel town in search of a new economic and cultural identity.

Some popular mantras floating around Hamilton’s middle-class and creative business sector are slogans like “Art in the New Steel”, and they have spearheaded initiatives such as the “Hamilton Creative City Initiative”, and “You Can do Anything in Hamilton” between 2009 and 2011. Professor Richard Florida, author of  “The Rise of the Creative Class” (2002) was even the keynote guest speaker at Hamilton’s May 2008 Economic Summit. While there are no doubt many social, cultural and economic benefits to supporting a creative class, it is important to step-back for a second and realize that creating a non-inclusive economy can be of great detriment to the remainder of the Hamilton community who do not adhere to the “creative class mold”.  It is indeed a ‘class’ issue and is deeply bound in historic economic labour stratifications.

Steel cannot easily or cohesively transfer to art without dispossessing many varying Hamilton populations. Importantly, there are many historical and economic connections to the city’s steel industry. Not only has the steel industry supported thousands of Hamilton families economically over the decades; it is also considered the birthplace of the city’s strong labour movement and progressive social justice activism. Those within the community, from social workers, union activists, and community initiatives like the Hamilton Poverty Roundtable, have strong ties with the ills that neoliberal policy making and American corporatization have brought to the steel industry and consequently the greater Hamilton community.

These activists have shared in some of the direct action victories that the labour movement has gained, and have also protested against the many undemocratic economic, environmental and social injustices the city has faced (and still faces) via connections with neoliberal policies and the sway of municipal, provincial and federal governments catering to the global capitalist class. These are unfortunately some of the ‘big picture’ problems happening within the city that are often overlooked when having discussions surrounding the gentrification of Hamilton’s city core.

As stated by many knowledgeable Hamiltonian poverty and social justice activists groups (The Hamilton Poverty Roundtable, the Immigrant Women’s Centre, and the McMaster Poverty Initiative), poverty often stems from ‘bigger picture’ issues. As explained in Dan Meades’ TedxTalk about urban poverty (2012):

Why don’t we want poverty? What does poverty do to our communities? It brings other things like addiction, domestic violence, higher mental illness, and lower rates of trust.

Meades also explained that some of our normative theoretical perceptions around urbanism currently encourage poverty. This can be seen in relation to the growing provincial and federal neoliberal mind frames and policy initiatives. “We our now economic citizens before we are social citizens”, explains Meades. In some ways, the creative class falls victim to these mind frames of exclusionary economic development as well.

It would be unfair to disregard the many great things the Hamilton creative community is doing for this city. Events such as Art Crawl (which take place every second Friday of the month) bring local artists and the greater community together on James St North for a day and evening of local arts and crafts, food, and music. Others in the creative class such as Mark Furukawa, owner of Dr. Disc Hamilton, takes on the local music and art scene with a political consciousness around issues of accessibility. This past June, Furukawa, along with other local artists and enthusiasts held a conference, Exchange 1111, on how to make the art community more accessible to Hamiltonians living on the mountain and in the East end of the city. The entire meeting was live-tweeted by those in attendance.

Mark Furukawa, Dr. Disc owner

A tension that still resides in Hamilton’s gentrification process, as Mann notes, is that as developers work to re-create space for the incoming creative class, people living in poverty, who have long resided in the downtown core, are being forced out. This dispossession of “undesirables” speaks to the communities resided along James St. North and Gore Park, for example. When Layla and I have filmed, or have just been walking in these areas, we are always well aware of the many different forms of police in the streets. It does not really matter what time and day of the week, there are always security forces around. This is no coincidence, as Mann notes, both neighborhoods feature a special police foot patrol, 24/7 video surveillance, and more assigned police presence than any other area of the city.

A ‘big picture’ question that arises for Layla and I when looking at Hamilton’s gentrification process is, how can Hamilton create an inclusive economy, conscious of the tensions still residing within the transformation of the steel industry?  How can Hamilton also recognize and address the issues of neoliberal conservative mind frames that shape national agendas, thus affecting local mind frames?

It also seems important to ask how we can move past exclusionary mind frames around poverty. This includes recognizing public spaces in the city, including the increasingly gentrified downtown core, should be made accessible and protected for all Hamiltonians; not just the growing “creative class”.  An important point raised again by Mann in her (2010) exploration of re-creating community spaces, “whereas industrial capitalism brought workers together in factories and working class neighborhoods, today’s capitalism isolates and divides workers”. It has too easily become part of our public consciousness to exclude certain members of the community (often along economic, gender, and racial lines) without asking why?”

©All photos taken by Tiger in a Suit Productions.

7 Responses to “Gentrification and the City: The Struggle for Re-Claiming Public Spaces in Hamilton”
  1. Mike says:

    “Today’s capitalism isolates and divides workers”??? You have some splainin’ to do on that one. Begin by differentiating “today’s” from “yesterday’s” capitalism. I do not want to be insensitive, but I have great difficulty understanding your point.

    • To further Nicole’s point, capitalism “robs workers of all life content” (Marx) in two ways. The first is that it is an economic system that accentuates the division of labor, breaking production into a series of smaller and smaller, more specialized tasks, each performed by a different kind of worker, because this will increase profitability. As a result, the individual laborers are appropriated by a one-sided function and annexed to it for life, depriving them of the well-rounded variety of activities that they need to be more fully human beings; this differential shift is sometimes referred to as “metabolic rift” (Foster).

      The second reason why capitalism generates alienation is that it is an economic system in which a small minority controls the means of production, and in which most people can survive only by selling their own labor power. Workers under capitalism have to work for someone else. As a consequence, many theorists argue that work has little or no intrinsic worth for the worker, as Marx himself puts it, “it is not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself.” Hope this helps clarify a little.

  2. Simon Orpana says:

    Thank you for this clearly argued, sensitive treatment of the political and economic issues surrounding Hamilton’s recent efforts to re-brand itself. How to mobilize a work force that is not necessarily concentrated in factories, and that tends to work contract and other short term jobs (thus making it difficult to achieve a sense of solidarity, despite all our social media!) is indeed a key issue for countering the new forms of exploitation related to immaterial labour. Could you please supply the full citation for Sarah Mann and Hayley Goodchild’s work? It sounds interesting! Thanks.

  3. marjorie says:

    Public spaces are exactly that: spaces for all members of the public. Everyone has the right to access them and everyone has the right to feel safe in them. Having said that, NO one has the right to misuse public spaces. Some members of the public loiter in public spaces in inappropriate ways that make others feel unsafe. They do not have the right to do this. For example, in Gore park, which has the potential to be a wonderful , beautiful public space feels unsafe because some members of the public loiter there in inappropriate ways. More specifically gang members pace up and down and I have seen them call on others to fight. These members of the public should be encouraged to move along. I am happy about the gentrification in our city. It is exciting that our city is attracting more working class people. For the size of our city, research shows we have an overabundance of poverty. Attracting more working class people to contribute to our city improves life for us all. We need to alleviate the burden that we currently have and focus on improving our city, and sustaining resources we have in place currently.

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