Street art: gentrification and James Street North

Nolan Matthews
September 27, 2012
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

As part of OPIRG’s Alternative Welcome Week, a presentation called “Gentrification and the Art Crawl” was held in the Student Centre on Sept. 14 about an hour before Supercrawl began. The talk addressed the changes happening on James Street North, and how the coffee shops and art galleries that have opened on the street are influencing this change.

“When I hear about that kind of thing, I always get tense,” said Tim Potocic, one of the main organizers of Supercrawl and an owner of the downtown Hamilton record label Sonic Unyon. “And it’s purely selfish, because I spend so much time trying so hard to avoid conflict, to try to appease as many people as possible.”

The basic idea of gentrification starts with a neighborhood where everything is cheap. People might not make much money, and there’s low-income housing and social services designed for the people living there. At some point, a person who is drawn to the neighborhood by the cheap rent is inclined to take a bit of a risk, and they start something that appeals to people outside the community. Quite often, these are artists who open galleries. The area then becomes trendy, and everyone wants to go there. Slowly, everything becomes more expensive.

“Instead of offering them food co-ops and affordable housing initiatives, we’re giving them very expensive café’s and galleries and apartments that aren’t going to be able to house low-income people,” said Riaz Sayani-Mulji, an organizer and facilitator of the gentrification talk.

In theory, the problem with gentrification is that the concerns of low-income people are forgotten. But the question is whether the way gentrification is theorized is actually the way it’s playing out on James Street North.

“Nobody has the thought, ‘I’m going to buy that building and I don’t care about those people that I’m going to put on the street,’” said Potocic. “These are not people that are buying buildings and turning them into giant Wal-Marts and only care about the mighty dollar and don’t care about the people they are putting on the street. They do, and they feel guilty about it. And they – actually, which nobody sees – make efforts to help those people.”

Potocic said that his ideal street has a diverse group of people with all different levels of income, and that new development doesn’t necessarily mean that low-income people are displaced. But, just as gentrification might be different in theory than in practice, Potocic’s vision of a street could have some problems.

“The one thing that I see most clearly when I’m at work is the increase in police presence on James,” said Sayani-Mulji. “With gentrification, when you’re trying to clean up the street and get rid of all the ‘undesirables,’ with that comes a social policing as well. And I’ve seen a lot of, I wouldn’t say brutality, but definitely rough-handling of youth, very aggressive behaviour. I’ve had to report the police on more than one occasion while I’ve been at work.”

Sayani-Mulji recently graduated from McMaster and has worked at youth shelters downtown for several years. He said that the Jamesville Community Centre, which he used to work at and was located a block away from James North, went into decline before being closed and relocated last May. The Hamilton Spectator reported that the relocation of Jamesville was always planned, and that it was simply because of more opportunities in the new location. But Sayani-Mulji said that the gentrification on James North also had a role.

“I think it’s just a difference in priorities,” he said. “The city has made its commitment to this creative class and revitalizing the community through art, but that comes with a sacrifice.”
The extent to which art is influencing City funding priorities is questionable, but Sayani-Mulji also had a more explicit example of how the changes on James North are affecting the community.

“The Notre Dame House, a shelter I used to work at, has received enormous pressure over the last few years to relocate because it’s almost seen as an eyesore along James Street North,” said Sayani-Mulji. “But what they’re doing, and what is great to see, is that they’re taking part in the Art Crawl. So the youth that are staying at the shelter and the youth they serve are getting involved in things like the Urban Arts Initiative and saying, ‘We’re part of this community, and like it or not, we’re going to take part in the events that you’re running, like the Art Crawl.’”

What remains to be determined is whether a coffee is shop just a coffee shop, or if it really does have some larger role in gentrification.

“I think that we all have to be cognizant that, and this is very true for McMaster students, that we’re entering into a living community,” said Sayani-Mulji. “It’s not something static that we can mould into what we like.”


Nolan Matthews, Senior ANDY Editor

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