The Young Artists of (a Gentrified) Hamilton
Rife with homegrown talent, Hamilton has undergone a transition from blue collar steel town to a revitalized entertainment hub with a thriving arts and culture scene. But one person’s revitalization is another’s gentrification, and Hamilton locals and newcomers find themselves at odds about what changes mean to the city and those who reside in it.
Critics of gentrification argue that the hike in Hamilton’s real estate market has displaced lower income households from their own neighbourhoods, all the while replacing districts of hardware stores and thrift shops with new lofts and trendy restaurants.
On the other hand, supporters suggest new investments will bring more opportunities for those in the city, particularly for the young creatives of the arts and culture scene.
But how, exactly, has gentrification affected those in the city, particularly the “young creatives” it supposedly benefits? What is Hamilton’s elusive arts and culture scene really like from the inside?
For most of her childhood, Sahra Soudi lived in Dundas, a predominantly white constituent community within Hamilton. As a Somali-Canadian, she did not grow up with people who looked like her. She still recalls a particular instance where someone spilt burning coffee on her Somali-Egyptian mother, who wears a hijab due to her Muslim faith. They only responded with a facetious and unapologetic “oops”.
Today, the multimedia student uses art as a means of expressing her experiences as a woman of colour. From selling totes, stickers and buttons adorned with her artwork at art crawls and O’s Clothes to creating her first zine for the Hamilton Feminist Zine Fair, Soudi tells her personal narrative through the marriage of art and activism.
Although Soudi is now a member of Hamilton’s inner art circle and considers it a friendly and welcoming space, she did not always feel encouraged to participate.
“I can name maybe two [notable artists on Hamilton’s art scene] who are Black… Kareem Ferreira [and] Stylo Starr. The lack of representation has a lot to do with [my feelings of discouragement],” she said.
“[Rarely do people encourage] Black, Asian [or other racialized] children to be artists. It’s a very hegemonic, white-dominant scene… same with music, you don’t see a band that is solely people of colour here.”
"It's a very hegemonic, white-dominant scene... same with music, you don't see a band that is solely people of colour here."
Hamilton artist and Multimedia Student
Although forging her own path in Hamilton’s art scene has not been easy, Soudi accredits inclusive art spaces like Casino Artspace and HAVN for supporting aspiring artists in their communities. For instance, HAVN will be adding Soudi into their collective, where she hopes to curate and create narrative-based art that is telling of experiences of marginalized communities.
While Soudi agrees that some changes have brought opportunities into the city, she wonders who these opportunities are for. Recently, there has been a divide between the youth of Hamilton and newcomers. Although she grew up in Hamilton, she now feels uncomfortable walking down King William Street. She doesn’t feel as though she belongs with the patrons of the new, upscale restaurants. Despite current feelings of unease, Soudi plans to stay in her hometown for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve been [in Hamilton] for so long… it would be hard to leave it in the state that it’s in and start somewhere else completely new,” says Soudi.
“My goal is to create more spaces for people who don’t have that avenue to express themselves through art. I think being who I am, looking like I do and entering predominantly white spaces [like the arts and culture scene in Hamilton] is pretty cool and radical. I want to show others that you can exist in a scene that wasn’t necessarily made for you, and that you can thrive within it.”
An avid cyclist and coffee aficionado, Steve Good has been a part of Hamilton’s arts and culture scene and as a barista for nearly eight years.
For five of those years, Good worked at Café Domestique (now closed), a cycling cafe in Dundas that harmoniously combined his passions for biking and coffee. Currently, he works at Smalls Coffee, a tiny coffee take-away spot located on Cannon Street East.
Good’s long-time involvement with Hamilton’s coffee scene provided him with an in to the rest of the arts and culture community.
Through meeting customers who are often young artists and musicians, Good has become a frequent patron of art spaces and performance venues throughout the city.
As such, he’s seen first-hand how rising rent due to gentrification has priced out local businesses and spaces for artists to collaborate, replacing them with bars and restaurants.
“The opportunities that bars and restaurants offer are not necessarily available or desired by artists because that just isn’t their kind of space,” said Good.
“When you have affordable spaces, there’s a higher likelihood for performance… and currently, the arts and culture scene has been suffering due to the lack of these spaces.”
Critics of gentrification have drawn correlations between new coffee shops and rising rents.
Good believes this to be a general rule in a society that follows trends; when something becomes cool, as coffee culture did, it becomes a product of capitalization.
Good has only seen inclusivity towards the community from within the coffee industry.
However, he also recognizes his privilege as someone who could benefit from gentrification as he works in the service industry.
“It’s a double-edged sword… gentrification is basically the commodification of cool and does not necessarily benefit the people who put the neighbourhood where it is, which is unfortunate,” he said.
“I do feel a little guilty for participating in the coffee aspect of the arts and culture scene when injustices — such as people losing their businesses or art spaces — are taking place… but my take is that we can’t just sit and complain… it’s important to adapt. It is unfortunate that businesses are hurting and people are being priced out…but what is there to do? We just have to [keep these people in mind, help when we can], and adapt together as we move forward.”
"The opportunities that bars and restaurants offer are not necessarily available or desired by artists because that just isn't their kind of space."
Despite the challenges that come with being a young artist in Hamilton, members of the local art scene are working to help their community adapt to fit artists’ needs as their city changes. Soudi and Good all wish to continue creating spaces for their work. They hope that in the near future, they can create an art scene that is even more inclusive then what Hamilton’s current neighborhoods can offer.