James Kayser admits that when it comes to opening a restaurant, Barton and John isn't everyone's ideal place.
That's where the chef opened The Butcher and Vegan. With a mandate to serve local food and a decor that includes vintage WWF action figures, it would perhaps be more at home on James Street, or another area that caters to more hipster sensibilities.
But Kayser doesn't think so. To hear him tell it, he's on the ground floor of Hamilton's next hip area – Barton Street. He's talking to chefs and artists, trying to get them to start galleries and businesses there. And Kayser's not the only one — this year, in earnest, the idea of a revitalized Barton Street seems to be finally taking root.
'People are always saying, 'You can't do this in Hamilton. Things will never change.' But if you look around, it's constantly changing.' - James Kayser
Kayser knows there are obstacles. The biggest one is perception. Some of his customers have told him that they've avoided Barton Street for years. Even prospective employees, when applying to his ads, told him that he was crazy to set up there. He thanked them for their interest.
"People are always saying, 'You can't do this in Hamilton. Things will never change,'" he said. "But if you look around, it's constantly changing."
"I mostly heard that I was crazy. People would say, 'What are you doing down there? It's a terrible area,'" he said. But the building, like the area, has "got good bones."
Barton and John is, admittedly, not always a place where you'd expect to find dishes such as Kayser's organic mushroom crostini and blackened tofu lettuce wraps.
A few blocks east, there are large spans of mostly empty storefronts, some of which have people illegally living in them. Other buildings languish and creak from landowner inattention. Methadone clinics dot the landscape.
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The restaurant itself is located across from a bar called Nobody's Perfect, which "hasn't contributed much other than that they play really loud music on weekends," says Allison Chewter, president of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association. She'd like to see businesses interact more with the street.
'There are people who still have a very negative perception, and perception is a hard one to change.' - Rachel Braithwaite, Barton Village BIA
Kayser's not the first one to talk about Barton Street as the city's next hip area. But the idea has gained momentum this year, said Rachel Braithwaite, executive director of the Barton Village BIA.
"I've been constantly hearing that, probably since the spring," said Braithwaite, who helped organize the first Barton Street Festival this year.
"There's lots of excitement around Barton Street. Unfortunately, there are people who still have a very negative perception, and perception is a hard one to change."
'It's got good bones'
There are other examples of slow but steady movement. Kayser and Nickelbrook Brewery have started BARTCrawl, which is similar to Art Crawl on James Street North. The first happened on July 25 with the motto "For those who crawl further," and it had musicians and beer specials. The second is Aug. 29 at 2 p.m.
The city is also making an effort with two large studies that include Barton Street. In September, councillors received the Barton Street-Kenilworth Avenue Commercial Corridors Study, aimed at boosting business along the street. Consultant Ron Palmer echoed Kayser's wording when he presented it to councillors.
'It's probably the last authentic neighbourhood in the city.' - Walter Furlan, Barton Street business owner
"It's got good bones," he told them.
Also last September, the city approved a Barton-Tiffany redevelopment plan, which maps out what goes where over the next 20 years in a newly reimagined Barton and Tiffany area, west of Bay Street.
The projects coincide with two transit game changers in Hamilton. Metrolinx opened the West Harbour GO station 200 metres north of Barton in July. And in 2024, the province will launch a $1-billion light rail transit system in Hamilton, which will include a spur line that will cross over Barton on the way from King Street to the GO station.
As for how to get beyond that, opinions vary. Chewter says there's too much parking on Barton, which gets in the way of it being a continuous street for walking. Kayser dismisses that idea. He wants ample parking. Coun. Jason Farr is a fan of the city projects, citing them as helping Barton become the next Ottawa or James. Walter Furlan, owner of a custom restoration business on Barton Street, sees them as being out of touch with the culture of the street.
'People here are survivors'
To help Barton, Furlan said, the city needs to deal with "predatory landlords," and it needs city planners who understand the street.
"It's probably the last authentic neighbourhood in the city," he said. "People here are survivors. It's an interesting place."
As for Kayser, he plans to keep talking up the area, doing what he can to attract artists and foodies — "anything to get people into those buildings." And he plans to keep holding BARTCrawls.
The first BARTCrawl, he admits, was "sparsely attended but overall somewhat successful." But he's not deterred.
"I was at the first Taste of the Danforth and I thought it was just a hot dog cookout," he said.