On a rainy street covered in wet litter, a few blocks away from a long-vacant commercial strip on Barton Street East, sits Michael St. George.
He's just opened Fullstride Sounds, a new studio and rehearsal space on Sanford Avenue North next to a home with an overturned couch on the front lawn. Across the street, crews are demolishing a former school.
The location doesn't faze the renowed dub poet and performance artist.
"My real estate agent advised that I should not buy anything north of King Street," he says, then smiles. "But I went ahead and did it."
St. George has always been inspired by unpolished neighbourhoods. He grew up in August Town, Jamaica, a "painful and sad" community ravaged by poverty, crime and gun violence. Despite that, many of its residents have gone on to international recognition, particularly in the arts.
"In any neighbourhood, things can happen," he said.
St. George purchased the three-storey house at the corner of Sanford Avenue North and Bristol Street in 2008. When he took over the former convenience store and rental property, he found "a lot of garbage," he said. "I was like 'gosh.' But I'm happy."
He has extensively renovated the property, filling the interior with lively colours and rehearsal space, as well as lounging and writing areas for artists to use. It has recording and mixing equipment for bands, choirs and individuals. He's renovating the second floor so musicians can spend the night when they're working. He lives on the third floor.
When St. George moved to Canada 23 years ago, he settled in Toronto, but he relocated to Hamilton a year ago. He is a published writer who has released three albums and is working on a fourth.
A former teacher at Brock University, he also established the Turn Around Project (TAP) there in 2007. Students have traveled to Jamaica, Japan and India with TAP, mingling creative projects with community service. St. George's Sanford Avenue office is also TAP's headquarters.
St. George is humble in his approach to his new city. It will take a while for people to get to know him, he said, and he is "just getting to the pulse of Hamilton."
He is working on a compilation of Canadian and international artists — some from Hamilton — to showcase the music and his studio. He will release it in April. He'd also like to expand TAP to Hamilton schools and eventually offer mentoring and lessons for young aspiring performers.
It's the kind of presence that benefits the whole neighbourhood, said Glen Norton, manager of urban renewal in the city's planning and economic development department. Artists tend to create momentum, he said.
"It reminds me of when the Tiger Group put an art studio on Barton."
The city has budgeted $100,000 this year to develop a master plan for Barton Street, he said. It will hire a consultant and get public input to develop a vision for the street.