An architect and artist tries to be true to both callings in a changing city

Petra Matar, 29, wants to see development in Hamilton take context and culture into account, not just treat lots and buildings like a "blank slate."

Petra Matar: 'Hamilton needs to do some soul-searching... what do we want to be?'

Petra Matar, 29, moved to Hamilton six years ago. As an artist and architect, she's both excited and fearful of the change happening in the city she loves. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Petra Matar is an architect and artist who moved into an apartment on James Street North six years ago.

Wearing two hats, Matar embodies the tension inherent between the city's growth, potential and infusion of capital – and the displacement and rapid change affecting artists and lower- and middle-class households.

"Hamilton needs to do some soul-searching," she said. "What do we want to be? We should be careful not to pitch our city as a mini Toronto but rather a unique cultural centre."

"Hamilton is a city that has a wonderful scale," Matar said. "The people are great. They come from all walks of life. And they are humble. That's what I love about it."

Matar, 29, says some of the things that made her fall in love with Hamilton are disappearing. But at the same time, as an architect, she finds the city's development prospects exciting.

Petra Matar: Hamilton's 'definitely changing a lot'

6 years ago
Duration 0:52
Petra Matar, an artist and architect, contemplates change in the city she loves.

"It's definitely changing a lot, and there's no stopping it," she said. "I'm really excited to see what's going to happen, and I'm also kind of worried."

Artists feel pinched by rising rents

Matar went to university in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, and afterward her family moved to the Mountain at the same time she moved downtown.

When Matar arrived in Hamilton, she and fellow artists found the city exhilarating. Matar uses ink, watercolour and collage elements in her drawing, painting and illustration artwork.

They could find apartments for cheap enough that they could work just one job and still have time to make art. They could even afford to rent studios and make their work away from home.

They could put on shows and spark spontaneous collaborations at low-cost venues like Homegrown Hamilton and Baltimore House, both of which have gone out of business in the last year.

The grassroots community of galleries, shops and artists on James Street North coordinated their efforts to get people out to art shows the second Friday of every month.

James Street North was alive with the sights and sounds of Hamilton at an Art Crawl in May 2013. (Sheryl Nadler)

But as Art Crawl became more popular, it became a calling card used by tourism marketers and city boosters. In June, the lineup for Supercrawl was announced not in Hamilton but in Toronto at an event intended to sell business types there on Hamilton's merits.

"Supercrawl choosing to hold their official festival launch in Toronto, alongside the economic development office and condo developers, speaks volumes," wrote local music blogger Biljana Njegovan.

"Overflows" is one of several art installations that was in place for the 2016 Supercrawl. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Potential for great development

But meanwhile, as an intern-architect working with dpai Architecture Inc., Matar gets to dream big about some of the spaces in the city. She worked on designing a 40-storey building planned for Rebecca Street.

But she sees her role of one of responsibility to try to reconcile the values of Hamilton's young creative with the potential the city has to grow. She wants to see development in Hamilton take context and culture into account, not just treat lots and buildings like a "blank slate."

Construction workers use a crane to build the new student-geared apartment building on James North, next to the Lister Block and across the street from Jackson Square in downtown Hamilton. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

She worries that change might not accommodate everyone in the city, and that it will alter the parts of Hamilton that are dear to her.

"Hamilton does need change, but it need change that is coming from within that speaks to it," she said. "It can come from outside, but it definitely has to be driven by what it is."

What do you think?

Join us this week and next as we explore all of these questions and more.

Follow along here, and please send us your comments, observations and ideas as our series unfolds. You can find places to comment on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and by dropping us an email: Hamilton@cbc.ca.


Kelly Bennett is a freelance reporter based in Hamilton. Her writing has appeared in CBC News, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Voice of San Diego and in the National Observer for the Local Journalism Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @kellyrbennett or email kelly@kellyrbennett.com.