Art Crawl is damaging James North's brick-and-mortar stores, owners say
'The street is literally dying,' says one merchant, and Art Crawl doesn't help everyone
Browse the wares on the shelves of the James North General Store, and they seem perfectly suited for an Art Crawl.
There's custom-made soap and beard oil. There are metal straws for the environmentally conscious. There are mints in metal tins with old-fashioned caricatures on them, and "You can do anything in Hamilton" shirts.
But for the last couple of years, says co-owner Darren Kregar, Art Crawl hasn't been the windfall it used to be. While the second Friday of the month used to pay a whole month's rent, he says, now it's hardly worth being open. Vendors at Art Crawl aren't just setting up tables to sell art anymore. They're selling custom-made soap. And mints in metal tins. And beard oil.
"On an Art Crawl night, we used to get easily 50 to 100 people in the store," he said. "Now we're lucky to get a third of that."
Art Crawl, the famed organic street festival, turns 14 this year. And with vendor numbers increasing, Kregar wants the city to get more selective about who it lets set up a table there.
When the event started, it was a cluster of James North galleries and restaurants drawing people in to browse local exhibits. Now tables crowd the sidewalks from Wilson to Barton streets, sometimes duplicating what's for sale inside the stores. Sometimes the vendors are from out of town.
Kregar knows that no one owns Art Crawl. But the city has a bylaw outlining who can sell wares on the street, he says, and he wants bylaw officials to implement it.
"They're using James Street as a way of saying 'look at the arts, look at the culture, look at all this happening, look at the crowded streets,'" he said. But "last Art Crawl, we were actually slow on sales."
Bylaw 06-213 identifies transient sales people as "pedlars," and pedlars need to be licensed and have written permission from property owners on lands that are zoned commercial.
By its own admission, the city rarely — if ever — uses this bylaw at Art Crawl or any other festival. Jason Farr, Ward 2 councillor, has heard complaints like Kregar's before. Talking to local businesses, it's an issue "that's always come up."
"I'm frustrated too seeing an individual from Mississauga selling 'I love Hamilton' T-shirts near a store that sells 'I love Hamilton' T-shirts," Farr said. Applying the bylaw, though, would jeopardize the future of Art Crawl.
"You can't be selective," he said. "Everyone would have to get a pedlar's license and, quite frankly, I don't think a lot of them would."
Art Crawl's popularity is so coveted that areas like Locke Street and Concession Street are trying to inspire similar movements. City officials say the James North event is organic and not owned by anyone, but they're glad it exists.
Kelly Barnett, manager of service delivery, says staff attend Art Crawl. Their focus is on health and safety violations though. They pay particular attention to where food is served. At one recent Art Crawl, she says, a vendor ran an extension cord across the sidewalk.
"They took it down immediately," she said. "We get immediate voluntary compliance."
As for going beyond that, the city has limited resources. And no one wants to discourage one of Hamilton's star events.
"People want this," Barnett said. When it comes to curbing vendors, "I don't see any appetite for that at all."
"I would think with the amount of people it brings in, that whole area would benefit from it."
Angela DeMontigny owns the DeMontigny Boutique and Gallery, where she sells her own Indigenous fashion designs, as well as jewelry and art. Like Kregar, she sees a bleed of businesses leaving James North for various reasons.
"The street is literally dying," she said.
She moved to James North four years ago. For the first couple of years, she needed extra staff to keep with the Art Crawl rush.
"Waves of people would come in," she said. "Now everybody stays on the street."
DeMontigny says she's tried to stop vendors from setting up in front of her shop to sell candles and jewelry. "I've had some of them be quite rude."
"I've even had artists literally lean their paintings against my window. It's kind of obnoxious, really."
All of this has sparked talk of a BIA on James North, an idea that's come and gone over the years. Christal Pshyk, co-owner of LEN: Democratic Purveyors of Fine Art & Beautiful Things, is former marketing chair of the Danforth Mosaic BIA. She's knocking on doors on James North to gather support.
Pshyk does brisk business during Art Crawl. She sees other benefits of a BIA though, like the ability to launch coordinated marketing efforts, and harnessing some of Art Crawl's wealth of foot traffic.
James North's revitalization is precarious, she says. "Our rents keep going up. Our sales have to go up to reflect that."
"Without Art Crawls going up and down the street, I don't think I would be able to make my rent."