Hamilton landlords say they warned police about anti-gentrification activists months ago
'I'm just sad that it took this much destruction' to grab city's attention, restaurateur says
Businesses and landlords on Hamilton's Barton Street say police and the city have been ignoring their warnings about an escalating number of anti-gentrification vandalism incidents on the lower city strip dating back months.
Now, with a spotlight firmly on the issue after a highly visible $100,000 property damage spree on Locke Street — one of Hamilton's most affluent and popular neighbourhoods — those same people are hoping authorities will finally take their concerns seriously. Some say it appears as long as these incidents were happening downtown or along Barton Street, there was no alarm.
"I'm happy that the city is finally taking notice, but I'm pissed that it took this incident for that to happen," said Matt Cowan, chef and co-owner of the restaurant The Heather on Barton Street East.
"I'm just sad that it took this much destruction."
At around 10 p.m. ET Saturday, police said, about 30 people dressed in black with their faces covered walked through the streets of Hamilton carrying a banner that said, "We Are The Ungovernables."
Police say they set off fireworks in the Kirkendall neighbourhood in the city's southwest, damaging vehicles and throwing rocks at store windows. Several businesses on Locke Street were targeted.
Cowan says when he heard about the incident, his thoughts immediately went out to the businesses that were affected — because he knew what they were feeling.
He says anti-gentrification activists have been targeting his restaurant since it opened a year ago. The Heather offers high-concept dining, which is not a staple on Barton Street, one of the more run-down sections of the city. However, it's a strip that some in the city feel will follow areas like Locke Street and James Street North in resurgence.
By contrast, anti-gentrification advocates worry that rising rents mean that lower-income people will get pushed out of their homes.
'This has been going on for years'
Cowan says a group of people smashed his restaurant window last April. Then, during the May Day March on May 1, a group targeted the restaurant again.
"They stood outside the building screaming threats at us and spitting on our windows," he said. "We've been to police and city hall, and nothing has happened.
"The mayor makes this seem like [Locke Street] is the first attack, but it's not. This has been going on for years."
Krysta Boyer, a real estate agent and founder of Try Hamilton — which runs real estate tours — says she first encountered anti-gentrification activists in the summer of 2016. She was running a tour on Barton when about 20 masked protesters attacked the group, shooting sour milk from water guns and carrying signs with slogans like, "Developers + Investors = Predators. Defend Hamilton."
She says she and other stakeholders on Barton took their concerns to police and city representatives at a meeting last September.
"We felt like our concerns fell on deaf ears," she said.
At a press conference at Hamilton police headquarters Monday, Insp. Paul Hamilton said that he couldn't comment on if there was any connection between the incidents on Barton and what happened on Locke, but said police are "looking at all aspects" for the investigation.
"We know this is not a spontaneous act … this was very well planned and well executed," he said. The people involved in the protest wore multiple layers of clothing, he said, and once they discarded them, it was easy for them to blend into a crowd and get away.
"They turn down one street, take off some clothing, and then they look like any member of the community," he said.
Ongoing vandalism concerns
Architect and landlord Bill Curran, who owns property on Barton Street, has written a letter to Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Police Chief Eric Girt, saying the Locke Street incident could have been foreseen.
"It is sad to see what happened on Locke Street on Saturday, but we have been predicting this for months," he wrote.
"Police inaction over the roughly dozen incidents to date have emboldened these people, and this escalation is the expected outcome."
His letter itemizes eight incidents of anti-gentrification vandalism targeting businesses in recent months.
"Our concerns as business owners repeatedly targeted by the same group have been ignored by police and by city hall leadership."
CBC News has requested to speak with Girt and Eisenberger about those criticisms, but did not immediately receive a response.
Curran, Cowan and Boyer say they believe The Tower — an anarchist collective on Cannon Street — is responsible for the actions against their properties.
No one from the Tower responded to messages from a reporter on Monday.
Hamilton would not say if investigators have spoken with anyone from the group.
"We haven't identified anybody yet. We do know there was the anarchist book fair taking place in the city on the weekend. I'm not connecting this to the book fair specifically, but like-minded people attended that event from right across the province," he said.
"We are investigating the possibility that there are people from outside this community that committed these acts."