Hamilton creatives rally against gentrification at Gaged Forum

Artists are frustrated, struggling and increasingly disillusioned by a city hall they say seems eager to capitalize and monetize certain kinds of art, but much less keen to support artists.
Artists and creators from across Hamilton gathered for the start of a two-day forum on gentrification on Friday at the Spice Factory. (Adam Carter/CBC)

As rapper Lee Reed was onstage at the Gaged Forum kick off party Thursday at This Ain't Hollywood, it dawned on him — he was performing for a gentrification conference at a Hamilton institution that just went up for sale for over $2 million.

"I actually choked up a bit," Reed told CBC News. "I hugged the wall and had a bit of a moment … it's the end of an era and the end of a great space in the city.

Nothing is safe."

That sentiment bubbled underneath the surface Friday afternoon as artists, performers, arts administrators and city representatives gathered at The Spice Factory for the first day of a two-day forum in downtown Hamilton on gentrification and its relation to the arts.

The city's music strategy is a farce.- Emily Power, panel moderator

Though many had somewhat different viewpoints, a strong undercurrent remained. Artists are frustrated, struggling and increasingly disillusioned by a city hall they say seems eager to capitalize and monetize certain kinds of art, but much less keen to support artists through affordable housing and other initiatives.

"Art is being used as some kind of … bright, shiny goat to attract investment," said dub poet Klyde Broox, who spoke as part of a panel against "artwashing," and fostering "creative anti-gentrification resistance."

"Artists are not making money. We are being driven out of Hamilton," he said.

Panel moderator Emily Power expressed similar disillusionment with how the city has handled its creative sector in recent years — specifically its music strategy, which has been highly criticized for being little more than a branding exercise that doesn't actually help musicians.

"The city's music strategy is a farce," she said.

People struggle as price of real estate surges

The Gaged Forum comes as downtown Hamilton hits a tipping point, with James North often seen as its epicentre. What was once seen as a run-down part of Hamilton is now one of the city's trendiest strips.

The potential sale of This Ain't Hollywood is a good example of the issue. Co-owner Lou Molinaro bought the building with his business partners back in 2009 for just under $350,000, and it became one of the city's most beloved venues. It was listed for sale this week for just under $2.15 million, as Molinaro says ownership is "testing the waters" to see if any interest is out there.

Rapper Lee Reed (middle) and dub poet Klyde Broox (right) were part of a panel moderated by Emily Power on Friday. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Real estate, and by extension, the cost of rent, has surged all over the area in recent years.

Take the nearby building at 174 James Street North. Back in 2005, it sold for $254,500. Then in 2012, it sold again — this time for $730,000. It sold yet again in 2014 for $1.25 million. The building's worth had more than quadrupled in under 10 years without any major renovations.

These kinds of prices are pushing artists to the margins, leaving them without the space or capital to practice art, said writer and artist Anthony Easton.

"I don't know how to continue my practice, because I don't have the space to continue my practice."

Fighting the idea of 'foot soldiers of gentrification'

A common refrain at the conference was that as gentrification intensifies, creative types are also feeling pangs of guilt for contributing to what has happened to the city's downtown core.

"I've been aiding and abetting it ignorantly this whole time," said Becky Katz of Strangewaves music festival.

The forum continues Saturday. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Simon Orpana said he has been similarly "paralyzed by guilt" over the gentrification issues he sees.

"[Hamilton] was a canvass for my dreams for sure, but then we lose our spaces because of these processes," he said.

Forum organizer Angela Orasch said she hopes the event can help foster increased conversation about these issues, and find practical solutions that can improve things for Hamilton's artists.

"There is an opening of space in Hamilton where we can push back," she said.

The forum's second day runs at The Spice Factory on Saturday starting at 9 a.m.



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.


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