Stories from a shifting city, told by 8 Hamilton artists

In a talk at the Art Gallery of Hamilton Annex, hosted by CBC's Kelly Bennett, 8 artists discuss their observations, inspirations, and concerns about the city and how those relate to their work.

Perspectives from an Art Gallery of Hamilton event called Your Hamilton: Stories from a Shifting City

CBC Hamilton reporter Kelly Bennett interviews writer Andrew Baulcomb as part of the Art Gallery of Hamilton Emerge event, Your Hamilton: Stories from a Shifting City. (AGH Emerge/Twitter)

Hamilton is changing. How do those shifts look to its artists?

CBC Hamilton reporter Kelly Bennett interviewed a series of writers, artists, photographers, musicians, theatre folks and a furniture maker – each offering perspectives on the ways their work is rooted in this city, and how they see the city changing, both for good or for bad.

The interviews were conducted live in front of an audience of about 100 people who gathered at the Art Gallery of Hamilton's Annex on James Street North, invited by the gallery's Emerge group to discuss "Your Hamilton: Stories from a Shifting City." You can watch all seven interviews below.

The night challenged the speakers and the audience to ask themselves: How do you see Hamilton shifting? And how might those changes be affecting people who live in a different neighbourhood from you, working a different job from you, living in a different generation from you, speaking a different language than you?

Holding on to Hamilton's 'authenticity'

There weren't a lot of people blogging about Hamilton when Seema Narula moved here eight years ago. She's a part-time teacher and freelance writer and creator of the blog, This Must Be The Place, which chronicles her love for all things Hamilton.

The pace of new, cool stuff opening is much different now than when she moved here.

Just thinking about coffee shops alone, she said Thursday: She recalled there were three or four places to get good coffee, like Ola on James and a place in the market serving Columbian coffee.

"And so Mulberry opened, and then the next one, and then the next one and the next one and the next one," she said. "It's just insane."

Seema Narula: 'I like how real people are' in Hamilton 7:38

As Hamilton changes, Narula said she already feels nostalgic about the way it was when she moved here.

"I really like its authenticity," Narula said. "I like how real it is, how real people are here. I like walking with my eyes open and I don't ignore the people who are around me, the people on the street.

"I'm aware that there's a huge contrast in what's happening in the city and what lives are like downtown. And that's something that I don't ever want to let go of, because I think that's something that needs to affect the way we plan and design the city for the future."

'It's exciting … but you don't want to see people get left behind'

Baulcomb is a born and raised Hamiltonian who described walking from Westdale to downtown with his friends in high school in the late 90s and early 2000s. He wrote a book about Hamilton's music scene called "Evenings & Weekends: Five Years in Hamilton Music, 2006-2011" that was published last year.

He said the double-cohort generation played a factor in the number of young people arriving at McMaster University in the early 2000s. He graduated from Grade 13 in 2003, and a class of Grade 12s graduated at the same time, all across Ontario.

"You suddenly had twice the number of young people going to shows and starting bands and wanting to do something outside of campus life," he said. "I think that had a big impact in having young people be engaged in the city and wanting to just do something creative."

Andrew Baulcomb: 'You don't want to see people get left behind' 5:59

He said he and his wife bought a house 18 months ago and he felt like they were "the last ones to get in before the door slammed shut."

"It's fun – it's exciting to see the amount of change that's happening, but you don't want to see people get left behind as well, in the change," he said.

A community of women supporting each other

Stef Dubbeldam and Joanna Aitcheson started Women of Hamilton, a social media campaign working to create safe spaces for women to share their stories in the city. They also partnered with Vagina Monologues Hamilton to raise money and awareness for Mary's Place in the beginning of February.

They said that they started the campaign to have conversations with women to delve deeper into what it means for them to be a woman in the city. They said they hope to talk with people who don't fit the traditional gender binary, people from different neighbourhoods and generations.

Aitcheson said there's a camaraderie among women in Hamilton.

"We've noticed a thread in our interviews, where women have talked about this aspect of community that they have with each other in the city," Aitcheson said. 

Stef and Joanna: Hamilton is home to strong bonds between women 9:41

Dubbeldam said she's encouraged by how much the support and connectivity between women who own businesses is already happening in the city and has been going on for years.

"I don't think that that's an accident. I don't think the fact that these shifts are happening in our city aren't connected with that," Dubbeldam said.

'You get the good stuff floating to the top'

Nicholas Hamilton Holmes grew up in Hamilton, went away to Ottawa and Montreal for school and moved back a few years ago. He is now doing quality millwork, designing and building custom furniture and making small-batch furniture.

A few years ago, Holmes found out about the city cutting down its ash trees due to the deadly pest emerald ash borer. He told the story Thursday about his plea to the city to let him use some of the wood from the dead trees to make things.

"They gave me a few reasons why not, which were just kind of red tape," he said. "Update: They're still chipping them."

He said he hopes the city will change its mind, but he's not holding his breath.

He said there is a growing community of people pursuing locally made, high quality furniture.

"In a gentrifying city, the problem is that as everything increases, the small people get pushed out," he said. "The pro side is that the competition gets vigorous, which is good, because it separates the wheat from the chaff and you get the good stuff floating to the top."

Nicholas Holmes: In a gentrifying city, 'competition gets vigorous' 7:58

Art isn't 'causing gentrification, it's also being used to talk about gentrification'

Amy Egerdeen makes illustrations and screen prints, handbound books and zines, and co-founded the annual Hamilton Feminist Zine Fair with the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton. As well, Amy works full-time at a local women's shelter with women and children fleeing abuse.

"In Hamilton, I think there's been this idea that art is one with gentrification and is … as if that's kind of something that's pushing people out," Egerdeen said.

"I think instead, art is something that has always been used in activism, it's always been used by people that are marginalized to have their voices heard," she said. "That's the way that I see art."

Amy Egerdeen: Art isn’t ‘causing gentrification, it’s also being used to talk about gentrification’ 5:38

Egerdeen does art workshops with people in the shelter. She's working on a poster project with women from the shelter where their art will be displayed around the city.

"Art has always been the voice of everyone; it's not just this idea of something that's causing gentrification, it's also being used to talk about gentrification."

'Ain't nothing changed'

Kojo "Easy" Damptey is a musician born and raised in Ghana in West Africa, who moved to Hamilton in 2001, when he was 17, to study chemical engineering. He fell into a whirlwind of school and music and learned to play piano and write songs. His sophomore record, "Giants" is expected this fall.

He's a passionate advocate against racism and a cheerleader for the idea that Hamilton is better because of its diversity, and he's interested in using art to tell stories of marginalized peoples and communities.

He recently launched the COBRA: The Coalition of Black and Racialized Artists to focus on finding opportunities for people whose work doesn't tend to be part of the traditional mainstream.

"The music and the arts scene (in Hamilton) tends to focus on traditional arts," he said. "And not the multiple perspectives that other people might do art."

Kojo Damptey: 'The changes that people are talking about are more fluffy changes' 4:57

Unlike some of the comments made by other speakers, Damptey said he hasn't seen the same kind of dramatic change, though he does think gentrification needs to be talked about.

"I don't think it's changed, sorry," he said. "As an artist that identifies as a person of colour, I think that the same issues that we were talking about when we were at [McMaster], they're the same issues that are being talked about now."

"I think the changes that people are talking about are more fluffy changes, in terms of things that are important to a certain group of people in the city," he said. "In my neck of the woods, the people I make music with the people, I chat with, they're like, 'Ain't nothing changed.'"

'You don't want Toronto money in here — you do and you don't'

Thomas Allen writes and takes photos for Rebuild Hamilton, his blog and social media streams that highlight iconic Hamilton buildings and hidden gems.

He weaves together details he learns from research and observations he makes from the street. And he takes people out on walking tours to explore the city, his favourites and the buildings he thinks are duds.

He hopes for "better design" as Hamilton's streetscape changes.

"It's tough because you don't want Toronto money in here," he said. "You do and you don't. But the thing that happens when you bring Toronto money is you bring Toronto architects, and a bigger budget. … You have a lot of precast towers now that are really banal."

Thomas Allen: 'Everybody should have an opinion on architecture' 6:20

"One of the reasons why I do what I do is I want … people to pay attention to great design, and to respect design," Allen said.

"And to have your voices heard. Everybody here should have an opinion on architecture. You're surrounded by it. You live in it. Why can't you say what you want? You're a consumer when it comes to architecture. So I want people to realize that design matters."


Videos shot and edited by Dave Beatty