How Supercrawl became an arts colossus, and the symbol of downtown rebirth
10 years on the festival has radically changed, and Hamilton has changed with it
It's the evening of Oct. 9, 2009, and Terra Lightfoot is standing on a hastily constructed stage on James Street North near Cannon Street, watching a volunteer with a broom handle trying to push a puddle of rainwater off the tarp over her head.
Just a few metres away, a second stage in the vacant lot at James and Wilson is slowly sinking into the mud. Extension cords are running out of businesses to power stages. There are barely any food options or vendors to speak of.
But there are crowds. Sure, they are huddled together under umbrellas, fighting the cold and the torrential rain — but for the first time in a long time, downtown Hamilton is playing host to a bonafide street festival.
This is the first Supercrawl.
Organizer Tim Potocic had one thought continuously running through his mind as the evening unfolded.
"Please, just let us get to the end of it," he said with a laugh.
Though it might have seemed unlikely at the time, this was the birth of what has become the city's crown jewel of downtown renewal and arts renaissance — a hastily organized, guerilla festival cobbled together with barely a glimpse of the behemoth it would become just a decade later.
In many ways, Supercrawl's ascent mirrors Lightfoot's. She spent the days before the first Supercrawl huddled in her small, third-floor apartment on James Street North, frantically hand-sewing fabric CD covers for a four-song EP and typing out lyric sheets on a typewriter.
Lightfoot played for about 150 people that night. Last week, she opened for Willie Nelson and is now touring the globe.
Similarly, a festival armed with a small street closure permit and barely any budget is now drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the downtown core each fall — something that would have seemed almost unimaginable back in 2009.
Organizers say 220,000 people came to the festival last year. Audiences from the GTA have shown up in droves, so much so that GO Transit has added special trains to shuttle people back and forth. The festival has provided a larger stage for local talent, with the opportunity to share bills with international artists. It's granted some local artists the chance to showcase their work to people across Hamilton and residents the chance to rediscover their own downtown.
"To me, Supercrawl is just so, so important to this community," Lightfoot said.
All this week, CBC Hamilton is presenting a series of stories about the city's arts scene — where it has been, where it is going, what's working and what isn't. On the eve of Supercrawl's tenth anniversary, this is how one of Hamilton's biggest success stories evolved into the centrepiece it is today.
A New York minute
The idea for Supercrawl first started percolating in Potocic's mind when he was in New York on record label business for Sonic Unyon Records over a decade ago.
While staying the weekend, he inadvertently walked into the middle of a 22-block street festival, and was immediately blown away. There was a vendor market, bands and buskers. The streets were alive in a way he just wasn't accustomed to in downtown Hamilton.
"I thought, 'If they can close 22 blocks in Manhattan, maybe we can close a block in Hamilton,'" he said.
But at the time, that sort of thing just wasn't done. Downtown Hamilton wasn't a smoking crater, but it was no urban utopia, either — though change was being sewn by that point in areas like Locke Street and on James Street North.
The monthly Art Crawl and businesses like Mixed Media on James North were gaining momentum, and Potocic saw an opportunity.
So he gathered about 15 to 20 people around a table at the Sonic Unyon building and said "in about six weeks, we're going to do a street festival on James Street."
Mike Renaud, now of Hidden Pony Records, was one of those people. "Everyone was just kind of like, 'Huh? They are never going to let us do that,'" he said.
Potocic said there was a little bit of resistance from the city the outset, because this sort of thing just didn't happen in downtown Hamilton. But they managed to get a permit for a block closure of James North between Cannon and Wilson — relatively small by the festival's current standards.
There were two small stages, and a couple of vendors. Though it was freezing and pouring rain, about 3,000 people showed up for a music lineup that included Lightfoot, Hidden Cameras, Ohbijou, Lee Reed and Jeremy Fisher.
Despite the weather and the sinking stage, it went well all things considered, Potocic said. "It was a total experiment. Very rogue. Running extension cords everywhere," he said. At best, it was "semi-legit."
"We had enough approvals to do what we needed to do," he said.
Looking to the future
Jamie Tennant, who ran a radio special in the lobby of the Sonic Unyon building at Supercrawl that year, felt like there was an inkling amongst people organizing the show that it could turn into something bigger.
"It felt like hey, if it's doing this well in this climate, people want it. If people are enjoying it, something was done right. Next year was already on people's minds," he said.
Though Potocic, interestingly, wasn't one of them. He just saw that first night as a success and was ready to leave it at that.
But by late spring of the next year, he started thinking about Supercrawl again. The event expanded in year two, though it wasn't at all profitable. The festival lost about $30,000 in its first year, and $50,000 in year two, he said.
It was year three, with a headlining set from Broken Social Scene, that things really started to shift. Broken Social Scene was the pinnacle of Canadian indie rock at the time, and was a massive coup for the festival.
The event expanded in size, added a stage, and included performances by Junior Boys, Said The Whale and Pixies frontman Black Francis. Food trucks started to be included alongside other vendors, and Supercrawl was truly off to the races.
Now, the festival is working with a $1.2 to $1.5 million yearly budget, and sees hundreds of thousands of people stream into the downtown core each fall. It has become a major economic driver, and the city's Economic Development department does everything it can to include the festival in its marketing materials.
"I think it's really important for Hamilton to keep this going," Potocic said.
Meeting criticism head on
It hasn't been a flawless rise to the festival heap. Some have criticized Supercrawl for a lack of diversity through the years, as the festival has historically gravitated toward indie rock — a genre largely dominated by white men.
"For artists of colour, we're very insulated in our own pockets. It's hard to get on that Supercrawl-type stage," said Hamilton artist Stylo Starr.
Potocic said the festival has heard those criticisms and is trying to address them. Headlining sets in recent years have included performances by the late, great Sharon Jones and her band the Dap Kings, as well as the late Charles Bradley. This year, Supercrawl features performances by acts like Cadence Weapon, Shanika Maria, and Canadian Winter.
"We try to have as diverse programming as possible, and program in a respectful way," Potocic said.
Through the years, Supercrawl has seen a lot — from its humble, rainy beginnings to a headlining set from Arkells that drew crowds so massive it became impossible to traverse the sea of people on James Street North.
So if Potocic could tell his younger self something back in year one, what would it be? Is there any wisdom he would impart?
"I wouldn't tell myself anything," he said. "I'd only f--k it up."