The Hearts of Hamilton’s Art Crawl

The James Street North area in Hamilton (Ontariao, Canada) has been the landing point of generation after generation of newcomers to the city. Even now, it is the heart of Hamilton that welcomes an influx of artists and young creative people who come from around the world for a place where they might flourish. It wasn’t always so welcoming, and the whispered-about history of mafia in Hamilton was born of taking advantage of newcomers to our fair city. I strongly encourage anyone curious about the history of such to read the work of Adrian Humphreys. From the Iroquois slaughter of the Chonnonton, the coming of the British, to Irish gangs, the Italian Mafia, and now the biker culture…Hamilton, like so many places, has been beleaguered by those who would take advantage and suck the life from those already near desperation.

Sadly, James North also took the brunt of the decline of Hamilton in the 80’s and 90’s and became an economic culture of street drug dealers, drug addicted prostitutes, gangs and gangsters, and con artists of all ages and backgrounds. Violence in this community was a common occurrence and often flooded out of the buildings that housed it and into the public street. James North became the place you didn’t go. It became the place parents warned their children about. Those with the ability to do so became denizens of The Mountain…a suburban sprawl overlooking the core of Hamilton. As you rose in wealth, you rose in altitude and once busy shops became abandoned storefronts with slumlords snatching them up and the poor left behind. Street after street of beautiful brick century homes were divided into smaller and smaller apartments as incomes declined and families struggled.

What was left behind was a core community of dedicated and hard-working folks who struggled and struggled. They raised their children here. They were the ‘great bones’ more than the excellent brickwork and tin ceilings of the shops of downtown. Despite this corrupt infrastructure a beautiful community of citizens and shop owners existed in this area and its surrounding neighborhoods. Many never gave up, and thankfully still remain there as the core of Hamilton rises again.

How does a city recover and find its heart again? How does a local government solve the vast problems created by the decline of the massive steel industry? How can fear and poverty become beautiful?

It might feel that saying ‘art is the answer to all of the hurts of the human soul’ is naïve, and many would think it naïve to imagine that art could change the perceptions of a city about itself and shift the view of outsiders so that they can imagine coming to this place. But, these things begin and end with pride and the ability to see beauty. James North was a beautiful neighborhood, even at its worst. It has the bones of a classic downtown that we imagine when thinking of the best a city can be and it has grown more beautiful as it has shaken off it’s dark times because of vision, not because of developers, corporations, by-laws, or the too often corrupt and misguided machinations of the Corporation of the City of Hamilton.

The artists in Hamilton had a toehold in this area throughout its existence. Many efforts had been initiated over the years by the artist’s community to keep some semblance of sanity. Our documentary ‘Hearts: A Film about Hamilton’s Art Crawl’ is a discovery of how one of these efforts gained momentum and helped transform the entire city.

I initiated the ‘art crawl.’ However, I only had a small part to play in this story and I could not have predicted the impact and power of a monthly celebration of beauty and culture at the time. To assist in helping others to understand the workings of this phenomena that transformed an entire city I will tell you a little of the story that got me there and what type of circumstance and state of mind I use when I make a choice to act. Seldom are there such demonstrable manifestations from this sort of activity for me, though I do endeavour to work in such things often.

In 2004 after many years of being an active Gallery owner, multi-media and culturally diverse events curator in Hamilton’s arts and music community I was taking some time to concentrate on my musical career. I had been asked to get back into the arts community many times with the James Street North area as its focus but I had actually decided that I would “never” do it again. Though the truth be told even when I am not directly involved I am always doing something and my not being involved at the time included being on the board of directors of the Hamilton Arts Council, offering up weekly volunteer time to local galleries and performance spaces, and advising many friends and artists.

A series of unusual events made it impossible for me to stay living where I was. I had been looking for a new place without telling anyone. Yet out of the blue, I received a phone call from a dear friend who renovates buildings. He had been discussing with the owner of a building he was renovating my background in the arts community. He directly asked me if I would like to open a gallery in this location and it included a living space as well. I automatically said no. Yet I knew deep down that I must, and a good deal was struck because the owner would not take no for an answer.

This is where I began to discover that the maxim ‘never say never’ is a truism.

When I began working in the arts directly in Hamilton in the late 1980s I had a vision that this city would be a center for the arts that would impact the world. This, I had written in the form of a business proposal that I passed around the city and inspired many people within the business and arts community who had the same vision. I knew this idea seemed crazy but crazy never stops me. 😉

Soon after opening a gallery in my new space I went on a trip to New York, New York with the record label Kick Records to attend the CMJ music conference and shop around my first album of music. In addition, I had made appointments for myself at galleries in Manhattan to shop a selection of Hamilton’s visual artists.

On my first day, during a break from these appointments, I was wandering the streets of SoHo and stopped into a deli for a bagel and coffee. As soon as I got up to the counter the owner of the shop came over and told me God had asked him to talk with me. He asked if he could purchase my lunch and pass on what he had been implored to tell me. I happily agreed to sit and listen, and did so with great curiosity.

He said that he needed to first inform me that the experience of three generations of the arts business in his family was showing that the arts were on the decline in New York. He was told clearly that where I was from was where the next world movement would happen. He told me that I was playing and would play an important role in this happening and that it was best if I placed myself in that city and not to focus my efforts elsewhere. Please keep in mind I had not said a word to him.

As the Art Crawl began, I heard over and over from those who were taking part in making it into what it has become that we are going to take over the world. Perhaps more importantly, we’ve taken back our city. We did so by banding together as artists, gallery owners, the businesses of the community, and folks who had a stake in the neighbourhood to open our doors to the world once a month. It was truly that simple, and thankfully just kept working.

It would be trite to say that the ‘universe provides’, because everything comes through work and being in the right place at the right time…but, if you can find yourself at peace and ask within yourself and listen, you can find the right time, the right place, and the drive to do the hard work. And, even when a bagel salesman tells you that god told him you are the one, the truth of it is that ‘the ones’ are the people you support. I put forth an idea, and people around me took it and made it into something beautiful. I supported them, and helped where I could. Community and supporting each other is in the midst of all of the great accomplishments of humanity. Whether we are looking at the tens of thousands of NASA employees who took Apollo to the moon, or the handful of shop owners and artists who came together to create a reason to take pride in the downtown of Hamilton, community is the core of us.

A critical mass of acts of kindness, openness, and compassion within this city is ultimately what’s responsible for the change we’ve seen. I’ve been a small part of it, but it is a collection and convergence of the beauty of the hearts of the people of Hamilton. People saw others opening themselves, did so themselves, and it’s made all the difference. I’ve included the documentary we made about Hamilton’s Art Crawl, so that you may see the beautiful people whose amazing Hearts made it happen, and hear about how they did it.

– Zena Hagerty

Hearts: A Film About Hamilton’s Art Crawl from HamiltonSeen on Vimeo.

2 thoughts on “How One City’s Artists (Hamilton, Ontario) Turned a “Rough” Neighborhood into an Arts Enclave

  1. I love the hope that you present here. I have seen a couple of cities start a “rebound”, so to speak, by way of an Arts Movement. Paducah, KY is still working on it, but running into red tape in trying to get the historical district buildings (where they want all of the artists to reside) up to code. We have a monthly Art Crawl here in my town, but have problems attracting a more diverse crowd – it’s usually the same, older, more monied patrons month after month. I know that it takes a lot of effort. Congrats that your hard work is paying off! 🙂

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