It’s been five months since I was on the monthly art crawl on James Street North here in Hamilton. Things are changing on the street at the same accelerated rate that I have witnessed over the last twenty years in Costa Rica. Down there, if I let a couple years pass before returning to a beach or town that has caught the eye of foreigners and developers, there will be no end to the new restaurants, hotels and attractions that have sprouted up in my absence.
I’m now watching this same change coming to James Street North. A few months means there will be a lot of new entrepreneurs – artists, shop owners, restauranteurs – taking a shot at being part of the big wave of excitement, taking advantage of what will probably be a great investment in their own future as well as in the health of the city around them. I suspect that the price of the old buildings right on James is increasing as the availability is decreasing, and some of the new businesses are around the corner or one block further down from the main part of the bustle. That just means that the neighbourhood grows a little longer and wider.
The James Street North Art Crawl has been building its head of steam over about three years (I’ve written about it before – see post: The James Street North Art Crawl.) Now the good folk at Sonic Unyon and other neighbourhood businesses got the idea to blow a little harder and created the SUPER Art Crawl. Part of the idea was to keep bringing new people into this part of the downtown of Hamilton, the urban core having been under attack from within and without for years.
It is common to hear people complain about Hamilton in general and its downtown specifically. The city council has been either hopelessly inept or simply without a modern intelligent vision that will work in rejuvenating the urban core. Instead of bringing life back into the old buildings they are left to partially fall down so that they can then be condemned and torn down. Eventually the brick-strewn empty lot might be replaced by a shiny, new building. This might satisfy the needs of developers but doesn’t do much for the soul of the city.
What has happened on James, which is an artery connecting what should be the heart of the city at King and James to the great new waterfront, has happened because of the grassroots -creative believers who have worked hard to bring art, music, buzz and business to the street – while using the grand ol’ buildings. Because of them, new blood has joined with the traditional Portuguese cafes and Italian businesses and now the street feels diverse and lively and joyful.
I arrived back in the city nine years ago, just in time to witness this change. The waterfront development and the James Street scene is what makes me happy to be here (besides friends, local music and proximity to airport.) I talk to people in Burlington and surrounding areas, and they still talk about the downtown of the Hamilton like it is ground-zero for the plague. But I’ve had many folks come from afar – the northern bush, the US, Costa Rica, England, Guelph, even, gasp, Toronto – who have been duly impressed by what is going on in downtown Hamilton. They want to come back. Now folks are telling me that they are reading about this rejuvenation in national newspapers and on blogs (hi there) and so it would appear that the word is truly spreading.
With this in mind, the Super Art Crawl was developed. The organizers soon got Bob Bratina, our local town councillor, on board and he helped get a portion of the street shut down for the day so that tents and stages could be erected for the live music and vendors who would come out to play at night. Then one of the local music festivals – the C&C Music Festival that originated with Mohawk College and McMaster University’s radio stations – joined in. All of a sudden (and according to what I’ve read, the planning happened very quickly), there was a full roster of local musicians along with well-known national bands, playing on three outdoor stages as well as in some of the galleries and local bars, as well as the usual art show openings – all for free.
My friend Lynda, who has done a crawl or two with me before, came down from Guelph, bringing her friend Anne, who decided to celebrate her birthday with us here in the Hammer even though she is more apt to head to Toronto for her cultural fixes. She went away with a huge appreciation for the steel city, her faith in grassroot collaboration renewed. She loved the gritty energy, the versatility, the diversity that she witnessed. She particularly commented on how many “normal” people there were, middle-age suburbanites, mingling with young black leather piercites or graying hippiesh artists. I know she’ll be back as, try though we might, we only saw a portion of what is available on the street and, as I explained, it will all be different next month.
The gods put the Hammerheads to the test for this mid-October outdoor event, and the cold rain started falling early in the day. Such a shame as the days before and since have been spectacularly sunny. I’m sure that the gang working out on the street that day assembling stages and tents must have been pissed, but the good news is that the crowds still came. Surely not as many as would have on a starry starry night, but enough to fill the galleries to shoulder-rubbing room, while a sea of umbrellas bobbed up and down the street and a look in some of the restaurants and bars confirmed that many tables were full.
Where can you simultaneously watch cadets doing their formations in the armoury, electronic magicians playing with their instruments on the pulpit of an Anglican cathedral, and buy fresh local organic vegetables while one of the hot new bands in the land performs behind you and original art adorns every other storefront? Why, in the Hammer – may not be the most obvious answer, but it is the correct one!
A big applause for John Ellison, the composer of Some Kind of Wonderful (made famous and paying him royalties by Grand Funk Railroad.) I met him and his drummer Dean last year at the Hamilton Music Awards and they were out playing on one of the stages on Friday night. He announced that he would be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Hammies. I’ve worked backstage for the last four years at the awards but the date has been moved to December 3-6 weekend, and I have to return to Costa Rica before that. I wanted to say congratulations to this talented, gracious and eloquent man who lives locally but has written and performed lots of music all over the world. Even if that wonderful song was his only composition, with it he did his part to put some musical joy on the earth.
And more applause to all the organizers, musicians, volunteers, shop owners, artists and everyone who grabbed their umbrella and came out to play in the rain…the Hammer continues to make one proud.