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Blue Angel Gallery

Blue Angel Gallery

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.

Victoria and Deborah Pearce gallery

Victoria and Deborah Pearce gallery

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.  

Hotel Hamilton

Hotel Hamilton

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.waterfront

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.

k and waterline

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.

Jeremy Fisher

Jeremy Fisher

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.

lynda and anne

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.

hidden cameras and crowd

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.

armoury

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!

cathedral

Backyard Harvest

Backyard Harvest

Marble Index

Marble Index

 

 

john ellison

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.

Hidden Cameras and raised umbrellas

Hidden Cameras and raised umbrellas

 

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.

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k reflects

 

 

 

 

Aah, my last week in the Hammer. She’s been an attentive hostess this last week, our fair city. Blue skies, warm sunshine, no pollution (well, maybe that’s a relative thing), the bursting of bulbs and buds – all a perfect backdrop for getting my house and yard ready to be abandoned (well by me, not my house guy Ben),

jerry treeman

 

 

assisting my pal Gerry to take down the rest of the crumbling poplar tree in my back forty, spending some last precious moments with  friends, doing my taxes to the tune of a good return, gathering things for jungle living, and spending the second Friday of the month on the ever-fascinating James Street North.

mixed mediaThis once maligned street – the original road up into town from the harbour of the Port of Hamilton – has traditionally housed all kinds of storefronts, bars, and restaurants as well as the Canadian Forces Armoury and the original train station which is now a large dining room and conference center.  There’s also a whack of Portuguese and Italian mens’ clubs and cafes which is where I went to watch games with the old European men during the last World Cup in 2006.

I’m sure at one time the street would’ve drawn sailors off the big boats pulled into the harbor – I’ve met a sailor or two at Fisher’s , my local eatery & pub at the most northernly end of James Street North. When I grew up, across the bay in Burlington, and for most of its existence, the neighbourhood had a reputation for a mafia presence. venturaIt certainly has always had a tough spirit and a working class energy.

 

 The original Portuguese restaurants, the Wild Orchid and Ventura’s amongst others, have continued to thrive and the little Gates of India restaurant that consistently gets great reviews is still here. There are still a few long standing family-run businesses, Millers Shoes and Morgensten’s Department Store, that have survived the years. Now a larger variety of cultures are represented, East Indians and Koreans and West Indians included. But the biggest new crowd in the area has to be the arts community.

print studio

Sometime around the turn of the century (this last one), people starting buying up the old, now fading buildings, and turning them into  art galleries and studios. Torontonians with dreams of owning their own gallery or studio could actually do it here in the Hammer as the prices were hillbillyish compared to the over-inflated costs of the Big Smoke  which is only about 45 minutes down the highway.

So bit by bit the face of  James Street is changing – to the point that one is beginning to wonder where it will all end (besides at the bay to the north and the steep climb up the mountain to the south. ) As in, how long till Starbucks realizes a good thing? James Street South, which cuts across the upper “mountain” of Hamilton, has already filled with car dealers and is working on collecting big box type stores. Lower James Street, here in the heart of the city, holds the life of the Hammer.

James North Gallery

There are many characters responsible for the most recent turn of events – Bryce Kanberra, Dave Kuruc, Cynthia Hill, Jim Chambers – who first saw the possibilities for the street and were smart enough to take advantage of the cheap prices involved in renting and buying. Once people started coming to their galleries and shops – the You Me, Mixed Media, the Blue Angel and James North Gallery – they were intrigued by the possibilities and, well, the rest is modern history.

old silk

On the second Friday of each month, the street opens its doors for the Art Crawl.  I think this has been going on for four or five years. In the beginning there were maybe ten small galleries, mostly simple renovated spaces created within old funky buildings with an abundance of red brick and ubiquitous white drywall backdrops to hang paintings. In the last two years, there have been many other artist-held spaces opened and you could no longer do the street at a crawl – you now have to scurry to get through all the openings and exhibitions. This last Friday night saw the opening of about five new or renovated spaces – and the bar keeps getting raised each time with the effort people are putting into their new ventures. 

The street was teeming – I mean, I was recently in New York City on a Saturday night in July-like weather and, well, okay maybe there were a few more people wandering the streets of the Big Apple, but in a relative kinda way (NYC – 10 million people – Hamilton 500,000)  James Street North was packed and the atmosphere was exciting.

with freda & susie

 

 

With my friends Freda and Susie, we wandered through the galleries and couldn’t believe the buzz on the street. I’ve always found it hard to catch everything:  the art openings, the occasional busker or performance artist, the friends you bump into, and now add the local fashion designers’ studios as well which could demand trying on clothes! Sheesh, you need a weekend to do the whole street anymore, not just the evening. 

blackbird studio

I have talked before about Blackbird Studios, just off of James North on Wilson Street – Kiki and Buckshot have a dramatic line of clothing that has a sense of humor as well – it was one of their hot dresses that I wore to the Hamilton Music Awards last November. I stopped by their shop and was amazed at the racks of clothes and the new styles – and Kiki told me that it was empty compared to a few weeks ago before they had a big sale.  Prolific gals these two, charged with dressing the hard rock Hammer girls, and obviously starting to attract good attention. 

olinda

Just down James North, there is a new clothes designer who also does alterations and custom tailoring – Olinda, a young woman from El Salvador. With her extended family present, she had the grand opening of her shop, Olinda’s, with  free pizza and cake and a beautifully redone shop. 

olinda's

This building used to house a tattoo parlour and now it has a rose-coloured paint treatment and curtained dressing rooms. The care that Olinda and her family have put into this is a good sign for the quality of work she must do.  I doubt that she will be a direct competition to Blackbird – these are two very different styles with Olinda bringing in that Latin flair – but hopefully they will augment each other’s business and bring in women looking for original designed clothes (and in Olinda’s case, tailoring and alterations) that aren’t outrageously priced.

clay studio

Another changed space, just across the street, is The Clay Studio.  Grazyna, who does fine and interesting ceramic work, has moved down from a large space on the third floor of the building into a more reasonably-sized room that incorporates her studio and gallery. I have spoken with this friendly artist before, and am happy to see that she has moved into this space and it looks to fit her just right. She’s bound to get much more attention at street level whereas the galleries that lurk in the upper floors of these buildings take awhile for people to discover yet are always worth the walk up.

artists inc

In a short two blocks there was a bit of art theatre going on at Artists Inc, one of those bizarre scenarios that you have to watch for awhile.  There was also Gord Lewis, of Teenage Head, and Chris Houston, another Hamilton rockero, accompanying a photography retrospective of punkers and rockers at the Sonic Unyon building – I think Gord was going to play but we had to leave.  There was also a duo singing at the James North Gallery and an intense anti-smoking display at another new space put on by a group of university students . With a pig’s lung hanging in the window, they were intent on making a harsh point, but I got the impression it was mostly non-smokers hanging around anyway. The street is nothing if not eclectic.

tribal window

There is a new boutique selling  African and Indonesian art and imported items, the Tribal Gallery, just two doors down from the Woodpecker, which seems to me to sell basically the same stuff. It is wonderful to see a mix of cultures here though I don’t know how two such stores will survive in the same neighbourhood but I wish them both well.

Barbara Milne, at the Pearl Company, runs the Art Bus, taking people to openings around the Hamilton area on the first two Friday nights of each month.  The second Friday the tour visits other local galleries in the central city with openings but also takes in the James Street North Art Crawl.  I truly appreciate the Art Bus service – if you are in Hamilton on one of the first two Friday nights of the month, pay the $15 and leave your car at the Pearl and join the bus with Barbara’s enthusiastic commentary – it’s always a real enjoyable evening. 

flowers

The warm summer evenings have always been busy on James Street North. Now that there is more and more to experience during the Art Crawl, and each new business brings in a new mix of followers, these Friday night events will be just that – big events.  I hope that it spills over into bringing in good business throughout the month to the shops and galleries that line the street. Many of them offer locally produced items – like Mixed Media which is an art supply store but also carries local artists’  and writers’ work (including Walking with Wolf.) I have barely touched the list of artistic endeavours going on. I can’t imagine what James Street North will be looking like when I return in September. I hope it doesn’t outgrow its grassroots and start getting a corporate, chainstore effect going on. It’s magic is in the individual personalities of the businesses, their enthusiastic, energetic and talented owners, and the historic, funky character of the buildings that have come back to life on James Street North.

the truck of books

On a book related note, I received the new shipment of 2nd edition Walking with Wolf books.  The truck was supposed to arrive on Friday – a day calling for pouring rain that had me worried – but there was a knock on my door Thursday morning (luckily I was home) and a trucker telling me that his great big tractor trailer wasn’t meant for my narrow residential street.  Well, I coulda told him that if someone had asked me. When he opened the doors, there was my lonely little skid of boxes in an otherwise big ol’ empty trailer – carbon neutral be damned. My neighbour Bev came out and helped and we got those boxes of books into my house lickety split under a blue sky with no threat of rain. There’s a shipment of books headed to Costa Rica as well and Wolf and I will soon be visiting our old pal Eliecer, our customs man in Alajuela, to get them out of customs purgatory.

yard with tree

 

 

I’ve been working on my yard – the before and after pictures show my progress – and because of the tree that went down, it has now turned from a shady to sunny space. My yard consists of a terrace, beach, gardens, campground and work compound – it’s an oasis in the city and keeps me sane whenever I’m forced to be here and live like an urban animal.

full yard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lori

 

 

I’ve had some real nice visits with friends who’ve come to say goodbye and know that I will be missing them soon enough.

So now I’m on my way, floating down a sweet stream and letting the current have its way with me. I am truly excited to be heading back to Costa Rica and Cahuita and Roberto and his jungle home. And to see Wolf again and take care of details involved in Caminando con Wolf, the Spanish translation of our book. The next time I write I’ll have monkey songs in my heart and wolf howls on my brain.

molly

 

But I know I will be thinking fondly of the humble but hot-headed Hammer, wondering how she is doing – like a ragged mutt who has finally found love in a new home and is starting to shine with the  attention. The prolific growth of creativity that is happening here  is taking the Hammertown down her own stream (not the way of the Red Hill Creek I trust) – hopefully to an interesting and bright future. Shine on my Hammerhead friends! See you in the fall.

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