In Hamilton, real estate is the new art

This column is an opinion of Gavin Stephens, Uncolonized podcast host and standup comedian. It is part of a special local election project by CBC Hamilton using votes from the community. You can find all of our election coverage here.

I tell jokes for a living. For example, I go on stage and tell jokes. It’s a weird thing to write on a credit card application, but it’s what I do. And I do it all over the world.

I was nominated for a Juno Award this year for my album, All inclusive coma, and I have to attribute part of the name to the fact that I live in the city of Hamilton. It’s a place I find as an artist where you drop the marketing and business aspects of working on a project and just work on the project. Hamilton keeps you honest.

When I moved here in 2012, landlords were just happy to occupy their properties. Landlords would see a couple and trip over themselves to give you a spot. The rent was cheap and the wine flowed like butter. I mean, that’s pure exaggeration, but I moved from an expensive city to a relatively cheaper city so I could focus on my art.

I would live the life I dreamed of, as a comedian doing comedy without a job. In Canada? unheard of. Sure, I was in my mid-30s, but it all came together. My partner had a good job, I was touring and doing small parts on TV. We had DISPOSABLE INCOME!

I came to Hamilton throughout the Art is the New Steel era. The branding carried by many sectors of the city portrayed Hamilton as the hip new place for young artists and entrepreneurs to put down roots. It was an attempt to break away from the blue-collar and industrial image that had always been the backbone of Steel City.

I thought it meant a change that went deeper than slogans. Needless to say, I was very naive.

Ten years later, rents have skyrocketed and the cost of living has skyrocketed. “Art is the new steel” has become “Real estate is the new art”. That’s what people invest in, not creative outcomes.

During the pandemic and even before it, home prices and rental costs soared across Canada, and it’s no coincidence that homeless encampments expanded. “Renovations,” something I heard from friends of mine back in Toronto, began to be more common here. Popular spots like This Ain’t Hollywood, Hamilton’s rock club, have been sold to real estate developers looking to convert the top floors into high-end apartments.

Affordable for everyone, including professionals and creatives

In the book how to kill a city By PE Moskowitz, the author points out that “gentrification, at its deepest level, is really about recalibrating the purpose of cities, away from places that cater to the poor and middle class and toward places that provide capital for the rich to generate”.

Cities, in an attempt to “rejuvenate” inner-city cores, will bring in artists to attract the money. Artists help create a voice for communities, a canvas to express the many people who live there. It’s easy to see why people want to live in areas where artists like to congregate.

However, once the money is there, affordability is lost, crowding out not only the artists but also the people who live and work in the area.

The Raven is a mural in Hamilton. As Gavin Stephens writes, art is important to this city and this city is important to art. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

I realize that as an artist I am very much a part of all of this. I left Toronto with promises of cheap housing, which many Torontonians have done and continue to do, driving up prices in the process. I was naïve to think that attracting young creatives to the city was the end goal and not one of the stepping stones towards gentrification.

Now, much older and wiser, I understand that “art is the new steel” is just a stepping stone to condominium development. I also understand that a city like Hamilton is built on the idea that as a community we need to care for the least fortunate among us. That art, affordable housing and decent jobs can and should coexist.

When we think of housing, we tend to focus on the affordability of buying a home or the interests of new homeowners, especially during elections. While I won’t deny that this isn’t important, a priority for this year’s election should be affordable housing across the board.

The ability not only to work but to have quality of life is important. As an artist, I see many of my contemporaries being marginalized and having to relocate to smaller and smaller cities.

Last year I had the honor of hosting the Hamilton Arts Awards. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a diverse group of artists that make up this city. One thing I took away from me was how much this city inspired her to create and how much of this city was in her work.

Art is important to this city and this city is important to art. I hope all of us here take the time to remember that.

For more on CBC Hamilton’s local election coverage:

Leave a Comment