BY Jeanette Eby
“We will not have livable cities until we find a reason for living in each other.” – Pier Gieorgio Di Cicco
“Beasley – a place where everyone can be there best”. This was the slogan of Beasley Neighbours for Neighbours (BN4N), which evolved into the current Beasley Neighbourhood Association (BNA). I was lucky enough to move to Hamilton when Beasley residents were beginning to organize as a group. They were proud of their neighbourhood and ready to take ownership of its well-being and foster a sense of belonging, among neighbours who too often had felt like they had no choice or opportunity to live anywhere else.
I love this neighbourhood with my whole heart, and intentionally moved downtown after two years in student housing. I wanted to be surrounded by the energy and diversity of the downtown core. I wanted to be able to walk to coffee shops and concert venues and to the farmer’s market, and to study in the public library. It was the best move I could have made. I became a member of the BNA (back then BN4N) and was a volunteer at the Freeway Coffeehouse. I hung out with the kids at Dr. Davey for their school breakfast program. I worked on a Photovoice project with downtown youth and seniors. I heard the stories of and made friends with people of all ages with different backgrounds from me.
After graduating from my undergrad, I got a relief position with the Good Shepherd HOMES Program, as a community mental health worker, which has become my full-time job. I was privileged to meet tenants who trusted me with their stories and opened up to me, so I could be a support in their life. These folks have faced unthinkable hurt and hardship, and they continue to give people a chance and give life a chance.
We read books about the city’s history and the city’s present. We read poetry and studied photos and visual artwork, we went on field trips, and then we added our own experiences to our understanding of the city
At McMaster, I had the opportunity to coordinate the first three years of the McMaster Discovery Program (MDP): a non-credit University program for adults in Hamilton who experienced barriers to higher education. Some of the students in this program were lifelong Hamiltonians, some new immigrants and refugees, there were young adults and single women, adults struggling with physical and mental illness, all of whom had a strong love of learning and many of whom had a strong desire to connect with Hamilton and feel part of a community. Many of them experienced social isolation and housing instability. We read books about the city’s history and the city’s present. We read poetry and studied photos and visual artwork, we went on field trips, and then we added our own experiences to our understanding of the city. Through this shared learning, Hamilton became a place that anyone could call home. Downtown Hamilton became a place that we all deeply respected, with a new understanding of the history and adversity and our own role in it.
And now, I see so many headlines about Hamilton, especially downtown. Headlines about our housing boom; revitalization; the “downtown renaissance”; the “new” Hamilton; “art is the new steel”. These are all terms we’ve been hearing in conversations and reading in news articles for a while now.
The thing is, who is missing from this “new Hamilton” narrative? I don’t see the tenants I connect with daily at work, the students from the MDP, the refugees in my neighbourhood, or many of the friends I’ve made. I see an emphasis on self-proclaimed young professionals and home-owning middle class families in this vision; I see an emphasis on entrepreneurs and artists and developers. I see people who are (rightfully) moving here from Toronto who are taking advantage of Hamilton’s relative affordability, so they too can offer their families a good quality of life. I see myself, and this makes me uncomfortable. I’m a young, educated white woman who enjoys the art crawl and the new restaurants and bars and coffee shops that have popped up over the years. I could be seen as an ideal target for this new way of marketing Hamilton.
“don’t make assumptions about the people who live here”
I recently watched a TedX Detroit talk, and the speaker Aaron K Foley expressed many of the ideas that have been running through my own mind. Detroit is a different city but there are parallels to what is happening in our two cities. Aaron encouraged his fellow Detroit citizens to listen to each other, to value every neighbourhood and to see their city as a whole. He said “don’t make assumptions about the people who live here” or think you know what is best for them. Learn your history. Be inclusive in your media coverage, in visioning for the city. He called on them to abandon their perceptions of the “new” and “old” Detroit and to think of themselves as an integrated whole where every part matters.
Downtown Hamilton may be rough around the edges, but there is no doubt that people here care about each other. “Hamilton will take care of you” – this was the theme of a discussion at a recent affordable housing workshop I attended. We talked about how Hamilton is a hub for social and health services and that people intentionally move here because they believe they will be supported. I love that Hamilton is known as a caring city, and that it can be a place for everyone. I want to believe this will still be true in the next few years, as we see rental prices hike and condos being built and lower income tenants being pushed out of poorly managed apartment buildings. Forget talking about “the new Hamilton”, or the “downtown renaissance”. Let’s talk about Hamilton, and our downtown core, and the fact that everyone here can be a Hamiltonian, and that everyone matters.
Through my engagement downtown, I found home here. Downtown has changed over the years, but what matters has not. I am in this for the long haul and I hope that downtown can continue to be a place that welcomes everyone, and where people can come to seek support and safety. Being a Hamiltonian means engaging with our whole community, it means learning from and listening to those who are different than us, and humbly finding our own place in this interconnected web we call our city.
Want more? Continue reading The Gentrification Issue