In Hamilton, real estate is the new art

Roger Pettingell Sarasota Real Estate

This column is an opinion by Gavin Stephens, host of the Uncolonized podcast and a standup comedian. It is part of a special municipal election project by CBC Hamilton, featuring voices from the community. Find all our election coverage here

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

I was nominated for a Juno award this year for my album, All Inclusive coma, and I have to credit part of the nom to the fact that I live in the city of Hamilton. It’s a place I find as an artist where you strip away 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 fill their properties. Landlords would see a married couple and trip over themselves to give you a place. The rent was cheap and the wine flowed like butter. I mean, that’s pure hyperbole, but I did move from an expensive city to a relatively cheaper city so I could concentrate on doing my art. 

I was going to live the life I dreamed of as a comedian who did comedy without a day job. In Canada? Unheard of. Sure, I was in my mid-30s, but it was all coming together. My partner had a good job, I was touring and doing minor roles on television. We had DISPOSABLE INCOME! 

I came to Hamilton during the whole “Art is the new steel” era. The branding embraced by many sectors in the city depicted Hamilton as the hip new place for young artists and entrepreneurs to lay down roots. It was an attempt to move away from the blue-collar, industrial image that was the backbone of Steel City since forever.

I thought it meant a change 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 are investing in, not creative outputs. 

During the pandemic, and even before it, housing prices and rental costs rose all over Canada, and, by no coincidence, homeless encampments expanded. “Renovictions,” something I heard happening to friends of mine back in Toronto, began happening more often here. Beloved spots like This Ain’t Hollywood, the Hamilton rock club staple, have been sold to real estate developers who want to turn the top floor into high end “apartments.” 

Affordable for all, including working and creative people

In the book How to Kill a City, by P.E. Moskowitz, the author points out that “gentrification, at its deepest level, is really about reorienting the purpose of cities away from being spaces that provide for the poor and middle classes and toward being spaces that generate capital for the rich.” 

Cities, in their attempt to “rejuvenate” downtown cores, will bring in artists in order to attract the money. Artists help create a voice for communities, a canvas to express the many people that live there. It’s easy to see why people want to live in areas where artists tend to congregate. 

However, once the money comes, affordability goes, displacing not only the artists, but the people who live and work in the area in the process. 

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 as an artist I’m very much a part of all of this. I moved from Toronto with the promise of cheap housing, something many Torontonians have done and continue to do, driving up prices in the process. I was naive 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 towards condo development. I also understand that a city like Hamilton is built upon the idea that as a community we need to take care of the least fortunate amongst us. That art, affordable housing and proper jobs can and should co-exist.

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

The ability to not just work but to have quality of life is important. As an artist, I see many of my contemporaries being pushed to the fringes, having to relocate to smaller and smaller towns. 

Last year, I had the honour of hosting the Hamilton Arts Awards. I had the privilege of interviewing a diverse section of artists, who make up this city. One thing I took away was how much this city inspired them to create, and how much of this city was in their work. 

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

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