Recently, a group of Hamilton area people in the creative industries held an online forum wherein they discussed issues relevant to the city and its creative industries.
#Exchange1111 is an online Twitter discussion about the creative ‘industry’ & its role in Hamilton, Ontario. Or, in the words of one of the originators, #Exchange1111 is “Young Hamilton Creatives talk about the industry, the city & how to work together.” These chats are planned to occur on a monthly basis on the 11th day at the 11th hour and can be followed by following the hash tag which is it’s name.
I followed and participated in this conversation remotely through twitter on my iPhone as I wandered about the city as it was a beautiful sunny day and I could not abide by remaining trapped in my office behind a computer terminal.
The following questions were raised:
- How do we see the role of creative work evolving in Hamilton, Ontario?
- How is creative work changing Hamilton, Ontario today?
- How can creative professionals contribute to city decision making (policy, planning, etc)?
- What goals would you like to see?
The main issue that was raised seemed to stem from comments made during the Hamilton 2012 Economic Summit where it was noted that the creative industries were doing a great job of supporting each other, but they did not seem to be reaching out to the more “traditional” businesses and industries in the city. Further comments showed how there is a huge disconnect between what is happening in the downtown core of Hamilton, Ontario and the outlying areas, particularly Hamilton Mountain.
This second point interested me greatly as I was involved in a lengthy conversation the night before with a group who lives on the mountain, but only comes down to attend church. When asked if they had visited a restaurant or attended an art gallery or other cultural institution, their response was one of abject horror and shock. They stated that Upper James has all they need as far as restaurants go, when pressed if they have tried some of the independent restaurants and cafés on Concession St., again they responded quite negatively.
This disconnect further highlighted the fact that the bulk of the individuals involved in this conversation were already “the converted” and that we were not going to progress if we continued to pat one another on the back. The question of connecting with Mountain residents, Burlington, Stoney Creek and other outlying areas was raised, who is doing this and what is happening on that front.
Hamilton is a City divided by geography and geology. This divide also highlights cultural perceptions and despite being a single city, there is a them vs us attitude between the upper and lower cities. However this attitude is prevalent elsewhere throughout the city, including within the downtown city wards.
Due to the very nature of Twitter, I was unable to relay my experiences a little closer to “home” in my dealings with the Barton St. BIA and attempting to convince them to utilize empty storefronts as possible “gallery space” to bring vibrancy to the neighbourhood. I also know that Chris from Hamilton Artists Inc had done the same to similar, negative results. I was concerned that here is a street that connects the streets where mass impact is occurring (James St. N and South, John St. Ottawa St.) and it is essentially a sea of empty storefronts and arterial traffic.
It is nice to see that the Downtown and International Village BIAs are working to improve their respective locales however the Barton St. BIA seems to be set in their ways, unwilling to think “outside the box.” So my reply to the person who asked if Creative Industry types are reaching out to business types was “Yes some of us are, but if the businesses are not receptive or even open to discussion, what can we do?”
I quickly fired off a tweet stating “Is Hamilton, Ontario next in a long line of industrial cities changed through creative industries? See Austin TX and Durham NC.” A reply was that we have essentially “jumped the queue” in this regard. This reply troubles me as it seems that the growth is occurring haphazardly and left to its own devices – this is good for the early stages, but if we are aiming at proper economic development and avoid oversaturation and creative burnout, we need to be careful and ensure we work with the city, businesses and have set goals and targets.
I’ve been following what has happened in Durham, North Carolina for the past twenty years as it is like a second home for me and I’ve been astounded about the change that has gone on over these years. When I started visiting the city, it was feeling the effects of declining tobacco sales, the closure of a number of tobacco production facilities and an overall decline in their agricultural and industrial base. The downtown core fell into disrepair and visitors and pedestrians were few and far between, rapidly becoming a place where people only visited because they had to – usually to zoom down the one-way through streets to get to the interstate or to go to the courthouse (sound familiar Hamilton?).
However there was a recent film production (“Bull Durham”) which showed the city for what it was and the city was beginning to attract other industries (due to its proximity to Raleigh, the North Carolina state capital, innovative universities – Duke University and it’s attached Medical Center, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and its overall location in the mid-Atlantic states). Durham AND its outlying communities began attracting creative industry, which catalyzed into what is now steady growth.
However things began changing in 1995 when the Durham Bulls, using the money made from the city, invested in a new stadium located right downtown (oops looks like Hamilton missed the ball on that one!) which brought people, and their money, downtown. Not only does the park host AAA level professional baseball, it is also used by the Duke University and North Carolina Central university teams.
When people started coming back downtown for games, the food trucks and hot dog vendors came. Eventually the small mom and pop joints began seeing an upswing in business, leading to an ongoing revitalization of the downtown core that continues today.
Almost next door to the Durham Bulls Ball Park is Brightleaf Square. Brightleaf is a mixed-use complex consisting of retail, dining, art galleries, and office space. The key is that this complex is located in renovated tobacco storage warehouses that were left empty from 1970 to 1980, eventually leading to a complete renovation in 2004. This location became a huge catalyst for the downtown core as formerly boarded up buildings were reopened to the city and the courtyards created by the architecture rapidly became public space utilized as places to sit and relax away from traffic as well as public performance space.
Due to revitalization and attracting creative industries, Durham NC experienced the following growth in the 2000’s
- Office occupancy rates went from less than 50% in the early 1980’s to 82% in 2007 (the most recent figures I can find) with over $250 million in investment into the city’s urban core in that same year alone.
- The addition of several hundred apartment units, office and retail space in a mixed use development connecting both west and east sides of the downtown core.
- Redevelopment of American Tobacco’s warehousing facility (creative reuse of brownfield sites) to attract creative industries of all forms (artists, designers, architects, marketing firms, branding studios, lawyers) in a mixed use live/work campus.
- Redevelopment of formerly vacant downtown office towers into residential and retail facilities.
- Renovation of retail spaces downtown, leading to new businesses opening on formerly deserted streets.
In 1993, Durham’s downtown real estate had a tax base valuation of $124 million, in 2004 it was $269 million, in 2008 it was $493 million. The interesting point is that 20 years down the road, the city believes they have a long way to go to get to their full potential.
The key is that this did not happen overnight, it did not happen without its growing pains and it was’t done through creative industry alone, but a multi-tiered and collaborative approach including the local government, the educational facilities in the area (McMaster, are you there?), businesses and investors, the professional sports teams (you hear me Tiger Cats) and the creative industries. But how do the artists and creative industries get involved? Too much discussion as of late on message boards has been “them vs. us” when it should be the collective “we.”
What the artists in Durham have done is form the Durham Arts Council in conjunction with the city to act as their collective voices in these discussions. These organizations act as an intermediary between the artists and the community at large, assisting with production of visual, media, literary and performance art, raising public and private funds, providing grants, information, networking and exhibit/performance space for artists; helping residents and visitors connect and enjoy in various events available in the community, including programming classes, doing community outreach, working with arts in the schools and finally the production of an annual street arts festival.
The City of Hamilton has the Arts Advisory Commission (AAC), however a review of the website indicates that beyond the Annual City of Hamilton Arts Awards (to be presented tonight), this body has seemingly released no reports beyond their annual report from March 2011 the last evidence of any formal presentation to city council was in April 2010. Perhaps the current sitting members could clarify their current activities.
What is clear is that the AAC has a rather limited scope: “The Hamilton Arts Advisory Commission (AAC) is an appointed body of City Council to inform Council (through the Emergency & Community Services Committee) of achievements and issues in the Hamilton Arts Community. Responsibilities include: to recommend activities for the stabilization and strengthening of the arts community; to inform Council of issues and achievements in the Hamilton arts community; to liaise with and act as a point of contact for members of the arts community regarding issues affecting the arts community; to monitor and assist with the implementation of the Public Art Program; to monitor and assist with the implementation of the Arts Awards Program; to monitor and assist with the implementation of the Community Partnership Program, Culture Stream”
There seems to be little integration of the arts with city, business and developmental planning. The question we need to ask ourselves is how to go about doing this when history has shown in cities like Austin, TX, Durham, NC and other rust belt communities such as Pittsburgh, PA the integration of creative industries has been part and parcel with the revitalization of these communities? We as the creative industries should gather to approach the city and businesses as a unified front, showing that we are a catalyst of change.
But apart from being self-congratulatory, we have to quantify how creative industries have changed other communities and the benefits that can be reaped from bringing about positive change, hand in hand with city administration, the population and business investment. This is done through outreach beyond our comfort zones, through arts in the classroom programs, through building community where it doesn’t seem to exist. It started small on James St. North and Locke St. South , it is now spreading to John St. North, James St. South and Ottawa St. Dundas and Westdale are continuing to grow and thrive as communities both on their own and as a part of the whole. The King East International Village and areas of Concession St. are rapidly becoming the next “it” spots in the city.
It’s now time we connect the dots, particularly making the big leap to connect the upper city and suburbs with the lower city. How should we present downtown Hamilton as a place worthy of visiting and a place worthy of being proud of and how can we “share the wealth” with the rest of the cities? The upper city has beautiful parks that would make ideal venues for art shows and festivals, why can’t we utilize them?
Why don’t we connect formally with the Concession St. BIA and Barton St. BIA and see what their desires, concerns and issues are to see how we can collaborate in hopes of helping each other out? But once again, I draw the point that many of the online discussion forums have been divisive and derisive of business and government and taking a “them against us” stance when we ALL want the same thing: a prosperous city that we can be proud of. It’s time that the creative industries in Hamilton area reach out and talk with business and government in hopes of working together to continue building this city as a collaborative effort. It’s worked elsewhere, why not here?