We need to be attentive that we do not overwrite or undermine each other's stories as we try to write our own.
By Adrienne Havercroft
Published October 23, 2013
I am happy to call Hamilton, Ontario home. I wasn't born here. I didn't even grow up here. But over the past seven years, I have come to adopt this place as home. Or maybe it adopted me.
How do I account for this? There are many varied reasons, but the one that underpins all the others is a sense that this is a place that is full of possibility and creative potential.
This is a place where the world seems open rather than closed. This is a place where it still feels like we get to decide for ourselves how we want to live. It is a place full of hope. Let me try to explain.
Hamilton is a city of about half a million situated on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, about halfway between Toronto and Niagara falls. A post-industrial city, Hamilton was, and still is known as a "Steeltown".
Up until the 1980s, the two big steel manufacturers, Stelco and Dofasco, were the city's two biggest economic heavyweights and largest employers. Much has changed since then. It's a familiar story: globalization, outsourcing, urban sprawl and so on, which left the downtown run down and economically depressed.
More recently, things have begun to change. This, too, is a familiar story: a story often named gentrification. I studied gentrification pretty extensively while completing my master's degree at McMaster, so it is a story I know quite well, at least in theory. In simple terms, gentrification is the gradual increase in urban property values as urban neighbourhoods are bought up and taken over by the middle class.
While the story of gentrification can take on a variety of forms, it is often associated with "hipster" culture, generally occurring as a result of (usually) young creative types moving into inexpensive parts of the city.
As they establish communities, property values begin to rise as these neighbourhoods become more and more desirable places for people to live. Essentially, gentrification occurs as cultural capital is transformed into real capital through rising property values.
The whole thing is a complicated and contradictory process, both economically and politically, and I definitely won't attempt to try to do it justice here. Politicians and economists love it for obvious reasons, while academics and activists tend to have their reservations.
One of the most common critiques of gentrification is the way it has a tendency to displace poorer populations. Personally, I found it an interesting topic to write about because I was drawn to this complexity. I like studying things I feel slightly ambivalent about, because I think it's more fun that way.
I will say this, though: I chose to study gentrification because I thought it was interesting, not because I thought it described my own experiences. Turns out that joke is on me.
I distinctly remember my own 'a-ha' moment when I realized I was one of the gentrifiers I had spent a year studying (and often deriding). I argued in my thesis that gentrification occurs as a result of a white, middle class romanticization of "otherness". That was one of my "big money" statements.
It was during one of my placements at teachers college (the year following my MA year), and I found myself at one of Hamilton's inner city schools. I had gone, along with a few classmates and teachers, to this divey neighbourhood bar after school one Friday afternoon. When we arrived at around three, the place was pretty empty, but over the next few hours it gradually started to fill up with locals, who appeared to be regulars coming for a pint after work.
As I passed through the mostly male crowd laughing and drinking in well-worn work clothes I distinctly remember thinking, "this place is awesome".
I don't think I realized it right away, but when I thought through my reaction to this place over the next day or so, I realized I had revealed that I was one of them - one of those gentrifiers about which I had crafted so many careful big ideas.
While I was sincere in my positive assessment of this place, I was doing so from a position of privileged, ironic detachment; I was ascribing value to this bar and its patrons as an "other" in this space. I thought it was awesome because of its working-class authenticity, something I romanticized but was in no way connected to my own experience (unless you count watching The Wire).
What that moment also revealed to me is that these things are even more complicated than I had originally realized. My own intention in moving to the city was not about appropriating its working class identity and exploiting it for my own ends (at least not consciously).
While I grew up a generic, privileged, middle class white kid from the suburbs, I was inexplicably drawn to this place that looked nothing like where I came from. There are a variety of reasons for this and these are things I hope to be able to continue to explore.
But I will admit that it at least in part, it was this otherness that drew me in. In hindsight, I think what I found appealing about Hamilton was that it offered an alternative narrative that was unavailable to me if I had decided to stay in the suburbs.
Remaining there would have meant resigning myself to a kind of replica existence. Like I would just be unconsciously and uncritically perpetuating the exact same life I had been brought up in.
And while moving to the city was not an overt act of rebellion, I think it was a rejection of a certain kind of suburban lifestyle and the values that came with it. It was a rejection of the insular, solipsistic, apolitical, "keeping up with the Joneses" attitude that is often so prevalent in suburbia.
It was like, if the suburbs represent the winners of global capitalism - the middle and upper middle classes who had the privilege of being advantaged by its processes - then Hamilton, on some level, symbolically represents its losers. Who better to stand in as the detritus of neoliberal capitalism than our decaying post-industrial cities, its workers displaced and forgotten, its buildings abandoned?
And it kind of felt like here in Hamilton, in the decay, in the symbolic rubble of globalization, was a chance to write a different story.
Although it's still early days, I do feel like we are writing a new story here - though that "we" is a complicated pronoun. I would say that there are many people who, like me, have moved (and are moving) here to re-imagine a life for themselves that looks different than from where they came from. Like me, they were drawn to this city's otherness in both sincere and potentially problematic ways.
The setting of the story we are telling is not without its own context and "we" are not the only ones implicated and invested the narratives and physical spaces that are being reclaimed here.
The city and its history is not a monolith or an object upon which to project our personal needs and desires (even if that story is sometimes an easier one to tell). We need to be attentive that we do not overwrite or undermine each other's stories as we try to write our own. I would like to think that there is still time for all of this.
Despite these complications, my hope of re-imagining what life might look like for myself and for others begins in the physical spaces of this city. I have been watching them change for years now, and I am encouraged by the determination and tenacity of those who have implicitly understood that if the communities, the political structures and the physical spaces you want to live and operate within don't already exist, you must create them.
I am able to believe that change is possible because I have seen it happen right before my eyes in the city that surround me.
So thanks Hamilton, I owe a lot of my optimism and hope for the future to you.
First published on Adrienne's website.
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