SKY GILBERT: Gentrification and Hamilton Artists
by Sky Gilbert
Gentrification is a very complicated process to understand, especially as it relates to artists.
We are now experiencing gentrification in Hamilton.
Gentrification can be defined as the revitalization of the downtown core of a city that was long presumed dead. The unfortunate side effect of that revitalization is that often the poorest and most marginalized citizens not only come to feel unwelcome in what were originally their neighbourhoods, but are often pushed out of their homes in various subtle and not so subtle ways.
For instance, I know of a large apartment complex in downtown Hamilton, which has recently transformed itself from a rental property for the poorest of the poor into a plush condo. A ritzy corporation bought the building and subsequently paid the most marginalized of the tenants $2000 apiece to vacate their apartments. The corporation will make much more than that from renovating these apartments and selling them to hipsters! Sure, the neighbourhood is cleared of what some consider to be it’s ‘sketchiest’ inhabitants. But others like me object to the less fortunate being hoodwinked by capitalists who pressure them to leave their homes. Well you can’t stop capitalism. But what you can do is fight for low-rent and mixed housing in Hamilton’s downtown core.
Now what does all this have to do with art?
Well I, for one, have written several plays about gentrification. Naked Hamilton was a play about a sex trade worker and her drunken boyfriend being kicked out of their favourite bar by the new hipster owner. Another, Commercials for Hamilton, was about two young Toronto salesman trying to sell Hamilton to millennials – but one of the salesman has a dirty secret – he is actually from Hamilton! Next year I’m doing a play about a Toronto hipster and a Hamilton hardcore grifter who meet on a Hamilton front porch. It’s called Bungalow.
However, at this year’s Fringe I’m doing a play that is not about gentrification at all.
Cheri is about an older woman’s obsession with a younger man. Cheri covers a topic which is rarely discussed – it’s kind of a play about a ‘cougar’ who was once a sex trader worker. It’s hopefully going to be pretty entertaining. It’s a musical, and mostly funny.
But when I do art in Hamilton not about gentrification, I worry about becoming part of the problem.
You see, innocent artists are often the very first players in the gentrification game. Unwittingly, they move into poor neighbourhoods to start galleries and theatres because the rent is cheap. They upgrade the neighbourhood without capitalist intent. But when not-so-innocent artists produce contentless plays to satisfy the rich gentrifiers (Beauty and the Beast anyone?) in government subsidized spaces, one may rightfully ask, are these so-called ‘artists’ not encouraging these privileged ‘patrons of the arts’ not to challenge themselves and thus contributing to the gentrification problem?
My little rebellion is this. My play Cheri, though hopefully entertaining, also has something quite out of the ordinary to say.
And that’s all I can say in my defense.
Sky Gilbert is a writer, actor, director and drag performer extraordinaire. He is the former artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times theatre and the founder of hammer theatre. Sky has been living in Hamilton since 2004 with his partner, artist Ian Jarvis.